Finding insights along a SEPTA transit route that may lead to local news product innovation in Philadelphia

To build products that are better at meeting people where they are, you can learn a lot by going where they are.

I visited Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church on a Sunday morning in early December where I met a woman named Cheryl. When she asked me if I’d had any time to explore the city yet, I told her I had, but I knew I’d barely scratched the surface.

She smiled as she said, “That’s good. Philadelphia is a great city with a lot of things happening, but you have to be looking for it.”


Myjourney back to journalism and to serving as editorial director of the Lenfest Local Lab has included a willingness to look for what’s happening in cities. Teams like ours can work on things and find solutions, but if they’re not the types of things that people understand or think are accessible to them, then they’re just part of the mix. My primary focus involves making sure that we as a lab have shared our efforts and findings in a friendly way not only for other newsmakers but also local residents.

Acting on a love of exploration helps me think of how to be pragmatic about our opportunities to experiment with new solutions, and I’ve long enjoyed any opportunity to explore, which I did a lot during my time in economic development.

As people and as makers of things, it’s easy to become accustomed to a routine and seldom stray off your known path. I’m often asking myself, “What don’t I know?” It’s a question top of mind for many in journalism who are exploring its future and how we’ll move forward sustainably, though it may not always lead them to venture out and seek answers if it’s not for the purposes of meeting a deadline. Finding out what I don’t know about Philadelphia is important to me as it’s essential to developing strategies for new local news products that work for it.

Take time to “see” what’s available

A habit I brought with me from my days in economic development was to take time to “see” what’s available. The idea is to record what’s there: the buildings, the people, traffic patterns, and other observations one feels are important to making decisions. Doing this kind of a visual assessment of a neighborhood has often meant hopping in the car (especially due to the distances between commercial districts I served back in Birmingham and Savannah), parking it in spots most wouldn’t find ideal, and taking pictures. The output is similar to what our lab’s UX designer, Faye Teng, has written about when making mood boards for our experiments, but for a neighborhood.

One of the mood boards proposed by Faye Teng as part of the Lenfest Local Lab’s work on the HERE for Local Journalism app.

These visual assessments are meant for general reference and to provide you with a visible baseline from which you can determine the feasibility and potential success of proposed changes. Both types of exercises are extremely helpful when thinking about how to conduct an experiment and how it should look. It gets you out of your head and out of what you’ve been told about a place and helps you recognize what’s possible.

My approach

I did a rudimentary assessment of portions of the city and metropolitan area back in November. I learned a lot about the distinct characteristics of many of the city’s neighborhoods, including paying attention to traffic patterns and accessibility to neighborhoods, shopping options, and the various states of real estate development taking place throughout. I chose to ride fixed track routes for my initial observations when possible because trains and subways tend to be collector points for major cities. It’s easy to make general observations from their windows, though it also helps to step off and take a break from time to time.

It is also helpful to ride different routes at different times of the day. This is from a ride on the northbound № 2 bus during dinner time on a weeknight.

My route and observations

An Unofficial SEPTA Frequent-Service Map by Thomson Kao. The author started his day at the Ellsworth/Federal station for the Broad Street Line.

I started my journey as though I was heading into work, getting off at City Hall. Then, I hopped on the Market/Frankford Line, known locally as the El, going west, riding it out to the 69th Street Transportation Center.

Traffic patterns

Traffic patterns can tell you a lot about what’s possible and applicable in a city, especially if you’re thinking about conducting experiments related to making news and information useful for its citizens. Buses and walking provide a chance to see how people actually engage with their surroundings at a granular level. They often take you into a community and not just through it.

For example, a walk along the upper edge of University City made me aware of attempts to re-introduce a formal grid-pattern to that part of the city by way of the uCity Square development currently underway. I also wouldn’t have had the time to take in all of the murals on the west side and think of how they serve a vital role in providing information to and sparking conversations in communities — and how they may be able to do more moving forward.

“The Only Way Out is Through” by Eric Okdeh. Image by Joe Piette used under CC-BY

Neighborhood and school accessibility

I got out and walked, making mental notes on how easy it might be to get to a show at the Roxy, but also recognizing how easy it was to get into the city using the Norristown High-Speed Line, a single car route that acts more like a limited stop bus than a train (and the subject of long term plans for expansion). The ride to and from Norristown, in southern Montgomery County, gave me a chance to see people watching more video than I anticipated on their phones, though a few were reading stories and looking at photos using the Philly.com app (Philly.com is the website for The Philadelphia Inquirer, one of our collaborators in the lab). There was also a reminder of the collection of colleges and universities in that part of the metro area, including Villanova University.

The view from the boarding platform for the Norristown High-Speed Line’s northern terminus.

Shopping thoroughfares

I’m also normally keeping my eyes open for major shopping thoroughfares. Where people choose to congregate; where cars are clustered; where people are standing waiting for the bus—all of those observations provide information about habits and potential best practices. Knowing these habits can help a team see if their work could serve an existing audience or discover how a new product could open up a news organization to those who may not feel as connected to it.

The John H. McClatchy Building on 69th Street is named for a prominent real estate developer in nearby Upper Darby. It once housed a Saks Fifth Avenue store on its ground floor.

Real estate development

Walking south along 52nd Street to make a purposeful stop at local Caribbean bakery Brown Sugar meant I got to see a part of town much more active than I anticipated. I also noticed signs of future investment, including many more buildings with “for sale” signs and a sign of hope coupled with suggestions of how much traffic the neighborhood could handle.

How this applies to experimentation

There are two things I’m planning to do to follow up on the insights I got while on my route.

  1. I look forward to having a look at clusters of subscriptions based on neighborhood. For example, concentrations of where existing subscribers for The Inquirer and Daily News are located. It would be a nice heatmap to look at to help determine where teams might dive in for more observations. This includes seeing where the least subscriptions are in residential areas and determining how they might be acquiring news and information essential to their lives.
  2. I will do an advertising audit, which is when one takes note of the types of ads visible on train platforms and on the regional rail lines. It might help to see what’s not being shared and what potential exists for all.

So much of what we do in research and experimentation is based on what we allow ourselves to see. It helps every once in a while to step outside of one’s comfort zone and truly dig a little deeper into the pulse of a city so we better understand the stage our work lives upon. Plus, it means you can find things you weren’t expecting — and that’s a good thing.


The Lenfest Local Lab is a small, multidisciplinary product and user experience innovation team located in Philadelphia, PA supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

The Lenfest Institute for Journalism is a non-profit organization whose mission is to develop and support sustainable business models for great local journalism. The Institute was founded in 2016 by entrepreneur H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest with the goal of helping transform the news industry in the digital age to ensure high-quality local journalism remains a cornerstone of democracy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *