July 16, 2014

Sometimes people console Jim Brady about his bad fortune.

After all, they lament, he was general manager of TBD.com, an ambitious local news site that folded about two years after it started. Then, he went to work for Digital First Media, where he founded Project Thunderdome, an innovative news production hub — which was axed by company bosses earlier this year.

But Brady isn’t having it. “My response to that is nobody should feel sorry for me,” he said. “I’ve got to build two newsrooms from scratch, I got the chance to hire a lot of smart people and learned an amazing amount along the way about where journalism is headed.”

What did he learn? After two aborted experiments, Brady still thinks there’s a future for journalism in local news — and that’s a bet he’s willing to stake a lot of his own money on. Brady is investing in the “mid-six figures” on a new local news project of his own creation, one he hopes will be the bridge between communities and the news they care about.

RELATED: On the verge of a new venture, Brady fields questions on community news

Brady’s decision to strike out on his own was partly motivated by the setbacks he experienced with his other projects. The collapse of Thunderdome came while he had many other responsibilities to juggle, like getting newspapers all over the country to adopt digital strategies in the midst of a maelstrom of financial challenges. And ever since TBD was killed, he wanted to retry a digital-only local news model. Now, with his own business, he can focus completely on putting his ideas to the test.

“The TBD thing has just always been in the back of my mind since it blew up,” Brady said.

The project will be based in Philadelphia, because he thinks the city’s millennials will be receptive to his new endeavor, which he envisions as a mobile-first news operation. It will be housed at Temple University’s Center for Public Interest Journalism, where Brady will teach entrepreneurial journalism. The venture has tentatively been christened Brother.ly, a name that echoes both Philadelphia’s motto and Brady’s goal to create a place where audiences can communicate about issues they care about.

This idea of connection is central to the site’s mission — and its revenue strategy. The project will focus on providing community news on issues of public concern and facilitate discussions between them. It will create forums they can participate in — for a fee — and host ticketed events that will help bolster revenue. Ultimately, Brady’s goal is to “monetize passions, not pageviews,” and generate 50 percent of the project’s total revenue from non-advertising sources.

This push to generate revenue from readers stems from a combination of factors. It’s partly necessity, because mobile platforms like Brother.ly — whose users rely heavily on small cellphone screens — have difficulty selling banner advertising, Brady said. But part of the push for more user revenue comes from Brady’s dissatisfaction with the current relationship between the salespeople at local newspapers and the journalists whose work they represent. The salespeople, Brady says, often try to lure advertisers using metrics like pageviews, clickthroughs and unique users, which prompts journalists to measure their success against those numbers. These metrics, however, can be gamed by savvy editors who feature non-local content, such as Oscar slideshows, in order to generate traffic from outside their communities. This practice drives pageviews, but at the expense of “hollowing out” the core mission of the site and alienating local audiences.

Better, Brady said, would be a local news site that puts a premium on engaging local viewers and enticing them to visit the site frequently. This will make the space more valuable to local advertisers, whose content will be viewed by community members who are likely to be more interested in their offerings.

“One of the real problems we’ve had with the mainstream media for the last few years is the metrics that the sales staff wants and the metrics that a lot of advertising people are looking for is not the same stuff,” Brady said.

But for all his interest in generating revenue from readers, Brady says his news organization will not have a paywall. This decision was determined by Brady’s target audience of younger news consumers, whom he thinks will not pay in advance for content they can’t see.

“I just think there’s something about the open nature of the web and the grazing nature of the average reader that a paywall throws a wrench into,” Brady said.

While the project builds an audience that it can monetize, it will roll out its coverage slowly in order to keep costs down, Brady said. This is a lesson learned from TBD.com, which launched with a large staff that put financial pressure on the site from the beginning. This time, Brady will start by coordinating a blogger network and hiring two or three general assignment reporters, plus a community manager. Brother.ly already has an editor, Chris Krewson, who is a former executive online editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“You don’t have to roll out on day one with something that blows people away,” Brady said.

But if he does get the site off the ground and it fails, don’t try to console him. That’s not the worse-case scenario for Brady, who wants to find out whether his model can work.

“The best that could happen is I go off and I build this thing and it’s really successful,” Brady said. “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.”

Note: The original version of this story erroneously said that Brady left his job at washingtonpost.com to become general manager at TBD.com. In fact, he became general manager of TBD.com about 10 months after he left The Post. The article has been updated to reflect that correction.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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