Philly Report: Thinking About the Roll-Ups to Come
As Bay Citizen prepares to launch in late May in the Bay Area and TBD announces its name for the big launch of a D.C. site in June, we see percolations across the big cities of America. In Philly, the action’s more muted, with most of the attention going to the bankruptcy comings and goings of Philadelphia Media Holdings, Brian Tierney’s four-year-old company that bought the Inquirer and Daily News from McClatchy, crashed in bankruptcy in the recession and is now trying to resurrect itself — in and out of court.
This week, though, also saw an impressive report from another of the key players in the local journalism game — a foundation. The William Penn Foundation (assets: around $2 billion) commissioned J-Lab, an energetic newer media provocateur largely funded by the Knight Foundation, to figure out what was going on in local news, and what could be done about it. J-Lab’s recommendation, encapsulated in a readable, short-form report: A Networked Journalism Collaborative for Philadelphia.
Most of you will nod as you read the key findings, my own emphasis added:
- The available news about Philadelphia public affairs issues has dramatically diminished over the last three years by many measures: news hole, air time, story count, key word measurements.
- People in Philadelphia want more public affairs news than they are now able to get.
- They don’t think their daily newspapers are as good as the newspapers used to be.
- They want news that is more connected to their city.
- People from both the Old Philadelphia, anchored by the city’s union and blue-collar workers, and the New Philadelphia, representing tech-savvy, up-and-coming neighborhoods, want to be involved in helping to generate that news.
- The city is awash in media and technological assets that can pioneer a new Golden Era of Journalism.
- There is strong, but guarded, interest in exploring a collaborative journalism venture.
- A significant number of Philadelphia’s new media outlets have expressed interest in pursuing a collaborative media initiative.
- Any collaborative news effort must validate and support the fiercely independent mindsets of the city’s new media makers.
Philly’s a special place in some ways — argumentative, feisty, proud of many heritages — and, in some ways, it’s like many other cities. While daily newspaper companies emerge from bankruptcy (13 in the U.S.), proclaim profit and swear that the ad revenue bleeding is lessening (though they are taking in less revenue in 2010′s first (recovery) quarter than they did in 2009′s (near-Depression) quarter, many outside of daily newspapers believe they’ve seen the future, and it doesn’t include the dominant, near-monopolistic presences of daily metros that it used to.
So we see re-grouping everywhere. J-Lab’s report, like Len Downie’s last year, deserves credit for describing the reality well: Less is less — and it’s not enough. Foundations are redefining local journalism as a public good, like education, health and the arts — all community benefits that nobody expects the market to completely support. They’re pouring dollars into experiments, as are angels like Warren Hellman, the financial force behind Bay Citizen and Buzz Woolley, instrumental in getting Voice of San Diego off the ground. Entrepreneurs are testing models like TBD, as Allbritton (a TV veteran and innovator of Politico) believes a profitable enterprise can be constructed that’s digital-first, community-connected and tech-forward. The FTC continues hearings, roundtables and inquiries to see what can be done to “save” American journalism.
One big question that the Philly report begins to tackle is how to connect up diverse local media in any metro area. That seems like an academic question — the cliched herding of cats multiplied — but it’s not. Clearly, we see metro futures in which local news media will be far more diverse — public radio; news start-ups; commercial broadcasters; reduced, yet still substantial daily newspaper-based operations, plus a host of ethnic media and hyperlocal blogs. Connecting them smartly is key for two big reasons, ones that are the currency of the digital business: distribution and revenue.
Findability — the discovery of the local content — is key. Everyone from Outside In and FWIX to Yahoo, Google, MSN and AOL is trying to lasso local content, seeing the findability problem. Aggregation is happening, though it’s ungainly. Readers don’t yet know where to look for the best aggregation of diverse, yet trustworthy local news. Research I’ve done with Outsell confirms that while we’re all quite used to using aggregators to get to national and global news, we’re still stumbling around as we look for local, tepidly sampling newspaper and broadcast sites, without forming strong time-on-site attachments.
So whoever can best aggregate any single metro’s news content — in a way that’s logical, useful and fun (think iPad here, for instance) — can drive a big audience. That big audience, of course, will drive the revenue, revenue for the aggregator, and in the Philly model and some others, revenues that will fund (not just form a sick trickle down) the local content producers. It’s arithmetic that’s just forming, so it’s hazy to see.
It leaves us, for the moment, with these kinds of questions:
- What indeed is a daily newspaper’s role in these collaborations? The Philadelphia operation now run by publisher Brian Tierney and editor Bill Marimow seems old-school in seeing their papers’ roles in the community. Yet, in other cities, we see the Miami Herald, Seattle Times, Charlotte Observer (all three funded by J-Lab) and Seattle PI.com actively reaching out to other local journalists, forming big tents of various constructions.
- If not the local daily, then who may do the organizing? TV broadcasters could do it, but it’s not much in their DNA, though a few national leaders like Raleigh’s WRAL show leadership here. Public radio could do it, and it may, spurred by local innovation and Project Argo-like national encouragement. The New York Times (or Wall Street Journal) could do it, if it decides its Chicago (Chicago News Cooperative) and/or Bay Area (Bay Citizen) models make broad financial and journalistic sense. The start-ups themselves could do it, but most are more oriented to doing the journalism, than organizing it more widely. The big aggregators, Yahoo foremost among them, have seen the coming, big local ad play, but may not have the patience and provision of resources for what will likely be a laborious bringing-together of local media. The Outside Ins and FWIX’s are tools companies, able to offer good software, but unlikely to do the aggregating themselves.
The magic word here from a business perspective: Roll-up. Whoever figures out how to roll up major audiences and monetize them wins. J-Lab’s report holds out hope that may come about somewhat organically. History, though, teaches us that it’s more likely to come by dint of more singular zeal.
In Philly, the next steps sound more foundation- than journalism-like, three Penn Foundation grants directed at planning, enterprise encouragement and creative use of technology. J-Lab Executive Director Jan Schaffer, herself an Inqy alumnus, notes that the enthusiasm the study encountered is palpable: “There were people that wanted to start tomorrow.” What does the project need? “The right editor,” says Schaffer, one that combines the savvy of the old and new news worlds. They are out there.
The newest start-ups show that. In D.C. TBD’s head, Jim Brady (Poynter’s Steve Myers good piece on Brady and his push here) is one of them, as are two of his key hires, Erik Wemple and Steve Buttry. Jonathan Weber brings three lives of news experience to Bay Citizen. Soon, there will be lots more.