Pittsburgh has 31 local and community news outlets, counting, print, digital and broadcast and two daily newspapers. But digital publishing pioneer Jim Brady decided the market wasn’t too crowded for his mobile-first, millennially-focused The Incline, which launched in mid-September. Like many of Pittsburgh’s existing news outlets, The Incline presents stories built around familiar subjects: local government and politics, business, transportation, housing, sports and animals — but with an “asymmetrical” slant that shuns the often eye-glazing norms of much community-based journalism.
Brady’s first venture into this kind of asymmetrical local news was Billy Penn, which launched in Philadelphia in October 2014 and is nearing its first profitable quarter. His company, Spirited Media, got a big boost recently when Gannett became a minority investor.
In this Q & A, Brady, who will be a speaker at Street Fight Summit 2016 in New York City on Tuesday, and The Incline’s editor, Lexi Belculfine, talk about how new revenue models are building a future for community news.
How is Pittsburgh different from Philadelphia – in ways to which The Incline’s coverage will be alert and sensitive?
Jim Brady: All cities are different, so we’ll adapt the voice and coverage areas as necessary. One of my core philosophies in doing this has always been that each site we launch should have its own name, logo and identity. I don’t want to genericize cities. So, in Pittsburgh, we’ll cover public transportation less because the footprint is smaller than in Philly, but we’ll cover technology more since that’s driving much of the revitalization of Pittsburgh’s economy. In terms of voice, we want The Incline to have the same energy and playfulness as Billy Penn, but the voice may a little less sharp to reflect the cultural differences between Philly and Pittsburgh.
Incline Editor Lexi Belculfine, who is a four-year veteran of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, says the site will tell the “untold stories” of Pittsburgh. Examples that have been published or are in the works?
Lexi Belculfine: Something we’ve found to be successful in just our first month is taking a look at a larger issue and making it accessible to our audience, whether that was the symphony strike or restaurant hiring. It’s more than a daily story, but not a huge investigation. On the day the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review announced its shift to digital, we looked ahead in the story’s narrative, rather than backward. Oh, and assuming breaking a statewide story still counts as covering “untold stories,” we were the first to report that the state turnpike now accepts credit cards.
Some Incline articles are an editorial collages of facts, descriptions and quotes from multiple published sources. Does this kind of curation take a writer a lot of time to put together?
Belculfine: Nope. Sometimes it’s about connecting with our audience through eye-roll moments, like Pittsburgh and its neighborhoods continually being called the next Brooklyn, or helping readers navigate national stories centered in Pittsburgh, like a White House conference or driverless cars. Our readers’ time is valuable. We’re happy to do the legwork for them or, in the case of the Brooklyn comparison, to underline a thing that anecdotally we, as Pittsburghers, know to be true.
Brady: You’ve got to have fun sometimes. I think your content has to reflect the range of moods of your average consumer. Sometimes people want to learn, sometimes they want to vent, sometimes they want to laugh. If you can’t produce a news product that reflects that range, I think you’re limiting yourself.
What kind of feedback have you been getting from Pittsburghers?
Belculfine: A City Council member told us he loves what we’re doing. We’re getting RTs from the mayor and other movers and shakers. We’re gaining likes and follows on Facebook and Twitter every day. We’re still young enough that we have our elevator pitches down to an art, but more and more sources and Pittsburghers are telling us that they’ve heard of us and follow us on social media.
You decided to start selling ads right out of the gate without waiting to build audience. Is this working?
Brady: Well, it was more that we decided that to hire a salesperson out of the gate more than we expected to sell much. With Billy Penn, I made a tactical mistake by waiting six months to hire anyone in sales. It wasn’t a mistake because we would have sold much during that time, but we could have been taking meetings and getting the word out. Instead, our sales lead in Philadelphia had to spend her first six months doing intro meetings, which pushed back the time frame where we actually closed deals. So we’re just being smarter in Pittsburgh by simultaneously getting the word out while we grow audience and awareness.
How about developing revenue beyond display ads – like sponsored content and special events and retailing souvenirs and heritage-themed items?
Brady: Well, 86% of our 2015 revenue for Billy Penn came from events. And while that number will be more like 60% this year because we’ve grown traffic and ad revenue, events are still the core of our strategy, and they will be in Pittsburgh too. We’ll sell display and native for sure, but, from the start, our revenue strategy had one absolute: We cannot build this business on display advertising alone. It’s especially hard for local sites to grow traffic since the potential audience is smaller, and the need for impressions often drives decisions that negatively impact user experience. So we wanted to create experiences, hence the events strategy. In fact, we had our first event in Pittsburgh Wednesday night, a presidential debate watch party at a local restaurant.
We have sales and events staffers. so both of our sales people also plan and execute our events. That means everything from finding a sponsor, to finding the space, to buying limes for the drinks. So we want people who can help on both fronts.
Jim Friedlich, who is closely involved in the revamping of the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily News through the Institute for Journalism in New Media, says your sites in Philly and Pittsburgh are part of a “new class” of metro-wide startups that are filling a “perceived market void with mobile-friendly, highly visual, shareable news.” Your thoughts?
Brady: I agree with Jim. I think figuring out local remains one of journalism’s biggest challenges, if not the biggest. There are a lot of digital success stories in national, and not as many at the local level. There are lots of people trying lots of things locally, and I’m excited by that. But there needs to be even more experimentation, both from a journalism and a revenue standpoint, if we’re going to find enough models to sustain the local journalism that’s so always been so important to democracy.
Does your initial user traffic indicate your mobile-first approach was right?
Brady: So far, 63% of our traffic has come from mobile, which is a little bit less than the mobile traffic on Billy Penn. I have zero doubts that focusing on mobile was the right strategy.
Do you plan any innovative approaches in your social media strategy for The Incline?
Brady: I don’t know what counts as innovative, but I’m sure we’ll be experimental. I think more important than the bells and whistles is getting the social voice right. We want to be conversational and feel accessible to our audience, because I think that’s a key to building the ever-elusive brand loyalty. I also think the fact that we curate so aggressively via social and direct people to good stories on other sites also builds that trust, since we’re not trying to keep people in our environment all day long. We want to be a connector.
How much investment — internal and external — has gone into The Incline?
Brady: We have a newsroom of four, and are looking to hire a fifth journalist, and we have one sales person, and are looking to hire a second. So we’ll eventually have seven full-timers. These resources require a pretty solid amount of money, though we don’t want to give specific figures.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.