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Jeff Israely: Five years in, our news startup is seeing the pace of change slow
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March 22, 2016, 12:56 p.m.
Business Models
LINK: billypenn.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Shan Wang   |   March 22, 2016

Gannett announced Monday that it is investing in Philadelphia news site Billy Penn’s parent company, Spirited Media, an investment that will allow the year-and-a-half old, mobile-first Philly events and news hub to bring on additional staff in editorial, design, development, events, and sales. Expect, too, Billy Penn-esque ventures to launch in other U.S. cities.

The companies first started talks last fall, according to Billy Penn founder and Spirited Media CEO (and also ESPN public editor) Jim Brady.

“In pitching to potential investors, it was important to me to find people who live and breath local journalism,” he told the Lab. “Local is a different beast, and I feel strongly that it requires a different mindset and strategy than doing something national or global. A company like Gannett totally understands that, and also believes deeply in the need to find local digital models. So that made it an excellent fit.”

The deal amount was not disclosed, and Billy Penn staffers are staying mum about the location or locations of the new local ventures (which will bear new names). Three or four new staffers will come on in Philadelphia (a new culture editor started Monday), Brady said, “and we’ll then start looking in other markets.”

Before setting up shop in Philadelphia, Brady had also considered Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta, we reported back in 2014. “I can say that one of the cities on that list is under consideration. But don’t want to say which one at this point,” Brady told the Lab.

For its part, Philadelphia as starting city was attractive for a number of reasons:

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….

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.

As Brady told Ben Mullin at Poynter on Tuesday, he believes the Billy Penn model — with its emphasis on mobile and social, a balance of original reporting and aggregation, live events, all packaged specifically for a millennial audience — can be scaled: “I mean, it’s not fully scalable, I believe in local newsrooms and local sales/events forces. So I’m not looking to centralize those functions. But I do believe the platform, the editorial approach and the events model are scalable.”

It’s been a busy season for Billy Penn: the team is also working on a Knight-supported interactive, real-time mobile journalism guide, with the aim of providing other news organizations with some best practices.

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