Impact Q&A with Holly Otterbein, ‘It’s Our Money’ reporter for Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY

As part of our ongoing series examining how to measure and evaluate impact in public interest news, CPIJ conducted an email interview with Holly Otterbein, a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY’s Newsworks.  Holly has worked on the ‘It’s Our Money’ project for several years and has recently focused on changes to Philadelphia’s property tax assessment system through Taxipedia.  Read her response to CPIJ’s questions below and leave your own follow-ups in the comments.

1.) How do you define “having impact” in your work? Has that changed in the time that you’ve worked for City Paper to It’s Our Money to the current work on Taxipedia?

I define “impact” as informing people about their government and getting them to think about how to improve it.

That might not sound sexy. But I think that’s our chief job as journalists. I have felt this way throughout my career.

Sometimes, you make a different kind of impact. A lawmaker introduces a bill after your article sheds light on a problem, or a group of people holds a protest. That, of course, is also nice. I think we can define that as “impact.” But as a journalist who strives to be impartial, I believe we shouldn’t take a side on those changes in many cases.

2.) In what ways do you try to measure impact? Are some ways more valid than others?

I ask myself: Are people talking about my article? Are they tweeting about it? Are they calling me about it? Are they sending letters to the editor because of it? Are people taking any official action because of it?

3.) Are there obstacles to measuring the impact of your work?

I measure impact in a way that is somewhat old-fashioned. I’m interested in having a dialogue about how to better measure the impact of journalism, perhaps through data. But we should careful to make sure this doesn’t lead to meaningless quotas or, even worse, avoiding certain topics because they are more difficult to change through journalism. If we value impact too highly, we might not cover complex issues like poverty.

4.) What do you expect (or hope) audience/community members to do with the news/information you provide? Has this varied for the publications you’ve worked for (Daily News/WHYY/City Paper) and for the media you use (print/web/social media)?

I hope that my reporting makes people more informed voters and community members. I hope it enables them to hold their elected officials accountable. I hope it makes it easier for them to understand government policies and laws.

When I write an investigative report that uncovers a problem within government, I hope that problem is addressed.

At City Paper, I mostly wanted to inform people about politics, immigration and women’s issues. At the Daily News and WHYY, I have focused on the city budget. But my core desire to keep people informed has stayed the same throughout my career.

5.) Do you track whether civic leaders consume or comment on your news? Does that matter to you? Why or why not?

I wouldn’t say that I “track” it. But I pay attention when it happens. It matters to me when anyone consumes and comments on my news, whether they are the powerful or voiceless.

6.) Have you ever included a call to action in your reporting? Why or why not?

As far as I remember, I have never made a call to action when I’ve reported straight news. I am something of a traditionalist. I don’t like to editorialize in beat reporting both for the sake of our readers and the organization’s reputation.

However, in addition to doing news reports, I have also written for the Daily News Editorial Board as part of the “It’s Our Money” project. I have certainly called on people to act in those pieces. I think it’s an appropriate venue for that.

7.) What outcomes of your reporting are you most proud of?

It’s always nice when elected officials take action in response to my reporting. A state lawmaker wrote a bill after one of my articles. Another time, the city started an investigation.

But I’m most proud when my reporting helps an ordinary citizen who is being mistreated or harmed by the government. For instance, I reported last year on a 53-year-old woman named Evelyn Piner. The court system, as part of its massive crackdown on debtors, had recently told her she owed $900 for skipping court 22 years ago. That was a lot of money for her. She relied on SSI disability to make ends meet.

More importantly, she said she couldn’t have possibly owed the money because she was in prison at the time that the court said she skipped a hearing. She went to the prison system to try to prove this, but she was told that all its records prior to 1991 had been destroyed.

The court said it couldn’t waive her debts unless she could prove that she was incarcerated at the time, according to her pro-bono lawyer. But it was impossible for her to do that because of the city’s own shoddy record-keeping. My report also found that she wasn’t alone. Several other people seemed to be unfairly saddled with huge court debts.

After I wrote an article exposing this, the court waived all of Piner’s debts. I think it’s our job as journalists to help people exactly like Piner, people who feel mistreated by the government but lack the money or power to right their situation.

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