WHYY: NewsWorks and other thoughts on what the public media org should be

Creating a bold and serious collaborative niche membership network with existing and emerging independent media should be a primary objective of WHYY, the Delaware Valley public media organization.

Highlighted by its six-month-old NewsWorks online news site and hyperlocal news experiment, WHYY has attempted to recast itself as something more than a stodgy PBS TV channel and NPR radio affiliate. While progress has surely been made, WHYY is short of being as fully integrated and networked as the ‘public media’ nomenclature might suggest.

Whereas Philly.com is driven primarily by eyeballs and so its strategy should reflect that by becoming a truly comprehensive portal for the region, WHYY is ‘member-supported public media,’ so its driving focus (and its relationship with Philly.com) should reflect that. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case just yet.

First, I’m a true fan of WHYY’s NewsWorks initiative, if only because it is a new experiment in engaged, local online news taking into account many of the web-first strategies of native users, like linking out, audience participation and agility. Second, I don’t drive terribly often, but when I do and my favorite country music radio station is on commercial, I tune to WHYY. Thirdly, I am neither two years old nor am I 70 years old, so I’m not sure I have ever watched WHYY Channel 12 on TV ever.

[Full disclosure, as usual when it comes to Philadelphia media, I am quite close with many involved with this initiative, so I have neither objectivity nor distance.]


How (I imagine) WHYY makes its money:
My suggestions here are meant to largely reflect ways to grow these funding streams

  • Pledge Memberships — Where you get your tote bag and, as Executive Director of News Chris Satullo once joked, “a dated Bruce Springsteen DVD.’
  • Underwriting — In which regional nonprofits, institutions and minor foundations, which is probably primarily on the radio, perhaps targeted on TV and nearly nonexistent online
  • Dedicated foundation support — like from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
  • Major private gifts — For capital projects, endowments or the like
  • Syndication of national programming — Fresh Air with Terry Gross
  • Minor government funding — Some state funding, though it’s been threatened in Pennsylvania. It helps to also serve Delaware and taking over at least a portion of the dismantled New Jersey Network could further grow its reach.
  • Other — Some probably relatively minor streams of revenue from events, renting out portions of its building, merchandise, fiscal agency and other services.

So, if I were to devise a strategic plan for WHYY, here would be my three primary objectives:

  1. Highlight strategic partners for collaborative membership growth — By offering technology, experience and perhaps sales support, WHYY could grow its own members, while developing some of the resources that should otherwise fall to the proposed PPIIN.
  2. Better integrate TV, radio and the web to reflect the singular WHYY brand — To share the resources, branding and audience of the various platforms
  3. Create and support bold, creative local content — Using its varied platforms, big reach


To make good on those objectives, I’d investigate the following deliverables for each.


  • Find interested, relevant niche communities with a clear news source whose readers fit the WHYY profile of educated, civic-minded Philadelphians — There are ample places to start: Technically Philly, PlanPhilly, Public School Notebook, Grid magazine, NEast Philly, Geekadelphia, NJ Spotlight, Young Involved Philadelphia, Broad Street Review, Philly Beer Scene, Philly Sports Daily, the art blog, the Key at partner station XPN, National Constitution Center, Campus Philly, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Committee of Seventy, Metropolis
  • Work with these select partners on membership sales, price points and objectives — They might teach you something too, you probably could get a big fat grant for helping develop independent media and, in the end, it should help you bolster your own members.
  • Develop and/or host and share widgetized membership sales, tracking and outreach CRM —  So all of these participating strategic partners could host on their own websites membership sales mechanism. Say, an individual annual membership for Technically Philly would be $100 and for a reduced price of — I don’t know — $50, that individual could also be an WHYY member, with additional benefits. If TP has 500 members and just 10 percent opt in for WHYY, the revenue might not be large in the individual case, but the lead generation is valuable and the scale across partners should begin to be beneficial.
  • Membership and cross-platform directory build out — Offer the technology and shared sales and follow up resources for niche sites to have a membership platform, that could fit into customizable directory pages, which would be populated by all tagged content, like this Knight application of ours. [Unless WHYY could get to this]
  • Advertising network — I wrote that I don’t think the traffic would be meaningful enough for Philly.com to make this happen, but I think there’s a real build here WHYY, if PPIIN doesn’t get there first, to additionally benefit its own NewsWorks initiative.
  • Event Partnering — As WHYY did with TP for Philly Tech Week, there would seem to be a very wise move to make around co-branded events with these strategic partners and their niche communities, in order to grow leads for paid events, bring in sponsorship revenue or the like.
  • Content partnerships — With developed support around membership, it’d likely be easier to develop more content partnerships, like the It’s Our Money project with the Daily News, co-branded long-form reporting, partnerships around sharing or pushing content and the like, much of which could bolster NewsWorks.


  • Redesign WHYY.org and its brand message— Honestly, you don’t even need to redesign it, for costs concern, it just needs a clear strategy and to be cleaned up. Much like NewsWorks, the site is just silly with boxes and choices. Why does someone go to WHYY? How is that different than NewsWorks? What are the calls to action and can we please drop the rest?
  • NewsWorks Tonight Live — WHYY launched this Monday a daily local half-hour of drive-time radio called NewsWorks Tonight, which I think is a great concept, particularly because it was immediately podcasted so they’re paying attention to the slow decline of terrestrial radio. But with killer event space, at least quarterly, there should be a bigger, cooler live show, with on-air personalities giving news live, interviews live, with a live studio audience, live music, all of which is podcasted. Maybe only members can get in, surely strategic partners from above should lead the charge. Film the thing and put it on your TV channel. Then podcast the audio and stream the video online.
  • Move the stars across platforms — It’s good to see your noted political writer Dave Davies on radio and online, but I’m always interested in seeing more of your staff take to more, like why not video when that fits.
  • NewsWorks Tonight features — I’m likely more interested by this big jump into local news programming than the NewsWorks overall, so I’d like to see it driven. Thanks for the podcast and, as noted above, it’s good to hear a development of talent, but I’ll say that in creating community online (and I’d bet radio isn’t so different) it helps, if only in the beginning, to stake out some regular features, to help fill content holes and to welcome in listeners (who had previously been hearing national news so are surely apprehensive). Fortunately, NewsWorks.org is silly with branding, so, please, don’t create any others. The Feed, which is the top portion of the site that points to the biggest stories around the region regardless of content provider and pushes engagement, could be a weekly roundup of the best (funniest, most interesting or insightful) comments on social media, emails or the like from readers, to encourage more interaction by shouting people out. MindMap, something of a reader questionnaire, could be done in an audio format to introduce us to Philadelphians (of every race, position and direction, from interviewing someone in a crane working on a new Center City condo to a state policeman).
  • Where is all the multimedia? — For an organization that as a TV station, a radio station, a dozen audio reporters and all the tools, I sure don’t see the type of seamless integration of media that I would expect online or elsewhere.

Watch below an example of WHYY doing a great job of getting video content, in this case, incumbent City Councilman Jim Kenney talking about the Democratic primary election who came close to getting knocked off the November ballot


  • Do something crazy and create local TV content — Take a one-hour block of  your worst performing late night programming and create something interesting experimental. Maybe leverage your strategic partners from above for a rotating block of niche-orientated discoveries of what the region has to offer. Perhaps create a contest for what the programming should be: long-form interviews, local politics. Could you create a local brand? Again, it’s all podcasted online with streaming video and the like. Maybe do it live again with a studio audience.
  • Lead the public access TV charge online — Look, truth be told, I don’t really know the difference between groups like MiND TV and Philly CAM. And I know Scribe video and this new Comcast Project Open Voices is interested in local video. So shouldn’t you be the leader among them all? Create ways to share content, or grow or promote the best. Is there no relationship to be had with the various film festivals here?
  • Help grow local niche communities — If they prosper, they can become strategic partners like the ones above, so they should be as friends, not foes. If you can’t do it, then help those who can and see them as friends, like, say, CenterCityLocal.
  • Partner with anyone creating cool content — With the web and other platforms, you have an opportunity to brand yourself as way cool. I host a storytelling event and there are far better, cooler ones, like the FirstPerson Story Slam, so why aren’t they partners of yours to record a live show and share on NewsWorks? Why aren’t you partnered with the Philly Youth Poetry Movement or anyone else in the region that is creating cool content? All these groups are recording this stuff already on their own, so start sharing the best of them. Help me find cool new podcasts or web series through you. Events in your great space and then record great audio and video and use it as content. Repeat.
  • Be a friend to the community weeklies — Public media is always concerned about ignoring underserved communities. A great way to grow this might be to do something cool like, say, host the latest PDF covers, like the Newseum does for national newspapers. Offer select services, like web hosting, static templates (if they don’t have websites or want new ones) all for a nominal charge. You might do the same for high school (and college?) newspapers.
  • Support your media literacy training — Your grant funded work to offer training to the community is great. How would that fit with the community weekly push from above? Connect these newly trained community members with neighborhood news orgs, empower new creators. This fits your mission, and, sure, maybe there could be select discounted memberships to shape a more diverse support base. You should be the umbrella of all media literacy groups in the region. They should all come to your sweet space and see you as the real leader.

Why isn’t WHYY partnering with the Youth Poetry Movement to record, raise funding for and share beautiful work like what you can watch below.

Broader thoughts:

  • You’re the good guy — Never forget that the brand of public media is meant to be community-orientated and thoughtful and, yes, cool, if you make it so. You’re also set up with diverse revenue and varied platform integration. You have all the tools to be the leader.
  • You are not competing with Philly.com — Every morning wake up and tell yourself that. Give really insightful, unique, deep analysis in a local way in the same way that NPR has rejuvenated its interested young listeners by being web-savvy, sexy and incredibly deep. That can grow eyeballs to the online site, particularly with the help of the dedicated radio programming. So, without that competition, no need for a beef
  • Philadelphia can support innovation — Philadelphia does not have a lot of recent examples of innovation in media. So start something. Remind yourself that Philadelphia is a big market and so can have really bold examples. Do something thrilling and risky and set the tone.
  • You’re not the leader — Don’t forget that public media across the country has consistently failed to lead the news and information conversation but rather lag behind, albeit often with deeper context. That said, let that light a fire under you and strive to be bigger and better.
  • Let the people hear you — As noted above, I’m stunned I don’t see more multimedia — video, audio, photos — from such a multi-tiered news organization. Rather than recreate a proprietary video host, I’m cool with videos going to YouTube so they can at least get embedded (though regional site Viddler helps with branding) but your premiere local product is radio, yet you don’t post much of it and I can’t embed it elsewhere when you do.

5 thoughts on “WHYY: NewsWorks and other thoughts on what the public media org should be”

  1. You’re totally dead on with this. I immediately loved the Newsworks podcast because it defined their mission way better than the rest of the website. Although I will say that Dave Davies is great, he’s on too much- I shouldn’t be hearing his voice in a commentary and then again in a news report in the same show. “The Feed” is just silly, full of philly.com clicky stories that don’t matter at all. They should strive to be above that.

    I think there past conservatism regarding new media & methods could be partially attributed to an ever-present lack of funds, but as I see it they can’t afford to not take chances. They’ve been slow to adopt podcasts as I think they see it as the death of terrestrial radio (which it is, but it’s inevitable). Luckily no one locally has stepped up to beat then in the local podcast space, but once everyone has internet radio in their cars their loyal drive time listenership may diminish.

  2. This is a great post. You hit the nail on the head. WHYY should be more proactive when it comes to content creation. It would help them be more relevant to the surrounding community, which is increasingly multicultural and tech savvy.

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