Denverite, Billy Penn get acquainted after Spirited Media merger

The skyline of Philadelphia, the home of Billy Penn's headquarters (AP photo)

If the name “Jim Brady” rings a bell, then it may be that your subconscious has retained stories about the spectacular failure of TBD, a much-ballyhooed hyperlocal site based in Washington, D.C., that Brady was instrumental in launching, and where he acted as general manager.

These days, Brady is hedging his hyperlocal bets as founder and CEO of Spirited Media, which operates Billy Penn in Philadelphia and The Incline in Pittsburgh. On Wednesday, Spirited announced that it had merged with the Colorado-based Avoriaz, which owns just one digital property, Denverite. Like its two new local news site partners in Pennsylvania, Denverite is a mobile-first destination with a slightly irreverent tone and content designed to appeal to millennials.

According to Brady, he and Gordon Crovitz, an Avoriaz co-founder and Denverite investor, had been sharing information and admiring each other’s sites since Denverite launched last May. “It just made sense,” Brady said of the merger. “There was a shared set of values, [with all three sites] aiming at a sort of similar market with a similar voice.” By the fall, said Brady, conversations between the two “started to heat up [to the point] that maybe it would make sense for us to do this together, because there was a lot of overlap in terms of what we were trying to do. And so why not go about it together?”

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Crovitz expressed his admiration for efforts by Brady and Spirited Media to secure new forms of revenue. “We concluded we’d grow successful businesses faster if we teamed up,” said Crovitz. As Spirited Media expands to more cities, he added, “we expect to create a company with a value in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as Business Insider created in business and Bleacher Report created in sports. It will take scale to create profitable local publishing, which we are now further along in creating than any other local news venture.”

Brady has made it clear that Spirited plans to enter a fourth market by the end of the year, with the possibility of launching a number of new sites in other cities at some point down the road. Chicago and Baltimore have both been mentioned as possibilities, but if Spirited already has its next locale in mind, then Brady isn’t talking. Instead, he says, a potential Spirited Media city needs to have a confluence of certain factors before the company will consider launching a local site there: an ability to build a business without too much interference; a large population of young people, or a population that is surging quickly; an urban density where large numbers of readers can be reached by a small staff; and, of course, a competitive opening in the market.

In the meantime, Brady plans on allowing all three sites to continue operating largely as they have been.

On Friday morning in the Denverite office, housed in a hip downtown co-working space called Galvanize, Denverite editor-in-chief Dave Burdick said he expected the recent merger would give his site institutional support in areas where he doesn’t currently have expertise—web development, say, or hiring a sales and events manager.

“This is the most job security I’ve ever felt in a journalism job in my entire career,” Burdick said. His first newspaper job, during his early 20s, lasted a year before he was laid off. Later, he worked at newspapers that were laying people off regularly.

“I went into a job that had been two jobs, and the people who worked around me were working jobs that had been two jobs,” Burdick said. “Look, this is a situation that feels much more comfortable and much more of a sure bet to me.” He told CJR that the merger required “almost no changes on any of the [cultural or editorial] fronts.”

Burdick was also upbeat about Denverite’s efforts to-date. “We know that people who are in power call us back—or call us to complain, which is great,” added Burdick. “We have also seen an uptick in crazy, angry, racist emails. That means you’re the real deal.”

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Andrew Kenney, Denverite’s city reporter, has already seen one immediate change. Denverite merged its Slack channels with those from the other Spirited Media properties. This morning, he joined Billy Penn’s water cooler channel, where journalists in Philly were kicking around story ideas. “I haven’t actually met any of them but little tendrils are starting to connect, so that’s been cool,” he said.

When asked how the Spirited Media properties plan to differentiate their editorial agenda from those of other hyperlocal sites that have failed in the past, Brady said that Spirited Media’s business plan has already set it apart. “I think we’ve already done things differently, in the sense that the voice is different, and the presentation is different,” he said. “I think when people talk about innovation in journalism, sometimes we end up talking too much about how the journalism is innovative, versus how much the presentation is innovative.”

Spirited’s three-legged revenue model—a mixture of advertising, live events and membership opportunitites—may yet prove to be the missing puzzle piece that long-gone local news sites never discovered. The model, which has already proven especially popular with the readers of Philadelphia’s Billy Penn, will be slowly incorporated into the Denverite business plan as well. (Denverite already has some experience with events: The site held an Election Night watch party at its office, where more than 200 guests paid six dollars each for admission and a complimentary beer.)

Brady emphasizes that the graphical presentation of Spirited’s mobile-first sites is one element the newly built team will be especially careful not to overlook.

“A lot of what makes people use sites and not use sites,” he said, “is the user experience and the design, and the tone. If you go to Billy Penn, you’re not going to see slideshows just for the sake of slideshows, or pagination on every article, or pop-up ads and Google polls. Because we decided from the start that the first rule of getting people news is that you should actually let them get to the news.”

Additional reporting by CJR’s Colorado correspondent Corey Hutchins

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Dan Eldridge is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and the co-owner of Kaya Aerial Yoga. Follow him on Twitter @YoungPioneers.