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Sept. 6, 2016, 1:24 p.m.
Business Models

Who are the first digital members of the newspaper industry’s club? Billy Penn’s owner and IJ Review

“We want to improve our reporting, and this is one way we can get feedback from and learn from some of the most storied brands in journalism.”

The Newspaper Association of America is dropping the word “newspaper” from its name: It now wants to be known as the News Media Alliance, Jim Rutenberg reported in his Mediator column Sunday night.

With the change comes two new, and totally digital, members for the industry group: the Independent Journal Review and Spirited Media. Spirited Media is the parent company of the Philadelphia-based Billy Penn and its launching-soon Pittsburgh sibling site The Incline (which started tweeting in earnest yesterday). Independent Journal Review, in its earlier years dubbed the “[insert viral news aggregator of your choice] of the right,” is trying to add original reporting and is expanding its editorial ambitions.

“We wanted to start out with two good ones, and we tried to be picky about who we picked,” David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance (née NAA), told me. “In terms of digital members for us, first of all, the most important thing is that they have a news culture, that they have newsrooms that create original journalism. We weren’t interested, for example, in pursuing folks who might be pure aggregators. And we wanted some innovative folks.” The Alliance approached IJR and Spirited Media, as well as other sites. (Chavern declined to name additional names.)

“‘Newspaper’ is not a big enough word to describe the industry anymore,” Chavern told Rutenberg. “The future of this industry is much broader.” That members needed to have print editions was “needlessly exclusive for a group that needs all the members it can get to meet numerous existential challenges,” including adblocking, ad fraud, and of course, digital competition.

NAA membership has fallen to about 2,000 from over 2,700 a decade ago. While the association does some work around business model innovation, it also tries to sway public policy on some very print-centric issues, like postal rates for newspapers, legal requirements to publish public notices, and FCC cross-ownership rules. Until this change, membership in NAA required at least weekly printing, at least 25 percent editorial content, and no more than 30 percent free circulation.

IJR founder and CEO Alex Skatell said he saw an opportunity for the site to join more established news brands in figuring out how to handle challenges around distributing and monetizing news.

“We want to continually improve on what we do. We’re not even four years old yet. We’re not perfect. But we’re trying to do the right things,” Skatell said. “This is one of those things where I feel like we’re putting our best foot forward, being part of the industry, looking for solutions. We want to improve our reporting, and this is one way we can get feedback from and learn from some of the most storied brands in journalism.”

Joining an established, news content-focused, if at times old-fashioned, organization might give a little boost of newsy authority to IJR.

“The group is news-focused — it’s about informative news content,” Skatell said. “One of the difficulties today is how entertainment and news content is often viewed in the same light. You’ll see sites monetized programmatically, through advertising. You’re seeing some companies that have seen some success with their paywalls. How can you expand on all those ideas? That’s what excited me — being a part of a group working towards solutions, and hopefully we can add to that.”

While both Billy Penn and IJR do plenty of aggregation, Chavern said he was interested in their willingness to experiment digitally. “Every news site ends up at some level taking up some things that are reported elsewhere, but we wanted people who were doing original journalism on top of that as well,” he said. “If you look at Billy Penn out of Philadelphia, for instance, they are constantly experimenting and doing interesting things: It’s a news site that was designed right from the beginning to be mobile first, and also millennial focused.”

POSTED     Sept. 6, 2016, 1:24 p.m.
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