Digital local news pioneer Jim Brady launched mobile-focused Billy Penn in Philadelphia a month ago. Brady, joined by other Billy Penn staffers, talked with Street Fight recently about what the site is doing to stand out in a major metro market that has more than 70 websites covering local news:
Billy Penn’s mission is to “drive civic engagement” in Philadelphia. Why that emphasis?
Jim Brady: From our conversations with younger news consumers, it’s clear to me that there’s a hearty appetite for a news operation that uses traditional reporting as a springboard to strengthen communities. Not one that necessarily promotes a particular agenda, but one that connects people who are interested in similar topics or issues and tries to drive solutions to those problems rather than just stopping at reporting.
The civic piece will largely roll out after the holidays. The real push comes when we launch the groups and start having events. The plan has always been to launch with some core features, which we’ve done, and starting building an audience. But the success of the civic push is central to our future viability.
Your two reporters are also identified as “curators.” How does curation make for better local journalism? What does it add to plain-old aggregation of news that was published elsewhere?
Chris Krewson, Editor: Our version of curation means two things: 1) A better, more clickable headline than the original source (or one that calls out the part of the story that’s relevant to our audience), and 2) As applicable, adding the link to a Billy Penn “story.” Both are really about saving users time and adding context. Anecdotally, a friend of mine told me he was surprised how often the links we share (primarily via Twitter) were relevant to him; they came from sources that he’d long since given up on as irrelevant. He says he trusts what we share.
Brady: Yeah, the industry used to use the words “curation” and “aggregation” interchangeably, but they now mean very different things to me. We’re “curating” by reading hundreds of stories a day written about Philadelphia and trying to pass on only a few. To me, “aggregating” makes you sound like a hoarder, not someone who’s applying journalistic rigor in order to serve a specific audience
You’re focusing on users who are millennials. What does that translate into regarding what you cover and how you present editorial content, including design?
Krewson: We try to write headlines and original pieces with “voice.” We’re aiming to write breezy, funny, sharp things that (we hope) are less dull and staid than the average posts you’ll see on news sites. Design-wise, the mobile focus has had more impact so far — but this post, which could have easily been just a story told in paragraphs — is mostly stickers, because that’s the easiest and best way to tell this story.
Anna Orso, Reporter/Curator: As a millennial myself, this goal translates into writing in the same way I’d talk to my friends. We read so much other content across the city — and frankly, across journalism — that’s written in a way that isn’t understandable or uses jargon that the vast majority of people would have to research to be familiar with. We’ve made it a goal to be extra conversational and explanatory in how we present content without dumbing it down. It’s why we’ve published a number of “101”-type explainers. For example, while preparing for the gubernatorial election, we broke down where the candidates stood on the issues, but only the issues that really mattered to our audience. Pot and ridesharing? In. The state’s ailing pension system? Out.
Previous attempts to bring high-minded local journalism to Philadelphia, like Axis Philly, have not fared well. What are you doing to avoid the same fate?
Shannon McDonald, Community Manager: The comparison to Axis Philly is understandable, but the Billy Penn model is entirely different. Whereas the Axis Philly focus was entirely on in-depth reporting, our approach comes with more consistency. You’ll see new content from Billy Penn every day — sometimes newsier pieces, sometimes fun things like our “Which Philly Neighborhood Are You?” quiz.
Krewson: In other words, we’re trying to build an audience — the curation is a super important piece for us. CJR called us a “a website that reads, at the start, a bit like the millennial-focused sites Vox or BuzzFeed, and a bit like a Facebook feed for the rest of Philly media” and I thought that was a pretty good encapsulation of what we’re trying to achieve with actually less staff than Axis Philly had. There must be what, 400 or 500 journalists covering Philadelphia? In a way they all work for Billy Penn — we just showcase the best of what they do, whenever they do it. At the same time we’re trying to use the formidable reporting power of just a few staffers and a modest freelance budget, and spend it doing stories that aren’t being written other places.
Reporter Mark Dent has a weekly “Billy Penn Playlist.” A piece in last week’s column included a mock photo of Pope Francis – who will be coming to Philadelphia on his trip to the U.S. – swigging from a bottle of a local lager. Where does that fit on Billy Penn’s taste spectrum?
Mark Dent, Reporter/Curator: We plan to do the “Playlist” every week. We like it as a fun refresher for everything that has gone on during the week. Sometimes the songs are playful and make fun of politicians or other public figures, and other times I use them to represent a very serious topic.
Brady: We have not heard from the Pope yet. But, in all seriousness, I’d rather be aggressive on voice than conservative. I think the instinct of most editors is to play it safe, and I think that’s creating a disconnect with a younger audience that likes, wants and — in many cases now — demands voice. That said, I’m sure our more aggressive approach will piss people off sometimes. But it’s a risk I’m totally fine taking.
Revenue, as you all well know, is perhaps the biggest challenge local sites face. You are offering businesses opportunities to connect with users through both native advertising and sponsored content. So far, you landed major national companies like Ford Motor Co., Microsoft, BP and Norton with promotional content. Does this show that your ad strategy is on the right track? Why no local businesses, so far, with content marketing?
Greg Osberg, Business Development Adviser: We developed an excellent partnership with Nativo for our sponsored content strategy and we’re packaging these marketing opportunities into an area we call “BrandLand.” Nativo has been selling national opportunities into BillyPenn.com as our partner during our soft launch period. We will soon be offering BrandLand and other mobile advertising opportunities to local and regional advertisers.
Brady: We’re also trying to lessen our reliance on display by building an events and membership business, and that’ll be directly related to the civic efforts we’ll launch in early 2015. We’re not going to charge for what we do on the site; I think that’s fool’s gold. But we would like to build groups around key issues facing the city — whether those are long-standing issues or off breaking news — and bring together people interested in trying to solve those issues. We’d do that by making sure the conversations were not merely virtual, but brought people together physically. We’d like events and membership to about half our revenue.
How big will social media be in defining the success of Billy Penn? What are you doing to most effectively leverage your opportunities with social media?
McDonald: We were engaging with people on Twitter before we even had a website or newsletter, and that was really effective for building brand awareness. It’s not common for brand accounts to engage directly and consistently with social audiences, so we’re trying to set ourselves apart there. But having voice is probably the single most identifying feature of our social accounts. If you find bland headlines and objective-to-the-point of boring link-outs, we’ve lost sight of our mission.
What course corrections or new tactics do you plan to bring to Billy Penn, based on your initial experiences?
Brady: Some of it will depend on the metrics. Right now, 69 percent of our readers are coming from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, 56 percent are 35 or younger and slightly more than half our sessions are coming from mobile devices. Only the last one is at all surprising, and if we stay close to a 50-50 split, we may decide to spend a little more time on the desktop design, but we’ll see how the numbers look in another month or so.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.