In the weeks after Jim Brady announced plans to launch brother.ly, a local news web site in Philadelphia, he and Poynter’s Butch Ward had an email conversation about Brady’s previous experiences with guiding digital newsrooms.
Ward: More than a decade later, have you changed your thinking in any significant way about local news coverage in the digital age? How about your thinking on how to build a financially successful news business?
Brady: I think the biggest change in my thinking has been about the overall role of a local news organization. I used to be a believer in staying out of the fray, and just reporting on what was happening and stopping there. But I now think news organizations need to expand their thinking there. I’m not suggesting that papers drop objectivity in reporting; I still believe in that. But I think they need to acknowledge that their role should be to help connect their consumers to information, people, events and whatever else might empower them to take action to improve their communities. We don’t need to be prescriptive as to what will make a community better—though, at times, we can choose to be. In Philly, we’re being very open about the fact part of our mission is to make Philadelphia better. You could say that’s controversial, but how many people out there walk around thinking, “I wish this was a worse city. I wish there was more crime, more traffic, etc.” Not many, I would hope.
Ward: Both Project Thunderdome and TBD represented efforts by legacy media companies to play in the digital sphere. What advice do you have for legacy companies trying to build a bridge to a digital future?
Brady: I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone is much interested in my advice to legacy media companies at this point. But, if so, I’d say to ask yourself whether you’re built for the digital future. Whatever the revenue breakdown is today, there can’t really be any argument anymore that the consumer and the revenue is moving to digital platforms. So do you have people, who understand digital, making key decisions for the organization? Are sales folks compensated on selling against legacy or digital? In these difficult economic times, are you still putting a premium on equipping newsroom and sales people with the tools to compete in the digital landscape?
Everyone understands that cost cuts are inevitable in this climate, but that doesn’t mean there can’t also be a reallocation of funds toward digital transformation as well. In fact, that has to happen. But these changes are very hard, and, as someone who has spend a lot of the past decade inside newsrooms going through constant change, it’s very hard to make the necessary pivot to digital when the legacy responsibilities—whether that’s putting out a newspaper or airing a broadcast—inevitably come around the bend every day.
Ward: Would you consider leading another digital effort for a legacy media company?
Brady: Who knows? If I had tried predicting the last 10 years of my career, I probably would have been wrong about all of it. I guess I don’t really organize around the legacy vs. non-legacy structure. It’s all about opportunity and being able to do something different than the last job. My path of AOL to washingtonpost.com to TBD to DFM to a bootstrapped startup like this is so bizarre that I would be nuts to hazard a guess of what job or type of job would be next.
Ward: What have you learned about local sites? Can you point to specific local coverage tactics that actually build readership?
Brady: I think, to some extent, it’s about what you cover. But I think how you cover a community matters more. Going forward, I think local coverage has to focus on involving the communities that are being covered and have an eye on improving those communities. I don’t think the news consumer of the future is going to be satisfied with reporting alone. It’s the relationship with the local reader that will determine success or failure, because it’s harder to commoditize a relationship than a coverage area. I also think making sure you’re covering things that matter to people’s daily lives is important. I know that sounds obvious, but it doesn’t seem to be for some.
There was an article in Columbia Journalism Review a while back that pointed to a New Haven Register story about a new movie theater opening and said, basically, “this isn’t journalism.” But of course it is. The implication was that every piece of local journalism should be accountability-driven, which is ridiculous. The average reader in New Haven cares about a new movie theater that’s opening, and about road construction, and local sports and lots of other things that are not local Watergates. Sure, accountability journalism has to be part of that mix, but any local newspaper that decides to butter its bread with nothing but accountability journalism is going to be hungry for readers at some point.
Ward: How about local coverage ideas that you discovered don’t work?
Brady: Again, I think it’s probably more of a question of approach. If you’re out there covering the community but not talking to it or listening to it, then you’ve probably got a problem. I think another major mistake most legacy sites are making is they’re still acting as it they are the only voices in their communities that matter. How many of the top 100 papers in the country actively link to other media or citizen sites in their communities? Not many. And, to me, that’s keeping many of them from being the starting point for people looking for local news. There are a lot of younger news consumers out there that get their news from Twitter, Facebook, Flipboard or some other non-legacy starting point, and what do those sites have in common? They link to lots of sites and don’t play favorites. News orgs need to learn that not linking out actually makes them less relevant to consumers, not more.
Ward: Are there other local news sites out there that you admire?
Brady: Many. I think ArlNow in Northern Virginia is terrific. I think Voice of San Diego has taken a really interesting approach to civic journalism, as has MinnPost. Texas Tribune is a great site, and I like what they’ve been able to build around data. And barista.net has shown the way for a lot of community sites, and it’s making some money to boot. What those sites all have in common is a willingness to try something new, whether it’s a laser focus on a specific community, an interesting membership model or a major events business.
Honestly, I don’t know that the traditional model of hiring a lot of reporters and just writing stories will ever work for a local digital news site.
Ward: What else is going on digitally that you think journalists need to pay attention to?
Brady: Mobile, obviously. The move to mobile is happening at lightning speed, and there’s no sign it’ll slow down. And, to me, the key to mobile for local sites will be location. It may be a year or two off, but local sites have to be able to take advantage of the fact we know where our users are at any given time, and also what areas they care about. And that doesn’t even touch on what advertising should be able to do with location. So I think that’s the area to watch, and even if it’s a few years off, the time to start thinking about it is now.
Ward: Let’s talk a little about leadership. What leadership skills do you need either to build a digital newsroom or transition a legacy newsroom to digital?
Brady: If you’re building a new newsroom, it’s all about hiring good people and getting out of the way. Building the newsrooms at TBD and Thunderdome have been career highlights for me, and I’m proud of the people that we hired at both places. I’m looking forward to doing it again in Philly. As far as transitioning existing newsrooms, that requires a different management playbook. The first part is you have to be honest about what you’re trying to accomplish. I visited all 75 DFM papers in the first nine months I was in the job, and I was honest about DFM’s strategy and what was expected of everyone. Some people bought in, some didn’t. But no one could say we weren’t clear about the push to digital and our seriousness about that. And I think we won a lot of converts, though I’m sure we could have done better.
Ward: How do you get buy-in from a staff when you can’t point to evidence that your idea actually works?
Brady: I don’t know that whether people buy in or not is as much about you as it is about them. Sure, I think you can influence people with clear messaging and clear action, but if the will to change isn’t inside your own soul, then I don’t think it’ll happen. Sure, you might get change that’s driven by survival, but that’s not the kind of change that can be transformative, only transitional. It’s obvious the future is digital at this point, so I don’t find myself focused on trying to “sell” digital anymore. I think the days of digital evangelism are over—or certainly should be. I could pull five charts about the news business right now and that would probably be all anyone would really need to “sell” people on our collective digital future.
Ward: What leadership lessons have you learned from helping journalists transition to a digital environment?
Brady: Patience and focus. Patience in the sense that teaching people new skills and news ways of thinking is hard. But the effort is worth it when you have willing subjects. And focus in terms of selecting who to spend your time on. When I was at washingtonpost.com, I found myself drawn to trying to convince the biggest naysayers in the print newsroom that they should pay attention to digital. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake. There’s a great line in my all-time favorite movie, “12 Angry Men,” where the Joseph Sweeney character is unsuccessfully trying to sway the glib Jack Warden character, and Henry Fonda finally says to Sweeney, “He can’t hear you. He never will.” I think that applies to some journalists vis a vis digital. At DFM, I spent more time focused on the folks who were open to experimenting, or were already active digitally long before John Paton got to the company. I didn’t waste time on the people who made it clear from the start they weren’t on board. Many of them weren’t around for long anyway, some voluntarily and some not.