March 6, 2019

Spirited Media’s Chris Krewson announced Wednesday on Medium that the company is selling its three local online newsrooms: Billy Penn in Philadelphia, The Incline in Pittsburgh and Denverite in Denver.

Denverite has been purchased by Colorado Public Radio, Krewson announced.

Spirited is also in talks with local buyers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, he wrote.

“And we’re hoping to have announcements on their futures in the coming weeks. Why? Well, that’s the path that’s emerged for Spirited Media, which has already pivoted a couple of times, as every startup must. The latest pivot reflects the reality of being a startup in these difficult times for the local media business: There is more money out there for companies like ours to earn helping others do what we do via consulting than continuing to raise money to expand into new markets.”

It’s indeed a big pivot for Spirited, founded in 2014 by Jim and Joan Brady. The goal for the company was to build a chain of local digital newsrooms.

“The best that could happen is I go off and I build this thing and it’s really successful,” Brady told Poynter in 2014 after launching Billy Penn. “The second-best thing that could happen is I build this thing and it fails. But the worst thing is I get halfway and never find out.”

Billy Penn was founded in 2014, the Incline in 2016, and Denverite joined the company in 2017. All three sites covered local news, focused on holding events and had layoffs in 2017. The company launched a membership campaign last year.

This isn’t the first time that local public radio has turned out to be the right home for a local digital newsroom. The St. Louis Beacon, where I worked for five years, became part of St. Louis Public Radio in 2013. Last February, DCist, Gothamist and LAist were bought and brought back to life by WAMU, WNYC and KPCC.

Billy Penn and its Spirited Media siblings are part of a growing universe of local online news, which includes both for-profit and nonprofit newsrooms (Spirited Media is for-profit.) Many of them, including Spirited Media newsrooms, are part of the Local Independent Online News Publishers, also known as LION. (Disclosure: Poynter’s director of finance serves on LION’s finance committee.)

That group has 243 members in 47 states, according to interim executive director Steve Beatty. The Institute for Nonprofit News, also known as INN, has 189 members, most of which cover local news.

“Media turnover is nothing new and this doesn’t close any newsrooms. It’s kind of nice to see relatively new publications be able to sell their properties,” Beatty said. “It’s an entrepreneurial world and people shouldn’t be surprised when people act like entrepreneurs.”

Spirited will continue working with local newsrooms on digital strategy, Krewson wrote.

“That said, this moment is bittersweet. Yes, moving a news organization we’ve operated for years into the arms of local owners is immensely satisfying. We’re also sad to see friends and colleagues moving out of the company. But it is the right thing to do, both for us and for them.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a quote from Steve Beatty.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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