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.

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What the Committee of Seventy should teach other nonprofits about publishing

The Committee of Seventy is a 110-year-old local good government activist group known best in Philadelphia for its oversight of city elections. With the retirement of their popular newsman-turned-leader, the nonpartisan nonprofit is seeking a new Executive Director. This is also a unique opportunity for the group to update how it can best serve its mission to combat corruption. It has a clear alignment with public affairs journalism — something other mission groups should learn from.

For my undergraduate academic year 2004-2005, I was a policy intern at Seventy, spanning outgoing director Zack Stalberg and his predecessor Fred Voigt, whom I also interviewed for a college thesis project. From then through to my Election Day volunteering, I’ve long been inspired by their work.

But like Stalberg was meant to do when he replaced Voigt, Seventy is again in need of an updated look at how it can best accomplish their goals. If I were to launch an organization with the goals Seventy has today, in an era with newfound opportunities to build civic-orientated coalitions, web publishing for audience building would certainly be part of the strategy.

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The difference between a beat reporter and a features writer

Producing acts of journalism to inform a community can get done with different approaches. There are those who follow one community closely and those who offer the broader narrative to a wider audience.

In news parlance, it’s the beat reporter and the features writer, and it’s tied to the idea of choosing deeper impact or larger scale. I’ve developed a better understanding of the differences in these specialties over the last few years, in both hiring, following and familiarizing myself with the work of my peers.

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How print will remain relevant: the solution is in the problem

Printed media are inflexible, expensive and in-viral, and that’s why its utility will last. That’s what I told nearly 100 mostly older, more established attendees of the annual American Association of Independent News Distributors conference inside the Times Square Crowne Plaza May 1. Looking on it now, having not been given my context, my words were likely a little surprising and surely unusual.

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I put people first, then technology: Biz Stone

To promote his new book ‘Things a Little Bird Told Me,’ Twitter cofounder Biz Stone was at the Free Library of Philadelphia for a ticketed, breakfast event for which I interviewed him on stage for a half-hour before audience questions finished the morning.

My line of questions can be seen here. I tried to to steer the conversation away from what has already been said by Stone, a well-covered tech entrepreneur who is in the midst of a popular book tour, but we still hit upon some of what has already been covered: the designer by trade has focused on bringing the human touch to software.

That helps explain how decidedly simple Twitter is and how Stone’s new startup Jelly, a network-driven answer app, has stayed focused on getting social responses.

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NEast Philly: everything I learned by working on this now-closed hyperlocal news site

The hyperlocal news site NEastPhilly.com that served Northeast Philadelphia for five years stopped publishing in December and was closed by founder Shannon McDonald. During that time, I helped her with strategy, reporting and web work. Since its closing, I’ve wanted to share a few lessons from that time.

Find out why Shannon decided to stop publishing NEast in her own post here. Below, I share what I learned (find other writing here I did about NEast here).

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Journalism isn’t what we should try to save: Philly example

A couple times a year, someone in Philadelphia technology will say to me, what that community really needs to broaden its prominence is “its own Tech Crunch,” a reference to the established and influential tech business blog with Silicon Valley roots. The implication is, with all due respect to the maturity of Technical.ly Philly (relative to our newer, smaller markets) and its readership and regular events, that Philadelphia needs a megaphone to a global audience of investors and talent.

When someone says this, I hide my cringe and instead I politely nod, before changing the subject.

Of course, a statement like that shows a profound lack of understanding of audience, goals and impact in online media. Tech Crunch is established and influential because it covers big, well-funded tech business nationally, not a fledgling community in a non-traditional hub. Technical.ly Philly looks the way it does because of where it is. It doesn’t have national readership because it isn’t national in focus. The people who say “we need a Tech Crunch,” are confusing outcomes and solutions (Silicon Valley was the global tech leader first, then it spawned Tech Crunch, not the other way around).

Put another way: Media is a Mirror. This is a problem that happens elsewhere.

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15 things Ice T said during an insightful speech at an MIT event I also spoke at

Approach pitching a reporter like any business act, with purpose. I gave an updated version of a presentation I’ve given before on how to get your business media attention, with my continuing to evolve thoughts about the process, as an editor and reporter, to a Small Bytes entrepreneurship conference at MIT in February. But the keynote was rapper turned actor Ice T and proved interesting to be sure.

He was funny, smart and, truly, actually fairly insightful. He knew who he was and was playful about that but he had a long life of experience. It made me think about how valuable time-developed wisdom is. Pop culture or not, he had some wonderful stories with practical thoughts.

Maybe the personally most amusing part was that because I spoke right before Ice T, he watched my talk and referenced it a few times, referring to me as “the reporter.” I will smile for years in the future whenever I think of Ice T saying, after I addressed the crowd and told them that the media doesn’t owe anyone any favors: “Like the reporter said, no one gives a fuck about you.”

Though I was expecting to mostly just be amused, instead, I found myself jotting down a few notes worth remembering. Find them below.

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To pitch a reporter, there’s an invisible point threshold you need to cross

While part of a roundtable on media exposure at a Knight Foundation grantee event last year, an audience question got right to the point of what many organization leaders want from reporters: what will it take for you to cover my work?

The idea is that we in media have a bigger audience and offer an endorsement of legitimacy. Whether or not that’s true, it’s why so many seek any snippet of coverage. It also got me thinking about trying to create some data point to help others outside of this industry understand what it takes to get the attention of a reporter and an editor.

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