Can the Billy Penn model for local news work beyond Philadelphia? We’re about to find out.
Jim Brady, the man behind Billy Penn, began the Philadelphia news startup with the ambition of putting his vision for local news to the test.
Mobile-first. Events-focused. Extremely active on social media. In less than two years, Billy Penn has emerged as a convener and chronicle of Philadelphia, at once covering the city's critical issues and attempting to rally its people around them.
Now, Brady's teaming up with America's largest newspaper company to see if that model will work in other cities, too. On Monday afternoon, Gannett announced it was buying a minority stake in Spirited Media, Billy Penn's parent company. The terms of the investment were not disclosed, but it's enough money to expand the company's Philadelphia operation and start a second newsroom in another American city.
The investment is a vote of confidence in Billy Penn from an organization that has a huge stake in figuring out a way forward for local news. Gannett, which owns 92 local media organizations throughout the United States in addition to its flagship USA TODAY, stands to benefit from a sustainable model for digital media as print revenue continues to dwindle.
And for Brady, a Poynter National Advisory Board member who's thus far bankrolled Spirited Media, the investment represents an opportunity to see whether it's possible to replicate the early success of Billy Penn.
"...I think it is," Brady told Poynter via email. "I have always thought that. I mean, it's not fully scalable, I believe in local newsrooms and local sales/events forces. So I'm not looking to centralize those functions. But I do believe the platform, the editorial approach and the events model are scalable."
Billy Penn, which draws revenue from a mix of live events, native ads and display advertising, isn't yet profitable, Brady said. But it's on schedule to meet early projections that estimated the outlet would be profitable a few years beyond its launch date. Meanwhile, Billy Penn has grown its audience despite a minuscule marketing budget.
"The focus to this point has been to build readership and a community of loyal readers who will read us, come to our events and spread the word," Brady said. "And they have done that, despite the fact the only advertising money we've spent is $100 early on to find some followers on Twitter and Facebook."
The partnership with Gannett is an interesting thread in the narrative of Billy Penn, which was launched in part as an alternative to the trappings of corporate newspapering. Brady, who spent more than two years atop the masthead at newspaper chain Digital First Media, has put into place at Billy Penn a philosophy that stands in contrast to his former employer and many of its corporate competitors: A strong emphasis on curation, an aversion to consolidation and a razor-sharp focus on reaching young audiences.
And Brady says that "almost every market in the country" — including those that have already been colonized by these newspaper companies — have an open niche for digitally minded news outlets aimed at younger consumers.
"That's not meant to denigrate the organizations that are already in those cities," Brady said. "But I've always believed that one of the major difficulties legacy media organizations have right now is that, roughly, those above the age of 35 consume news so differently than those under 35. The primary platform for consumption is different. The voice is different. Their desired relationship with a news organization is different. And with so many legacy organizations constantly downsizing, I would argue most don't have the bandwidth to effectively manage strategies to win over both audiences."
Spirited Media hasn't settled on its next city yet, but the company has it narrowed down to between four and five markets, Brady says. Although he wouldn't disclose specifics, Brady said the expansion site has to meet a few conditions: There has to be a competitive niche in the market, it has to have a sizable proportion of young news consumers and it has to be sufficiently concentrated to allow the company to have a sizable impact with a relatively small footprint. Regardless of its ultimate destination, Spirited Media will import traits that have been hallmarks of Billy Penn: An active voice on social media, a focus on user experience, a blend of original and curated content and an events-based model.
"Our audience really likes us," Brady said. "They use the site. They come to our events. They tell their friends about us, whether it's via word of mouth or social. They feed us stories. And they do what may be most important thing of all: They talk to us, whether it's to compliment or criticize. And we always respond to them. We've created a very open atmosphere, and I think that may be the thing that is the most important thing to scale: the relationship with your audience."
(Disclosure: Poynter has a training partnership with Gannett).