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Dec. 17, 2014, 10 a.m.
Audience & Social

How Philly’s Billy Penn is building a local news audience from scratch

“It’s just slowly working your way through the process and trying not to be too impatient.”

P
— Armed with a Kindle Fire tablet, Anna Orso stood just inside the front door of an Irish pub last Monday night welcoming guests to a happy hour in Center City, Philadelphia. She asked the same question to each new person who arrived: Have you signed up for the Billy Penn email newsletter?

Nearly 30 people, mostly media and activist types, showed up to learn more about Billy Penn and meet the site’s small staff. Orso, a reporter/curator for the Philadelphia news startup that launched earlier this fall, managed to add about 10 new names to the newsletter distribution list — bringing the total to 1,070, up from 500 when it launched it September.

The staff spent most of the evening handing out business cards and schmoozing with the attendees, but editor Chris Krewson and community manager Shannon McDonald gave a brief overview of the site, explaining how the millennial-focused Billy Penn wants to be a mobile-first hub for news and information in Philadelphia.

“This is the stream on the homepage. We don’t actually have a homepage. It’s just, à la Twitter, the last thing that we published,” Krewson said. “So if you scroll up a little bit you can see a list of the stuff we dropped into the page, whether that’s links from Gawker or straight pictures out of Instagram.”

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Billy Penn wants to be a central hub for news and information to Philadelphia’s growing millennial population. With a very active Twitter account, Billy Penn links out generously to others covering the city while also publishing two to three original stories each day.

With only four employees in total, that’s an ambitious goal; as a brand new startup, Billy Penn must introduce itself to anyone who’s willing to listen.

Everyone who came to the happy hour received Billy Penn branded bottle openers and pens (A Billy Pen!), in addition to a ticket for a free drink. As Krewson finished up his short talk, he offered up another freebie: The first five people in the bar to like Billy Penn’s Facebook page would get another free drink ticket, he said.

“We’re all about that community action,” Krewson said, laughing, as people hurriedly pulled out their smart phones to like the page.

Billy Penn will need a strong relationship with that community. Events are a central component of the site’s plan as it hopes to build a network of young professionals engaged in Philadelphia news — a group that’s very appealing to advertisers.

Jim Brady, Billy Penn’s founder and the former editor of Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, TBD, and WashingtonPost.com, publicly announced his plans to launch the site in June with the site’s original name of Brother.ly. The site went live in October.

Since then Brady and the site have been covered thoroughly in the local and national press. Still, they have had to work to raise Billy Penn’s profile among constituencies that actually matter to its success: advertisers and readers.

“The hard part is that whenever you start you get a lot of buzz in media circles, but getting out into the general public is a whole different thing,” Brady told me. “We’re still going to agencies and we’re still going to talk to people to sell and we still have to pull out a deck and sell it. Generally they’re happy with what they see, and they like the mobile focus, and they like the millennial focus, but generally you’re starting from scratch even six weeks after launch with some folks.”

Billy Penn has averaged between 100,000 to 200,000 page views per month since October, Brady said. The site was designed to be mobile-first, and about 60 percent of its traffic comes from mobile. Forty percent of sessions originate specifically from Philadelphia, but that rises to about 70 percent if you incorporate all of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Brady acknowledges it’s going to be a tough slog to build an audience, which is why they organized the happy hour. Throughout the fall the site invited people to meet the staff in coffee shops throughout the city, and it created a pop-up newsroom for other journalists on election night. This week Billy Penn is also co-sponsoring a local entrepreneurship group’s holiday party. It plans to hold similar events throughout the winter to continue to introduce Billy Penn to various groups throughout Philadelphia.

“It’s just slowly working your way through the process and trying not to be too impatient,” Brady said.

Another shot at local news

When TBD launched in Washington DC in 2010 it was met with high expectations as a potential sustainable digital model for local journalism, but things fell apart quickly. Brady left the site in November 2010 after clashing with owner Allbritton Communications, which is also Politico’s parent company, over the direction of the site. Most of the staff was fired in February 2011, and the site shut down for good in 2012.

“We just needed the runway we were promised,” Brady said of TBD. “I mean the rug got pulled out from us four years before our five year runway. So that one has always bothered me. That’s always been in my head that I wanted another shot at doing local, but understanding that five years passed so you have to do a different local. It couldn’t be exactly what TBD was.”

After leaving TBD, Brady joined Digital First, which was then the Journal Register Company, to launch Project Thunderdome, a national network for Digital First’s community and local newspapers. With the memory of TBD lingering, Brady wanted another opportunity to try and redefine local news. Unfortunately, things didn’t go so well the second time around either. As a result of what Ken Doctor called “fatigue of majority DFM owner Alden Global Capital,” Thunderdome was shuttered last spring.

For his third stab at reinventing local news, Brady decided to go at it alone, kicking in about $500,000 of his own money, enough to fund the project for 18 months. In addition to a four-person editorial staff, Billy Penn has hired part-time designers and developers — including one who is finishing his studies at Temple University. “We have to wait until Chris [Montgomery] gets done with his exams,” to finish some projects, Brady said.

Brady began developing the idea for what would ultimately become Billy Penn while he was still at Thunderdome, and he looked at a number of areas — including Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta — before deciding on Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s population of 25-34 year olds grew by 100,000 individuals from 2006 to 2012, according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trust. That’s a growth rate of 6.1 percent, the highest of any major of American city. Millennials now make up 26 percent of Philadelphia’s population, with many young professionals living downtown.

To capitalize on this valuable potential audience, Billy Penn contracted digital consultant Greg Osberg, a former publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, to run sales. Osberg resigned from the papers in 2012 after a controversial two-year tenure. While Billy Penn has already published a handful of national native ads sold through a network, Osberg’s Philadelphia connections have helped get Brady in the door with local businesses such as Comcast.

Brady would eventually like to bring development and sales in-house if the site can get the funding, but he’s only just started fundraising. In fact, while the rest of Billy Penn was meeting and greeting last Monday night, Brady was in California for his first round of meetings with potential backers.

“If we’re able to raise some money, then we’ll probably add a little more to the newsroom and some of the product stuff,” Brady said. “This is what we felt we could, a minimal viable product as they say, we could go out with and we’ll see what happens, if the money comes in.”

Developing a voice

The Billy Penn newsroom is a cramped conference room in a small suite of offices belonging to Temple University’s Center for Public Interest Journalism, which is located on the university’s campus in North Philly. A large whiteboard spans the entire back wall of the conference room, which, on the mid-November day that I visited their office, was completely filled with a calendar of upcoming posts as well as story ideas meant to carry Billy Penn through the end of the year.

The whiteboard was so full, in fact, that there were also story ideas scribbled in dry-erase marker across all the windows that lined the opposite wall. One window has ideas for potential explainers on bike share programs, taxes, and the Philadelphia Land Bank — each presented like an intro level college course with a 101 suffix.

Another window is smattered with possible ideas for Billy Penn’s “Who’s Next” series. The first, which it published in early November, was a list of 18 up-and-comers in politics; last week it published the next installment on community leaders. Billy Penn plans to continue releasing a new list profiling different fields every month.

The idea behind the series is to develop franchise ideas that will help distinguish Billy Penn from other news sites in the area. Not coincidentally, the lists are designed to be highly shareable, and rank among Billy Penn’s most trafficked stories.

“All those people were in development programs, all of which have their own alumni networks and Facebook feeds, and so that wound up getting a big second life,” Krewson said of the first Who’s Next story. “Not just those people, but their networks were excited that somebody had paid attention.”

Billy Penn’s focus on curation is another way it hopes to define itself and attract an audience. Whether it’s linking to a story from the Inquirer or just an Instagram post, it believes readers will come to trust Billy Penn’s judgement as to what’s worth paying attention to or reading. It’s also emphasizing a feature that lets users follow certain stories, so if you’re interested in, say, the ongoing allegations against Bill Cosby, Billy Penn will send you an email every time there’s a major update.

With so many news organizations already writing competing versions of the same stories, Billy Penn figures it can best serve its audience by linking out heavily and focusing original coverage on more unique approaches to the news. “Does it make sense for us to build another silo for Philadelphia?” asks Krewson. “Is what’s really needed in this city more content?”

To cut through that cacophony of news coverage, Krewson and his team are developing a voice for the site that’s punchy and direct. As it continues to tweak its editorial voice Billy Penn has tried some kitschy things, like live-tweeting a gubernatorial debate in emoji, a weekly Spotify playlist that chooses songs to summarize the week in news, or a bracket to determine the Ultimate Philly Thing. It’s similarly still figuring out things like how much swearing is appropriate on the site, in its newsletter, and on social.

“We do a lot of tweeting of things the way we would from our own accounts, which is not how a lot of organizational accounts are run,” McDonald said.

Certainly not all readers have been receptive to Billy Penn’s approach. In September, before it officially launched, Billy Penn received some heat for how it portrayed a lobbyist facing sexual assault charges in its newsletter. In an October edition of the newsletter, Krewson wrote that “Philly has paid out a shitload in civil suits filed against police.” Shortly thereafter a reader questioned the appropriateness of the headline, writing by email: “Do we really want to contribute to lowering whatever journalistic standards already exist in the digital media?”

In response, Krewson wrote that Billy Penn’s research has found that the site’s intended millennial audience is “fairly comfortable with judicious uses of profanity.”

“We don’t curse often, but when we do it’s to make a point,” he wrote. “In this case, we were trying to engage an audience that might gloss over a headline that talked about police and civil lawsuit settlements.”

Building a community

There are 20 different traffic metrics to which Brady pays particular attention. Every day he goes through the metrics and manually enters them into a spreadsheet. He looks at typical statistics like page views, unique visits, and pages per session, but he also tracks other less common measurements like how far users are making it through the Billy Penn stream. In addition, to measure the length of a story’s life, he looks at how many hits a URL gets a day. With all of this, Brady’s goal is to get a sense of Billy Penn’s average performance.

“That’s where you can really see where growth is because it’s hard to see it when you have a day when you have a burst and get 20,000 page views, because that’s not real, but neither is Thanksgiving Day when you have 800,” Brady said. “That’s not real either. The hard part is what constitutes a day at this early stage that is really reflective of what your traffic is, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Understanding what its readers care about about is critical for Billy Penn as it strives to create groups around news topics and build an events business that caters to those groups. Billy Penn wants to facilitate discussions and engagement around the news both online and in person. In an ideal world, Brady envisions one day being able to reserve the back room of a bar on short notice to convene discussions on news topics as they’re developing.

“We want to see if we can move events a little more at the pace of news. Rather than drop them on a schedule and just wait for them to happen, let’s try to have them as news is breaking,” he said.

Already in discussions with potential event partners, Brady hopes to ramp up the schedule starting this spring. Events are a proven strategy for news organizations, and Brady hasn’t hesitated to ask other outlets for advice. He says he’s planning on going to Austin next month to attend a Texas Tribune event and to see what’s been successful for the five-year-old nonprofit.

In terms of online engagement, Billy Penn plans to add an “Action Bar” modeled after a similar feature on the Christian Science Monitor’s site. The Action Bar will help users figure out how to get involved with an issue by directing them to advocacy groups, scheduled protests, or petitions on all sides of an issue.

Brady is hopeful that by endearing itself to the city’s younger residents, Billy Penn will succeed where others have failed. Still, many in the city are skeptical that Billy Penn will be any different than many of the other high profile news startups that have failed in an attempt to fill some of the gaps by Philly’s two major papers, the Inquirer and the Daily News, which have floundered digitally and have changed owners multiple times in recent years.

But Billy Penn also wants to manage expectations. It’s started slowly, launching first with its newsletter and social media accounts before bringing a minimally viable site online in October. Brady, Krewson, and the rest of the staff emphasized that much of what Billy Penn is doing is experimental, saying that it takes time to build something from scratch. But Brady welcomes the attention.

“There are going to be another round of stories in six months saying when the hell is this thing going to make any money…if you’re going to be written about people feel like they need to circle back and make sure you’re doing what you said you’re going to do,” Brady said. “So I suspect if we don’t, the same people who are probably a little annoyed we’re getting stories written about us now will love those.”

Photo of the William Penn statue atop Philadelphia City Hall by Jason used under a Creative Commons License.

POSTED     Dec. 17, 2014, 10 a.m.
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