PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA — Like so many young journalism school graduates, Sean Blanda, Brian James Kirk, and Christopher Wink could not find jobs in 2008. Philadelphia’s two dailies had shed hundreds of positions, and plenty of highly experienced older reporters were ready to apply for anything that opened up. The job market was, “in a word, awful,” says Blanda. “The three of us felt like we should have been in fairly good shape upon graduating, but the only jobs we could find were web-monkey positions or community reporters at very small publications. It became very obvious to us that the risk of starting our own business was just as high as taking a low-level job in a city we didn’t enjoy as much as Philadelphia.”
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In February 2009, the Temple University journalism majors founded Technically Philly, a news site covering the area’s technology industry. None of the three actually have much of a tech background–they just saw a niche and went for it. That didn’t seem to matter to anyone, says Blanda. “Like any under-covered community, the general reaction was ‘Thank God someone is finally covering this.'”
They realized there would be a local audience for tech reporting after witnessing the popularity of Ignite Philly–the local iteration of nationwide gatherings where presenters give five-minute talks on technology, urban planning, and other less conventional creative matters, like people making mixed drinks using bicycle power.
“We saw signs that the Philadelphia technology community was on the verge of exploding,” he says. “Turns out the event sold out Johnny Brenda’s, a rock venue here. I was shocked that a tech event could pack Johnny Brenda’s to the gills.”
The site’s audience is made up of “entrepreneurs, startups, venture capitalists, government workers, IT workers, small business owners,” Blanda says–“the people who make Philadelphia better through technology.”
Like most new media ventures launched over the past decade, Technically Philly is successful because it focuses on something very specific. Articles often feature local startups and their products, inventions, and initiatives.
“It mirrors the rest of Philadelphia: it’s scrappy, authentic, and full of interesting and wonderful people,” he says of the Philly tech scene. “Most cities simply want to be Silicon Valley, which is widely recognized as the hub for all things technology. We’ve seen other news sites constantly compare their coverage to the Valley and we think that’s the wrong way to go. It would be like covering the business community in Cleveland and comparing it to Wall Street or covering soccer in America and comparing it to Europe.”
The site is certainly boosterish at times, with a feature called “Switch Philly” described as “all about showing off the great products being created by Philly companies every day.” But the site also has a feature called “Exit Interview,” which asks why people leave the city, and what can be done to keep local talent from taking off.
This is the sort of detailed industry coverage that a daily trying to cover an entire region would never have taken on.
“We’re able to cover a very small niche in a detailed way that wouldn’t make sense for any of the existing publications in Philadelphia,” says Blanda. “We would never suggest that TP ‘replaces’ any existing coverage.”
Journalism schools are putting an increased focus on the business skills necessary for young people navigating a much less secure or defined industry. According to Blanda, Temple taught them how to survive as journalist-entrepreneurs.
“Temple was great at showing students the way and forcing the students to figure it out themselves,” he says. “Nothing is spoon-fed to Temple students, and that’s what I enjoyed most about the university. We learned to see the end goal and plan accordingly, which is a vital characteristic that any small business owner needs to have.”
Like many new media sites, TechnicallyPhilly goes beyond just traditional newsgathering. In 2011, they organized the first annual Philly Tech Week, “a week-long celebration of technology and innovation” comprised of more than sixty events hosted throughout the city. Similarly, they rely on a revenue mix that goes beyond advertising, leveraging their skill set to do consulting work.
“Bootstrapped,” he says, describing his revenue model. “Through a mix of events, jobs board, ads, and consulting, we are able to keep the light on.”
Technically Philly Data
Name: Technically Philly
City: PhiladelphiaDaniel Denvir is a reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.