There have been some really interesting stories in the local news in Philadelphia over the last 10 days. On the surface, the revelations -- about an alleged crooked cop pocketing cash and drugs, about teachers ordered to cheat to boost student test scores, and about a huge payday in education dollars for the son of a powerful U.S. congressman -- don't seem to have much to do with each other.
But I see a couple of connections. The articles reminded me about how the famed pioneering muckraker journalist Lincoln Steffens called Philadelphia "corrupt and contented" more than 100 years ago -- and how little things have changed over the last century. It also got me thinking about the role that journalists here at the Philadelphia newspapers played -- or didn't play -- in getting those stories to the public.
I wrote about one of these stories last week -- the case of the allegedly corrupt Philadelphia police officer who, the Daily News' award-winning investigative reporters Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman learned, was suspected by superiors and co-workers of illegally pocketing money and narcotics from drug suspects. The department and its Internal Affairs unit did very little to get this guy off the streets, until the newspaper called. Ultimately, the police commissioner tried to blame the Daily News for rushing the probe (he was fired and reinstated) but the reality was there wasn't much of a probe until the paper got involved.
Then we have the case of alleged cheating at the city Cayuga Elementary School. When the Philadelphia School District received a tip in 2011 about widespread cheating to boost achievement scores, it claimed that it's investigation showed the allegation was "unfounded." Yet the Inquirer and education writer Kristin Graham didn't stop investigating -- she continues to find teachers, staffers and parents who spoke of pressure from the school's principal to alter the tests and boost scores. In large part because if the Inquirer's dogged pursuit of a story that the school district wanted to make disappear, state officials are now looking at irregularities in 52 schools.
Then we have the congressman's son, Chaka Fattah Jr. Last week, the FBI raided his home as part of a broadening probe that is looking at (among other things) hundreds of thousands of dollars paid out to him by a Philadelphia disciplinary school funded by taxpayer dollars. It's sad but not surprising -- the flood of dollars for charter schools and other non-traditional schools is chock full of opportunities for corruption. It's the kind of story that the Inquirer or Daily News would have been all over 15 years ago -- before the death of the economic underpinnings of newspapers meant the loss of a few hundred reporting and editing jobs in the city.
This time, the taxpayers got lucky -- the feds were on the case. But in corrupt and contented Philadelphia, how many other scams are continuing to fester, never to see the light of day?
And things could get worse.
Right now -- at the same time that the Daily News and the Inquirer are likely to be sold, possibly in a matter of hours -- there's also a plan to merge some functions of the two papers but also eliminate 37 jobs in the process, hopefully through volunteers for buyouts but quite possibly through layoffs as well. The way I see it, the "best-case" scenario is that the loss of some duplication and the job cuts balance out -- but that means we've missed a great opportunity to expand investigative reporting and upgrade reporting in some of the city's under-served, poverty-ravaged neighborhoods. The worst case is that groundbreaking journalism in Philadelphia shrinks even more.
So I'm hoping that owners, new or old, will look at the big picture and -- once we see how many journalists are willing to accept the buyout offer -- work with eveyone else who has a stake in this to prevent the drastic step of layoffs. For one thing, there are creative solutions beyond the budgetary meat cleaver (for example: partnering with non-profit donors to fund investigative or urban reporting units). More importantly, there comes a time when too much cost-cutting saves a few dollars in the short run but permanently tarnishes the brand in the long run. I think we've reached that point in Philadelphia.
Yes, I'm biased. The young reporters in the layoff line of fire are my friends and my colleagues, but -- echoing this piece by my Daily News comrade David Lee Preston -- they're also some of the finest journalists I've had the pleasure of working with, as skilled at old-school shoe-leather reporting as they are at reporting on Twitter, shooting videos, and all the other newfangled tools the Daily News and Inquirer need to survive in the digital age, And so if they leave, it won't just be a devastating loss for the newsroom.
It will also be a loss for you, the voters and taxpayers of a city that won't be any less corrupt than it was 100 years ago.