Jim Friedlich Champions ‘New Class’ of News Startups — And Digitally ‘Aggressive’ Heritage Sites

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There is a “new class” of entrepreneurial local news startups as well as aggressive new digital investment at “heritage” newspapers, according to longtime news publishing executive Jim Friedlich. The startups mark their boundaries not by neighborhood but metro area. They also emphasize, in product design, content selection and presentation, mobile-first user-friendliness.

Prominent “new class” sites, Friedlich says, are Billy Penn in Philadelphia and its recently launched sister site in Pittsburgh, The Incline; the Charlotte Agenda; and Denverite, which Friedlich helped to found prior to joining the nonprofit company he now heads, the Institute for Journalism in New Media. The Institute, founded by Pennsylvania cable TV entrepreneur and philanthropist Gerry Lenfest, will focus its resources on creating sustainable business models for local and metro journalism, using the long-established Philadelphia Inquirer (founded in 1829) and the Philadelphia Daily News (1925) and Philly.com, all of which it owns, and the Philadelphia market more broadly as a “test kitchen” for metro news ecosystems nationwide.

In advance of his participation this week at the Sustain Local 2016 conference sponsored by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media (Oct. 6-7), Friedlich talked with Street Fight about the “why” behind “new class” startups, the digital evolution of “heritage” news organizations, and what is evolving at the Institute for Journalism in New Media and its sister publications in Philadelphia.

What is the mission of Denverite and other “new class” startups?
The mission of all of these sites is to fill a perceived market void with mobile-friendly, highly visual, shareable news.This new generation is focused on larger markets than earlier hyperlocal sites, at a time of greater disruption in the newspaper market. They are collectively a key sector to watch grow.

I believe we will see more of these sites, since they fill a market need for mobile-first news that appeals to millennial readers, and the business reception has been encouraging. Billy Penn was successful enough to expand to Pittsburgh and its founder, Jim Brady, is a quite capable guy whom Gannett has now backed with a minority investment. The Charlotte Agenda is making money and headed to Raleigh. Its coverage of the recent racial troubles in Charlotte has been impressive.

I am an investor in Denverite, although I have no operating role. Kevin Ryan, the lead investor in Denverite and founder of Business Insider, has spoken publicly about his vision for multiple cities. I’m proud of both the product and news work that Dave Burdick and his team have done, although obviously this is still early days.

The Inquirer and the Daily News have produced a “Call to Arms.” What are its objectives?
The “Call to Arms” was written by and for the newsroom in Philly. It is a candid self-assessment of how the news team believes they can move more aggressively on digital. Like similar reports at the New York Times and elsewhere, it calls for decisive action in stepping up newsroom training, improving digital-first workflow and adopting a more digital-friendly content-management system. The overarching recommendation was for a more audience-centric approach to news and product development.

Rapid progress is being made under the leadership of Philadelphia Media Network CEO Terry Egger and Editor Stan Wischnowski. The grassroots newsroom enthusiasm and top management support for digital evolution in Philly were the principal reasons I was so excited to lead the Institute.

Local newspapers are furiously trying to succeed with their digital platforms, including by partnering in large associations (e.g., Local Media Consortium and Nucleus Marketing Solutions). Some papers, like the Dallas Morning News — for whom you’ve consulted — are aggressively pursuing multiple sources of revenue. Do they need to keep innovating?
The Local Media Consortium and Nucleus are both quite encouraging efforts and each offers huge scale to advertisers. On the need for innovation: There remains a culture gap between the pace of change, the speed to market, and the user-centric product design orientation of a Vox, a Business Insider, a Mic.com, Quartz or Skift and their heritage-media counterparts. Companies like the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, the Philadelphia Media Network or “PMN,” the umbrella group for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News and philly.com, and Gannett are working hard to create — or in some cases acquire — stronger startup-like cultures. This is vital.

Jim Friedlich
Jim Friedlich

What will Philadelphians be seeing in the Inquirer and the Daily News in the months ahead?
The Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com report to Terry Egger, the CEO of PMN, not to me or the Institute. I do think we will see a growing emphasis on the mobile experience, user experience more broadly and faster load times, and an ever-more robust multi-media digital experience. Events will also be a growing part of the mix. I attended recently a terrific Inquirer event called Stellar StartUps, honoring area entrepreneurs. I suspect we’ll see more engagement with local startup culture via both PMN and the Institute.

There is gathering consensus in news publishing that digital subscriptions are essential to sustainability. Do you agree?
I agree wholeheartedly. I was at The Wall Street Journal in 1996 when WSJ.com was launched. It simply never occurred to us that this awesome news brand should be free. Our job was to create sufficient value to charge fairly for it, in digital as in print. The New York Times has proved that conversion from free to paid digital is viable. Newspapers in Boston, Minneapolis, London, and Sydney, Australia have all succeeded, if not at the NY Times level. Our experience has been that a meter rather than a hard paywall is ideal.

Pure-play digital sites are also testing subscription offerings, especially in light of the advent of adblockers. My colleagues have been advising Business Insider on a test of paid content.

Facebook offers publishers access to literally billions of potential readers. The other end of the digital telescope is the publishers’ own sites. Is there a risk that publishers will be seduced by Facebook’s giant audience numbers at the expense of readership on their own sites?
The greater danger is failure to reach users where they live – on Facebook and on chat platforms like Snapchat, Line, Telegram, WeChat and WhatsApp. We did a study for the Global Editors Network (GEN) this spring called “Why Chat Matters as a News Medium” that tracked the use of messaging platforms with case studies from The Wall Street Journal, BCC, New York Times and a dozen other players around the world.

Local newspapers used to have strong and influential civic presences when they were print dominant. Can digital publications, including those supported your Institute, reclaim that influence?
Yes. Influence derives from time-honored news attributes such as accuracy, exclusivity, brand authority and increasingly from social media acumen, rather than from whether or not content is delivered in print or digital. Digital news properties like the Texas Tribune, ProPublica, Mic.com, Quartz or the Center for Public Integrity have quite meaningful clout without print, and Politico with only a token print component. Growing audience across all platforms — especially social media — is the key to influence.  Just ask Donald Trump.

Tom GrubisichTom 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.

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