What Philly.com should be: a comprehensive, collaborative and open source for all news in Philadelphia

Philly.com Vice President Wendy Warren, at left, and Philly.com producer Daniel Victor lead a BarCamp NewsInnovation session on the direction of the news site, on Saturday, April 30, 2011.

For Philly.com to maintain and expand upon its role as the dominant hub site in the Philadelphia region, it needs to become a comprehensive, collaborative and open source for all news, information and analysis that happens, reflects and impacts this metro area.

For 15 years, the now Philadelphia Media Network-owned news website has exclusively featured content from its sister newspapers, the Inquirer and Daily News (also owned by PMN), in addition to online exclusives and Philly.com-led multimedia content.

Contrary to what perhaps many at PMN may believe, the more than 200 combined editorial staff members are not, and likely cannot, currently produce that comprehension. Nor should they.

Philly.com’s reach will always be stilted — by other major, also growing online audiences for local TV news websites, suburban newspapers, a nascent, if not yet real, threat in the NewsWorks initiative from WHYY, and other community sites — until it realizes it shouldn’t be a newspaper landing page but the ultimate authority of regional content. That’s a problem for the future success of a brand with a business model predicated on more eyeballs.

Let me be clear here: I have many friends who work there. I think they do great work. This is not at all a criticism of the work done there, but rather, some thoughts for developing their Philly.com brand. I’m an outsider and a journalism geek, so it’s fun to brainstorm. OK, follow my thoughts below:

Though reflecting of other trends too, Philly.com’s competition for audience (though with more than the six million monthly visitors they claim, it’s not small) is in no small part due to the reality that where we get our news reflects who we are. Philly.com is not a true online hub for the region. It is seen as the landing page for the city’s two biggest daily newspapers. Repeat: Philly.com is not actually seen as a separate business, though it is, but rather just another newspaper dot com. So, readers flood the 6 ABC or CBS 3 or, yes, the NewsWorks websites, because that’s where they get their news.

To succeed, Philly.com should strive to be seen as the curator in chief, above all them all in purpose, reach and partners.

Help Philly.com: presentation notes from BCNI 2011

At BarCamp NewsInnovation, Philly.com Vice President Wendy Warren and producer Dan Victor, pictured above, held a session where they spoke a bit about t he direction the site was headed.

I shared some thoughts and the overall tenor seemed to settle on three things: be more open (share), be more serious (fewer ‘photos with boobs,’ as Warren said) and be more relevant (personalize).

Here are some things Warren said that I found interesting and relevant:

  • “Philly.com willl become a portal.”
  • “There are at least five Philadelphias, so it’s hard to have a mass website.'”
  • “Auto-play ads [on Philly.com] pay for not one but several reporters, so it’s no so easy to turn them down.”
  • “The Daily News outperforms the Inquirer online consistently.”
  • “We can’t say we don’t have enough people [to get something done]. We have enough people to do anything. Problems are a matter of habit.”
  • “Homepage traffic will become less important and sideways traffic, like through social media, really shows our success.”
  • “[New Inquirer Editor Stan Wischnowski] is 1,000 percent behind using social media to grow traffic, and sales of the print papers too.”
  • “We wanted to grow really big, really quickly,” she said of click-grabbing content.
  • 1.5 million page views for school violence issue page

The brand of Philly.com should be the still influential Drudge Report for Philly, curating and aggregating all the important, engaging stories of the region: irrespective of content producer or location.

It’s my argument that by sending people off site — linking to other news providers in the region — this would not decrease traffic and, more importantly, engagement in the long-term but instead increase it. Meaning, what might be lost in sending people off site could be filled in other ways, broader audience because of that new mission and. That, of course, is only if it is done honestly and authentically — two qualities that I fear will not be taken seriously by those with the power to do so.

What do I actually mean?

  • Philly.com has an editor and a handful of producers, who develop partnerships with the Inquirer, the Daily News and every legacy and independent media outlet, blogger, content-creating nonprofit, group and person in the region. These partners schedule and suggest their best content be highlighted by Philly.com. The Philly.com producers take those recommendations and consume news to find their own, all to make suggestions for what’s strongest to the editor, who ultimately creates the often-moving homepage, and pushes via social media and other device platforms and tools. Much of this is not unlike what D.C. online news experiment TBD did, which is in large part why former staffer Dan Victor was poached by Philly.com. But guess what, WHYY is doing a lot of this in practice already at NewsWorks.org (see ‘The Feed’), but they would not be able to execute at the scale quickly enough to compete if any of this was actually set in motion by Philly.com. As browsers fade, this workflow for curation still has promise, as Philly.com RSS, social media, mobile tools and the like should all take on this ethos.
  • Most of the lead content will still be from the Inquirer and the Daily News, because — here’s a little secret — the two daily newspapers still employ the most, best journalists in the region that puts out the most, best content, so, still, it’s going to be mostly stuff from them.
  • Philly.com should move forward with this incubation initiative [read that link’s sidebar], suggested by new CEO Greg Osberg, though internally I’ve heard again and again that it’s a sore subject as culture battles rage on. That’s why it should be a Philly.com initiative, which can be leaner and more progressive than its sister companies.
  • Philly.com should maintain its video production unit, though I’d like to see any of their projects get the kind of long-term support that could let it flourish. Video production should be making money, through distribution and perhaps even back-end video production services.
  • Philly.com should maintain and expand its Dealyo, daily deal initiative, though if sales are actually making it profitable, there ought to be a couple tracks: sports fan, adventure, family and/or female services (as I mostly only saw the last and unsubscribed because I found it consistently irrelevant to me)
  • Figure out some relationship with GPTMC, because the local tourism and marketing agency kicks ass and has calendar and content production down, two things and coverage areas that should be seen on Philly.com. Don’t try to beat them, find a way to partner and bring more eyeballs to their work.
  • The Inquirer and Daily News should maintain their own home pages, or their e-readers or whatever their staffs are doing. This can help calm staff concerns and give people who are very particular to a brand this option. But understand: the mentality that news consumers care where they get their news (or give a shit about your brand) is falling away, if it was ever really there.
  • Formal content partnerships and a local advertising network is a waste of Philly.com’s time, as I see it, because hammering out details to host other people’s content (as opposed to just linking out) is a drain on staff time and, aside from a handful of meaty general interest sites (read: local TV news) no one else in the region has the kind of traffic that would be worthwhile to Philly.com. It didn’t work at TBD, and I’m not sure that’s only because full effort wasn’t put into it. Philly.com just won’t need it enough.

Problems:

  • Money, as Dan Victor points out, direct linking is seen as a loss of revenue due to reduced page views for hosting even partial feeds of partner content or, perhaps alternately, a branded bar (perhaps with advertising) that would run across any partner sites Philly.com would link out to. But here’s what I say to that: when you ignore clear best choice for user experience and focus on your immediate, short-term goals first, you almost always lose. The right, clear, obvious choice is to link clearly and directly to good content. That’s how the web works. This is fundamental stuff. As described above, the answer here, is that you won’t be creating less content and, as said above, most of the best, featured content, will still come from in-house, so, while, sure, yes, you may see a short-term dip in traffic (it might even be a lot), what Philly.com would be creating is a real, genuine, true hub that can try to build broad audience (not, as I say above, be seen as just a landing page for two newspapers) and will, in the long term, have a better, stronger audience, and, Hell, I might even guess bigger. But this might take time — a year, maybe more, and a shift into other avenues beyond the homepage — and as I also said above, I don’t know if I trust in the leadership and the pressures that come with that leadership (from an entity owned by blank-faced banks) to do that the right way. As a final caveat to the money issue, as I, once more, noted a bit above, Philly.com and the organization as a whole needs to diversify its revenue beyond strictly advertising. What is its catering business? But, hell, I was whining about this in 2008 and 2009, so who cares!
  • Trust, giving Philly.com producers a heads up on your best content gives the chance for them to share with their content-producing colleagues at the Inqy and Daily News. The brands are too confused for that to be overcome any time soon, so none of the legacy players will play nice to start. Philly.com has to make the first steps to link out when a story is broken by someone whose desk isn’t at 400 N. Broad Street.
  • Habit, as Inqy and Daily News reporters see Philly.com as their homepage and only theirs. Many won’t want to see any other news outlet getting play. That’s why it’s so important to separate the brands.
  • Branding, since, as stated above, Philly.com has two reputations: the landing page for two declining daily newspapers and home to click-grabbing content, like photo albums and video content with any excuse to show scantily-clad women (downtheshore standups, Philly Naked Bike Ride, Eagles cheerleader tryouts, celebrity shock photos, etc.). To grow, you need to be seen as this hub of news and information. Not all of it will be serious, but you can do so with professionalism and with greater respect once what Philly.com is made more clear.

I find it altogether interesting that during a series of meetings in late 2009 and early 2010 with a series of foundation representatives and thought leaders in this space, the idea of a regional hub site kept coming to the fore. I pushed back, suggesting that the idea of a destination site is wavering (due in large part to new mechanism to find content, and it won’t be primarily through visiting a specific site on a browser), but I understood it would still have a place for some time because of that familiarity to many people.

What’s interesting though, is that through those conversations, Philly.com was never talked about as a serious, viable option. Again, it was a newspaper landing page and home to click-grabbing garbage.

If Philly.com wants to stand up and be that true connector and driver of what is happening in Philadelphia — and monetize those eyeballs, that hub and more — then it needs to start with the obvious, in being a comprehensive, collaborative and open source for all news, information and analysis that happens, reflects and impacts this metro area.