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Jan. 11, 2012, 2 p.m.

The Philadelphia Experiment: Why a media company wants to be a tech incubator

Exposure and a crack at new apps are some of the reasons the Philadelphia Media Network is offering up rent-free space for three tech companies.

One side effect of downsizing at most newspapers: a surplus of office space. That may be a cold blooded way of seeing the empty desks that haunt newsrooms and advertising departments, but in an era where newspapers get bought largely for the value of their underlying real estate, the fact is that’s square footage that could be put to use.

Consider the example of the Philadelphia Media Network, owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, which has welcomed three startups inside their walls with the launch of the Project Liberty Digital Incubator. Thanks to some funds from the Knight Foundation the media company is offering itself up as a rent-free test kitchen for six months to CloudMine, SnipSnap, and ElectNext, early-stage tech companies starting out in Philly.

PMN isn’t offering up a couch to crash on purely out of the kindness of its heart: As a condition of the incubator they get an early look at whatever apps, tools, or projects the teams are working on. That would be great in itself, particularly because the companies are focused on markets that align with newspapers: SnipSnap is working on an app to scan and save coupons for mobile, ElectNext is building an app to help better connect voters to candidates, and CloudMine is creating a platform for seamless app development.

But what PMN wants more is to better expose their staffs to the world of startups and tech. There are clear lessons for journalism from people whose work emphasizes identifying audiences, monetization, and rapid iteration. If the journalists and geeks can bump into one another, there’s potential for some beneficial cross-pollination, Philadelphia Media Network CEO Gregory Osberg told me. The media network is working on its own digital offerings (Remember, this is the same company offering Android tablets to readers) and the best way to get that process to speed up is through learning from companies operating in markets like e-commerce and mobile, Osberg said. The three companies each signed non-disclosure agreements to gain access to PMN data that might be helpful as they progress their work. That means within the next few months, we could see apps from the three companies branded under the Inquirer, Daily News, or Philly.com.

It’s like having a skunkworks without paying full retail price. In the media world, that’s a bonus considering the length of time it takes to recruit and build a team of developers, producers, and others who want to work in journalism. Even better: After this six-month period, they’ll bring in a fresh group of tech companies for a new round. “This takes us to market much quicker than if we were to staff up, which takes a big investment but takes a long time in the product development cycle,” Osberg said.

One thing Osberg is clear about is that while CloudMine, ElectNext, and SnipSnap are in the building and sharing the elevator with the rest of the staff of the media network, they’re not employees — their work is their property. And that’s a good thing. “We’re rooting for their success,” Osberg said. “We’re not here to absorb their companies or slow them down. We’re here to stimulate and become a catalyst for them.”

Lots of media companies are trying to adopt the methods, philosophy and talent of the independent (read: non-journalism related) tech community. In some cases, it’s through straight-up acquisitions (CNN and Zite, Financial Times and Assanka). Other times, it’s investment, as with Digital First Media, which runs the Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group, announcing its own plans to invest in startups that align with corners of the journalism business like advertising, content, and audience development.

The Boston Globe has an informal incubator with people from a half-dozen small firms at various stages of development, all working out of the Globe’s headquaters. Jeff Moriarty, vice president of digital products for the Globe, told me over email “We had extra space here at the Globe and wanted to create an environment around our digital lab and digital development area where we have smart people working on interesting things.” The companies (Twine, Muckrock, Schedit, among others), work in areas like video and social media, were a natural fit, and could provide support to the Globe’s own products in the future. “We figure that the more smart people we have in the room, the better our opportunities to test and explore new ideas and also to expand our network of contacts in the digital space in Boston,” he said.

In many cases, media companies are taking a quieter approach, offering hack day events like those at the Globe and The New York Times. Or it’s through grant-funded collaborations like the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Fellows, which dropped developers right in the middle of newsrooms at places like Al Jazeera English, Zeit Online, The Guardian, and the Globe.

When I asked Osberg what would the best outcome for the project, he talked in terms of the impact to the Philadelphia community, not just his media properties. “Success would be that we would have some of their technology utilitized in our product offerings, and that they were able to leverage the success of that offering in the marketplace to take their company to the next level,” he said.

Image by the University of Iowa Libraries used under a Creative Commons license

POSTED     Jan. 11, 2012, 2 p.m.
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