With local news, David has advantage over Goliath, indie online publishers are told

The founders of two celebrated Philadelphia journalism startups urged independent local news publishers Saturday to embrace the advantages in focus

June 7, 2015 by LION Publishers


The founders of two celebrated Philadelphia journalism startups urged independent local news publishers Saturday to embrace the advantages in focus and flexibility they have over big legacy media competitors.

Speaking at LION Publishers’ “Independents’ Meeting” at Temple University’s downtown campus, Billy Penn founder Jim Brady celebrated the “awesomeness of being small,” and Technical.ly Philly cofounder Brian James Kirk talked about piecing together effective but low-overhead software programs that can provide the infrastructure for a journalism startup.

After more than 20 years working for big media organizations, Brady said he appreciates the ability to be selective about what his site covers, to be part of and help build a local news ecosystem through curation, and to pursue a revenue strategy that puts user experience first.

He urged the group of LION members – independent local news publishers from around the country – not to make legacy media’s mistake of thinking that you can provide comprehensive coverage of a community solely with your own reporting.

"We are never the sixth reporter at a press conference," Brady said of Billy Penn, because somewhere else in the community there is an important story that no one is covering.

Brady supports a curation strategy that is generous about linking directly to other news outlets and sources of information instead of using the widespread practice of rewriting or summarizing others’ content to get an extra page view.

By de-emphasizing advertising as a revenue source, Billy Penn is able to elevate its focus on user experience for readers. “You’ll never be interrupted by a popup ad,” Brady said.

He urged publishers not to put “all of your eggs in the advertising basket, because you don’t really even own the basket.” He said a vicious cycle has developed in which publishers have come to rely on digital advertising revenue, all of a sudden CPM rates drop by a third or half, and they turn to cheap or obnoxious tactics to grow page views correspondingly to make up for it.

Technical.ly has also de-emphasized advertising from the beginning. Staging live events such as Philadelphia Tech Week is a key revenue stream for Technical.ly, and like Billy Penn, has put more focus on “native advertising” than traditional display ads.

Kirk said that since independent local news sites are unlikely to have web and mobile development staffs of their own, publishers must become “software as a service navigators.” Technical.ly has identified the key needs of its newsroom, business development and live events divisions, and has built a “tech stack” of third-party software that not only serves each division, but as much as possible, builds lines of communication and data between them.

Kirk and Brady said that independent publishers should appreciate being able to build this infrastructure from a clean slate with as low an overhead as possible.

And in addition to being more nimble with structure and tools, Brady said that local independent news sites have a morale advantage over legacy media. Newspapers are going to continue cutting staff in the coming years, he said, and that “sucks the soul out of an organization.”

"Legacy news organizations are not properly structured or oriented to effectively serve the local news consumer of the future," he said.

He said that publishers should use curation to provide comprehensiveness, and avoid chasing the stories that everyone else is doing. Billy Penn looks for stories that have “shelf life” and potential for a “long tail” in search-driven readership, instead of doing the routine daily stories about fires and traffic jams that are others’ focus.

Brady’s other advice included partnering with “anyone and everyone” to get exposure, not being afraid to take risks in doing “crazy” or “weird” stuff to get noticed, and to “throw everything at” a huge story if it lands in your backyard.

Saturday’s program was the first half of a two-day gathering of LION members at Temple, hosted by the university’s Center for Public Interest Journalism.

It kicked off with an open sharing and discussion among the publishers in attendance of ideas that are working at various local sites.

Traven Rice and Ed Litvak of The Lo Down in Manhattan talked about their crowdfunding campaign – which was put over the top while they were attending the meeting – for a solutions journalism-oriented reporting project on the survival of small businesses on New York’s Lower East Side.

Jay Allred of the Richland Source in Ohio talked about starting a clothing line as a new revenue stream and branding effort.

Scott Brodbeck explained how ARLNow.com has developed revenue from real estate companies who weren’t getting results from traditional display advertising by focusing on sponsored content such as “just listed,” “just sold” and open houses.

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