What can Jim Brady’s new site do for Philadelphia journalism?

Billy Penn targets a milliennial audience, with a focus on community-building

DETROIT, MI  — “Can it last?”

That was the question we asked a year ago about AxisPhilly, an ambitious nonprofit journalism outlet in Philadelphia. The answer, sadly, was no. Over the summer, it went the way of Metropolis and NEastPhilly.com, other Philly news sites that started up, ran out of resources, and shut down. Just last week, the Gun Crisis Reporting Project stopped daily reporting too.

Though there are some notable exceptions, the track record for news startups in the city of 1.5 million people is not encouraging. But there’s a new crop on the way, trying a variety of models in search of the right mix of relevance and sustainability. The nonprofit Philadelphia Citizen, led by veteran local editor Larry Platt, says it will launch in early 2015. Philly Voice, backed by George Norcoss, a former part-owner of the city’s major dailies, has hired several prominent local journalists and is staffing up now.

And then there’s Billy Penn, which launched in late October after a few months as a robust twitter feed and email newsletter, and is definitely a different sort of beast in the local start-up space.

Aimed at millennials, Billy Penn is founded and (at least initially) funded by Jim Brady, well-known for his role in developing The Washington Post’s website and leading the late TBD.com, a short-lived local startup in the DC area. Though Brady is quick to say no one should pin all their expectations for digital-era local journalism on Billy Penn’s model, he sees the for-profit project as a test of his core beliefs about the future of the news business. Among them: mobile is the primary delivery device; gatekeeping news organizations need to curate content and give readers tools for civic engagement; live events can help pay the bills; and voice and personality matter.

Brady’s partner in the project is Chris Krewson, the former executive online editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who has signed on as editor of Billy Penn. They’ve hired the former NEastPhilly.com proprietor as a community manager, and brought in two general-assignment reporters at the outset—one from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and one from Harrisburg’s Patriot-News.

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The result is 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. Billy Penn’s understated home page is a list of headlines, many of which link directly to stories at the Inquirer, the Daily News, other local news organizations, or even Instagram photos—though the Billy Penn headlines are always rewritten to be webbier, and usually more informative. (Compare “Golden Tradition” to “Six people — 6! — cited for peeing on Ben Franklin statue on Penn’s campus this summer.”)

“There’s no way we can effectively go head to head on every story in the city” given the size of the newsroom, says Krewson. Instead, highlighting coverage by other media outlets is central to Billy Penn’s bridge-building mission. “It’s just as important for us to amplify great accountability journalism that Philadelphians might not be aware exists… We didn’t want to build another silo.”

Original content is part of the model as well, and includes state politics and government coverage in addition to local news. As with the curated content, the target reader often feels like a 24-year-old in his or her first moderately cool job. The pieces are lightly written and often, though not always, brief. Early original items compared the major gubernatorial candidates’ stances on marijuana and liquor regulation, confirmed that a conservative think tank had a role in paying people to counter-protest Philly teachers, and explored a killed bill that would have banned pet-eating statewide. Other posts offered tips to hack the city’s mass transit system and parking rules. A recent look at 18 up-and-comers in politics and media was “the most successful thing we’ve done so far,” Brady said. 

“The inverted pyramid works for some stories, but certainly not for all,” he said, describing Billy Penn’s style. “So we’ve covered a debate using emojis, and are doing a weekly Spotify playlist based on the Philly news of the week. Both went over well with the audience.” (Emoji are a recurring theme: the site also aggregated editorial endorsements from around the state by summarizing them in emoji form.)

While it’s way too soon to make firm judgments, early response from media observers has been varied, reflecting different visions about what’s missing from the local news ecosystem. “I don’t like aggregation, but I kind of like what [Billy Penn] is doing,” said Chris Anderson, who wrote a case study on the digital transition of the big Philly papers. “They’re sending people someplace else. They want to be a hub… There is a ton of media in Philadelphia, but no central conversation happening.”

Daniel Denvir, of the alt-weekly City Paper, was more skeptical. “I feel like what’s been most damaged and what is now most missing in Philadelphia journalism is aggressive enterprise and investigative reporting,” he said. “I don’t know that I have any problem with what Billy Penn is doing, but I don’t see them doing either of those things.” (Denvir has written for CJR about Philly media.)

Diana Lind, the outgoing editor of the nonprofit Philly-based magazine Next City (for which I’ve written), described Billy Penn as “reader-centered rather mission-centered”—an approach that is tied to its for-profit status, and that “makes a lot of sense,” she said, given limited foundation support for Philly media.

“Frankly,” Lind added, “the philanthropic gap really opened up huge opportunities for a lot of other organizations to figure out new solutions.”

A focus on community-building

Some of the solutions being explored at Billy Penn stem, inevitably, from past challenges. Brady and Krewson, who describes himself as a “frustrated digital guy,” both talked about the appeal of creating something from scratch, rather than trying to change the culture, workflow, and editorial output of a legacy institution. And starting relatively small should give Billy Penn time to adapt and grow. Brady doesn’t entirely subscribe to the view that TBD was overstaffed at launch, but in retrospect, he said, he sees the value in “starting small and making every dollar count.” Billy Penn’s operating expenses were less than $50,000 per month at launch. Incubator office space from Temple University’s Center for Public Interest Journalism, where Brady and Krewson are co-teaching a class on entrepreneurial journalism, helps keep the costs down.

There are lessons from other startups, too. For all the acclaim it attracted, AxisPhilly “seemed a little academic, something dreamed up by a couple people working for foundation and a couple professors,” Anderson said. Krewson said he respected that project, but it turned into “another silo,” something Billy Penn is determined not to become.

Then there are the editorial innovations, including a feature that collects all media related to a given storyline, like the gubernatorial transition, in one bucket. A reader who “follows” a story will receive updates once a day. It’s similar in design to the mobile app Cir.ca, which promises to do for readers one of the same things Billy Penn does: save time.

But what’s perhaps most interesting is the theory that audience engagement, done right, can both multiply the value of the site’s editorial content and provide a path to profitability. “We want to build groups around the stuff people care about, whether it’s technology, education, medicine, or whatever,” Brady said. “We want to build deeper communities that involve real-life and digital events.”

What might those real-life gatherings look like? Krewson talked about “pop-up events around the news, beginning a lot more like happy hours than the New York Festival of Ideas. We think we can get 40 people who care about mural arts in Philadelphia and are concerned that this famous mural was painted over to come out to a bar to talk about it. And Billy Penn gives you a ticket for two free drinks, sponsored by someone in the city.” Do this often enough, he said, and it becomes self-perpetuating. It’s sort of a replacement for comment threads, in what the site’s founders have called “a ‘post-comments’ period.”

Not all of these live communities will be built from scratch, though: Some will come in partnership with other institutions in the city, including other media outlets. “Plan Philly covers development issues really well, so we want to partner with them on our development group,” Brady said. “There’s no reason for us to do our own with our own people when they’ve got it covered.”

The hope is that the site eventually will get half of its revenue from readers, via live events and group memberships. The balance won’t come from paywalls, or from display ads, which would be a poor fit with the mobile-first focus. Instead, the site is pursuing sponsored content; a few native ads for national brands have started appearing in the news stream. And Krewson outlined a vision for mobile, location-sensitive advertising to come through which, for example, a Philly bakery with extra goods to unload at the end of the night could blast out a half-price offer via text to 300 nearby people. “It’s different than Groupon because it’s useful,” he said.

The site also plans to go after investors; Brady said he expects to start the fundraising process in December.

If the business model pans out, and the editorial follows its early path, what will Philly media have gained? No doubt traditional news coverage can use some freshening up, and Billy Penn’s platform versatility, link-out curation, and playfulness all can contribute to that, especially as a city-centered news site. The “story” function is clever and effective, the live events and group dialogues could be substantive and engaging, and the founders are smart to tap revenue streams both on and off the screen.

At the same time, I hope that as the site finds its footing, the editorial ambition of its original content will grow, whatever the size of its staff. And I hope that Billy Penn readers—both urban millennials and the “chattering class” types who might be the natural audience for state government coverage—will respond to, and demand, more aggressive original reporting. Collaboration and hub-building are great, but competition remains one of the classic catalysts for improved journalism.

“Look, Philadelphia is a one-party town, basically run by the Democrat machine,” Chris Anderson said. “Media is so important as a countervailing power to keep an eye on people. Newspapers have done a wonderful and are still doing as good a job as anyone out there, but their long-term sustainability is unclear. So we need someone to step in and fill the breach.”

Filling that breach will require a group effort. Here’s hoping that Billy Penn—and the rest of the new crop of Philly startups—can all play a part.

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.