5 reminders for every local news startup, with a focus on Philly’s ‘Billy Penn’ from Jim Brady

If you were setting out to launch a local, city-wide, civic affairs and breaking news outfit today, there are a few clear first steps I’d encourage you to take. Understand deeply and succinctly why and for whom you are doing this. Plan clearly how you hope to sustain the thing, and have a rough idea of what you think the thing might be.

So I’m assuming that work is already done for Billy Penn, just such an effort here in Philadelphia that is soon-to-be-launched by Jim Brady, a news media executive popular in national online media circles, and Chris Krewson, a former Philadelphia Inquirer online editor who has returned after several years on the West Coast.

Now let’s think about what comes next.

Their first hire was someone very close to me — my fiancee Shannon McDonald, who left public media outfit WHYY after four years as a founding team member of their online news operation NewsWorks.org. She’ll be starting this week, so before she joins their small team and any writing I might do here will seem particularly strange or biased, I wanted to share some thoughts. (I did write about WHYY while she was there, but as a larger, older legacy organization, there was more distance).

It’s also worth saying that I know personally and rather like both Brady and Krewson. I’ve spoken to them both about this project privately and with others, including at an event we held at the Pen and Pencil Club. They shared some of what they hope to do, but I make some assumptions in this piece. It’s also worth saying the obvious, as I often do when I write about local media, that I am not unbiased. I run a niche news site with a footprint in Philly and journalism DNA, have worked for Billy Penn competitors and partners and clearly have lots of personal ties to Billy Penn. We might someday compete for money, and, well, I’m also just a person who has stereotypes and a background that influences what I think.

But I’m writing here as honestly and fully as I can. Consider this perspective from one person who has some relevant experience.

First, I want this to be more widely interesting than specific to people in Philly and those following Billy Penn, but there are some specifics to this project that I want to clear up first because they may have relevance elsewhere.

  • I don’t care that these two founders really don’t have Philly ties. Krewson spent a few years at the Inquirer and has broad regional ties, which helps a lot, but being a few years gone and mostly an internal actor when he was here still may take them some time to know all the players. But that’s why you hire some local people (like Shannon) and coming in with fresh eyes can be just as valuable. Philly is a big regional city, in the spirit of Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis or even perhaps Boston. Brady and Krewson, who also spent time in small city Allentown, Pa., count most of their professional years in big national cities — NYC, LA and DC. That distinction might be the hardest trick but that won’t be the problem. Someone is investing in Philadelphia to try something interesting and good reporting is the same at its core anywhere. Nothing wrong there.
  • I don’t care about any of the ‘newsroom’ experience anyone on their team has. There’s a joke in entrepreneurial circles that a company’s valuation goes up for every software engineer you have and down for every MBA you have. I have a growing feeling that for news startups, the valuation should go down for every year of traditional newsroom experience you have. The shackles of journalistic ethics and tradition are hard to remove. I think those who re-discover and pick the best of that tradition are better suited. So, given that, despite their savvy, Brady and Krewson have, in truth, pretty traditional pedigrees I hope they constantly challenge what their peers will think about their actions and stay true to whatever their mission is. I don’t want to save journalism, I want to make communities better.
  • I don’t care that this is a for-profit business. Nonprofits are not inherently good. Whatever the tax status, you need revenue. More so, I think for profits are far more interesting as experiments than nonprofits, which have a nasty habit of lasting far longer than their utility. If Billy Penn does a great job, I hope Jim Brady gets rich off this idea. He won’t. But I find it naive, inexperienced and nearly idiotic to assume profit and positive impact are opposing forces. If they prove distasteful, ineffectual or inauthentic, it won’t have anything to do with being a for profit.
  • I don’t care what the name is of their group. It was originally called Brother.ly, which if pushed, I’d say I found a little more clever than Billy Penn (they’re both Philly cliches, and I thought the first was more subtle than the latest), but I think people waste too much time on branding. If they execute on their mission, we’ll get used to the name. If they fail, we’d snicker at the name no matter what it is. So go do good work as Billy Penn.
  • I don’t care that they’re starting with aggregation first. Well, actually, I do care, but it’s that I actually think that’s the right path. News startups always get this wrong: content creation and content dissemination are too very different projects. Legacy media (with their TV channels, great domains or history of newspaper delivery) take for granted the idea that they have an audience. When you start off, NOBODY CARES ABOUT YOU. NOBODY WILL READ YOU. YOU’LL HAVE NO EDITORIAL FOCUS. You need to get there first. Billy Penn appears to be going to provide the easiest audience-building service first — one that Philly.com should have always been doing and one that I experimented with the Ph.ly/Newsweekly — to build an audience by curating the most interesting, important news.
  • I don’t care that there are several people launching general-interest local news startups in Philly right now. The idea is easy, execution is hard. It reminds me of when there were a dozen new coworking spaces coming online in Philadelphia, and the tech community was aflutter about a pending apocalypse: it never came. Instead, the sudden clutter will make the best stronger and the rest will die or find a different focus. So the Committee of Seventy could still do interesting stuff with local news, and the Philadelphia Citizen and anything coming out of the Philly.com diaspora could help. Wider indie media like PlanPhilly, the alt-weeklies and efforts like Hidden City and Declaration will all find their place or fail. And the few startup blogs that hope to grow still might do that. And Newsworks.org can still hope to innovate at sleepy WHYY and, hell, maybe someone might make the Inquirer/Daily News newsroom a place for young reporters with options to make a career (without being furloughed or threatened with a revolving door of owners).

Now, with that said, what kind of outcomes would suggest a project like this that is doing well? To determine that, I do have to make something of an assumption about their overall mission. For our purposes here, let’s say they want to do more than just report (because I think Brady has said as much). Let’s say Billy Penn wants to connect, convene and coalesce a coalition of civic-minded Philadelphians and motivate them to make their communities better, safer, more inclusive, friendlier and more authentic — mostly because that’s what I want them to strive to do. (That may be unfair).

With that said, below these are the big beliefs that I’d expect for anyone trying to do anywhere what I think Billy Penn is trying to do here. Given the high standards I hold for their team, particularly given their first hire, I want these to be pretty foundational here. Shannon, who will be their ‘community manager,’ and I share a lot of the same philosophy on changing news media norms (reporter engagements have a long industry legacy, so these are likely obvious to her, in some form. Brady and Krewson, too, are smart and speak about new ways. So instead, I list these here to share with others and serve as a reminder, since it’s challenging to keep goals in mind when trying to build something new.

Jim, Chris and Shannon, I hope you remember:

  1. You are not a news organization. You are an organization that produces news. Among other things, I suspect. You are not a news organization because you are your mission, not what you literally do today. UPS is not a delivery truck business, they are a logistics business. The day that using delivery trucks ceases to be the best way to execute on the logistics they aim to maneuver, they should drop the trucks. Similarly, I hope Billy Penn knows that they should aggregate and supplement public affairs journalism and community news for as long as that is the best tool to reach their mission. If it’s not, then screw it. Be willing to challenge that premise. To do that, it will have to mean a broad array of editorial strategy partners. That means all the city’s independent and legacy media, in addition to mission-minded nonprofits. The Committee of Seventy should know what you’re doing, as should the Fels Institute and the Pew Philadelphia research group. Any civic association, community group, social media network or anything else resembling a coalition of likely candidates for civic action should also be partners, allies and motivators.
  2. You need to be profitable. That means you need to make more revenue than it costs you to do the thing you’re doing. You know, like a business (because you are one). You can’t be scared to talk about revenue. You should want to talk about revenue. You shouldn’t hire anyone who is uncomfortable with that. You are not a newspaper. You are a news startup. At startup businesses, everyone knows about everything. That includes making money. That doesn’t mean your reporter should be selling sponsorships, but it sure means she should understand that her salary involves you selling stuff — to sponsors, event attendees, foundations, rich uncles, etc. This is getting harder because reporters know they are *supposed* to be comfortable with this. They will lie to you. You need to have ideas about how to make money. They can’t be *all* the ideas. Have a few, but start with one that’s interesting. Don’t say “events!” Say: “we’re going to have an incredibly expensive black-tie affair full of public officials and lobbyists and incredibly influential people and we’re going to replace the PA Society in five years.” Don’t say “sponsored content!” Say, “we’re going to report deep case studies about neighborhood impact and have financial institutions underwrite this work because they’re trying to attract civic leaders as customers.”
  3. Do something interesting around inclusivity. I’m waiting for the city-wide media outfit that is going to add enough value and carry enough authenticity that they’ll break into local Black Twitter — or any of the highly diffuse, but widely adopted mechanisms for network building among people of color. That can be another way to spread your geographic influence, which is also important. Shannon built her reputation by building a web audience in an aging part of Philadelphia with her now defunct NEastPhilly.com, so she needs to find similar ways to include all parts of the city. To be clear, you can’t fully cover every part of this sprawling metropolis — no one can anymore, there’s not the profit (yet) to support the staffing anymore. Instead, while people are reporting on themselves and networking online, local media needs to find a consistent way to talk to, engage with and leverage these active communities that go beyond the (mostly white) Center City ring educated professionals. That said, Billy Penn is going to focus on Millennials, which is often code speak for these young professionals (though there are lots of different people in that age group throughout the city) and this absolutely makes sense as a sustainability strategy — there is more money there than elsewhere. But find a way to address inclusivity — age, geographic, race or something like it. You won’t be able to do all, or most, so find one way to start.
  4. Get really good at email collection — Billy Penn looks likely to start as a simple email newsletter that will aggregate the best that’s around local media (like ph.ly/newsweekly but with far more support and curation). Email is smart because social media is getting more proprietary (Facebook and surely soon Twitter will become pay-to-be-seen operations), and good old email is reliable and long-lasting. The first people who will follow Billy Penn will be the usual suspects — other reporters, political staffers, local media junkies. Philly.com has an enormous audience because of history, great SEO and a hell of a URL. Billy Penn has none of that. The single biggest challenge they’re taking on — and the largest factor in the AxisPhilly.com death — is that it is far harder than anyone ever talks publicly about to collect (opt-in) email addresses for a specific local niche. We at Technical.ly Philly are five years old, have enormous sway for our (doubly) niche audience and (I think) have pretty great (and rare) content. Still, even when including our events list, fewer than 10k subscribe to our emails. Granted, we’ve long said one of our biggest mistakes was underestimating email early on and we’ve done a crummy job for a long in building that, but it speaks to how hard it is to collect emails ethically. We’ve never done something clever around serious email collection. Learn from our mistake. Pretty much the most important next step Billy Penn could do would be to have the cleverest way to collect a massive amount of real, local emails to drag them into their community. Great content will help, but scaling local niche audience is a bear.
  5. Start focused on what you are and say no to most ideas — This includes most of the rambling I’ve done here. Everyone will give you an idea for something else to do. No one will ever tell you to stop doing something. I like the Billy Penn start: we’re mobile-first for Millenials in Philadelphia. Get narrower. Stick to it. Drop everything else. Every detail needs to be perfect and there needs to be fewer details. Hit your mission and make money enough to survive doing it. Aborted local journalism nonproft AxisPhilly’s editorial wanderings are more memorable to me than the fine work their team also built — reader essays, an entire series on trash, video pieces about Philly culture.

What Billy Penn is doing is hard but potentially important. If anything else, I hope they take enough risks that we can learn from the experiment. Too often these news startups are so boring and traditional, it’s all wasted money and nothing to learn from. I wish them well, and hope any other outlets keep these reminders close to their work.

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