At 49, Jim Brady has already led several digital lifetimes. As a young sports-turned-digital editor, he won early notice and acclaim in helping build the original washingtonpost.com.
That site, it’s easy to forget, stood with just a few others at the head of the class among mid-aughts newspaper sites. Brady left the Post in 2009 and his decade of work tracks the vicissitudes of the American news industry. In addition to consulting for both The Guardian and Philadelphia Media Network, he took on entrepreneurial roles first as founding general manager of the Washington D.C. city site TBD and Digital First Media’s ill-fated Project Thunderdome under then-CEO John Paton.
After Thunderdome imploded, Brady told me he was rethinking the idea of working for others; he had a notion of building his own news business, leveraging all he’d learned. Spirited Media, the parent company of millennial-oriented, smartphone-centric Billy Penn The Incline, resulted. Now, with his wife Joan, they are major investors in Spirited Media, as that company merges with a peer startup, Denverite.
For much of Billy Penn’s 30-month history, Brady has balanced one additional job, public editor of ESPN, combining his sports background with knowledge of the major issues facing all news publishers and editors. That 18-month-term ends in May, and not a moment too soon, since the challenges of building a would-be chain of new city news sites will be more than full-time.
In this conversation, edited for length and clarity, I talk with Brady about what he’s learned in the online local news business and how he’s applying those lessons.
Ken Doctor: So with the new merger, your aim is to quickly raise another $3 million in investment and give you more running room, right?
Jim Brady: There are definitely things you get when you’re bigger that are important. By having three sites together like this, and being 27 people, you start to be able to look at some of those things. For example, Denver has somebody who shoots multimedia as their primary job. Pittsburgh has one as well. Philadelphia worked on it via freelance and interns, and so we are starting to see disciplines across the sites that we can leverage expertise and best practices. I’m not suggesting that the Pittsburgh or Denver person is going to get sent to Philly, but it’s more that we’re starting to build a much broader range of expertise to cross what you need to have strong digital sites. So whether it’s data, or visual, or audience development, or headline writing, we’re starting to develop a lot more.
Doctor: We can tick off areas that could build muscle — data, visuals, audience development, headlines, national sales, and more. Do you have a sense of which of those areas you’re going to move on first?
Brady: I think revenue and product, like a chief revenue officer — looking more broadly at what are the strategies we have to build revenue across. For instance, we’re going to do membership in the fall. Then, in product, we have really good developers who are busy launching new features and also trying to knock down bugs, but we don’t have anybody who wakes up every day and says: “What are five features we could launch on this site that would aid audience growth?”
Doctor: Membership. Reader revenue — I’m glad to hear that.
: The sites are free. We’re not looking to put paywalls up, but are there things we can offer that audience that really has an affinity for us? What are the things we can offer them that they would be willing to pay for, whether it’s monthly or annually?
Is it access to places, access to events — things that they wouldn’t normally necessarily get access to in their daily life? We’re looking at all the research about your 40-and-under set on how important experiences are to them.
We did a scavenger hunt in Philly this year that went well. You know, how do we create things people want to go to under our brand name, whichever one it is? Then, can we monetize that? So I think that’s really where we see a lot of opportunity and why we’re going to launch the membership thing.
: That’s important, I think. As much as events drive engagement and advertising, I think you’re going to need that leg of reader revenue, using ideas like the ones that Mary Walter-Brown is developing with the News Revenue Hub build-out
: I went out there [to Voice of San Diego] and saw them to talk through their membership model. I love what they do, and people — it’s funny, because when I say I’ve learned a lot from Voice of San Diego and The Texas Tribune, people say: “Well, they’re nonprofit.” So I can’t learn anything from them just because I have a different revenue model? I can learn from them the same way I think they can learn from us in some ways.
People tie the subscription and member bump to the election, and that’s fine, but the truth is local news has been decimated for a lot longer than the last year. The fact that people were so caught off guard by the results, it feels like the signals put out to a large portion of the country are really weakened. They’ve been really weakened over the last 10 years. Somebody that had that famous line that all news starts local. Everything happens somewhere, and we feel like there’s a huge gap in those local markets.
You look at the sites that have built really big valuations in the last 10 years going after younger audience. Look what’s worked to attract those people — there’s zero reason they can’t work in a local context, which, in fact, comes with some advantages — for instance, the ability to convene people physically at events.
Doctor: Let’s talk about millennials. Do you define Spirited Media as a millennial-targeting company?
Brady: It’s directional, in the sense that it shapes our voice, and it shapes what we cover, and it shapes the kind of the types of events that we do. In Philadelphia, I frequently run into friends, or people who I just know professionally, who say, “I’m sorry I’m screwing up your demographic, I’m 52.” I tell him that I’m not trying to keep you from coming to the site. I’m perfectly happy to have you.
Doctor: Millennial wannabes?
: Yeah, and passion. I went to a bar in Philly not too long ago waiting to meet a friend for a drink, and a woman at the bar was asking, “So, do you live here?” I said, “No, I run a website here.” She’s like “What website?” “It’s a new site.” She’s like, “What new site?” I said Billy Penn, and she’s like, “I fucking love Billy Penn.” We get a lot of tweets from people saying “I fucking love Billy Penn. Billy Penn is awesome.”
There’s a passion around the brand that I do think is really important. Respect and admiration is a lovely thing, but you gotta find a model where people feel like “I’m part of this thing” and keep it alive. I’m willing to put some of my own skin in the game. I think that’s harder when you’ve been kind of not doing that for the last 20, 30 years, and the distance between you and your audience has grown.
Doctor: Well, you knew a lot of this. I mean, you evolved yourself in your career at the Post, TBD, and Digital First, but you’ve now been able to prove it out. For instance, you knew going into it that events were going to be a part of it, but it seems to me that events are almost like the metaphor for the connection even more than you thought — is that right?
: Events has always been about connecting with readers. I mean, you have an event that goes really well. You send 175 ambassadors out of your event thinking it was awesome, saying “I love Billy Penn’s events.” And on top of that, you make money doing it. So if I can figure out a way to make money for Spirited Media and send 175 people out into the market happy, that’s a really obvious win-win. Where you put everything in an ad model, there’s a lot of things you have to do in that model that are quid pro quo. The readers might tolerate them, but they might not. I kind of like the idea of events being a model where you make money and
make people happy and
build a better connection with the brand.
So that’s why we push so hard at events. Now, the good news is we went from 86 percent events revenue to 65 percent last year, so far this year I think events might be 45 percent or something, because traffic’s grown in a way that we’re really effectively monetizing the sites now, so that we’re pretty much sold out on advertising.
Doctor: How much of the advertising is related to the events? Are they separate streams or are you able to pull any event sponsors into becoming regular or semi-regular advertisers on Billy Penn?
: Yes, for sure. Another good thing about the events model: If you have an event that’s a really good fit for a potential advertiser, or potential partner, the event is on a certain date, and at a certain time. It forces the decision on whether you want to sponsor this thing maybe a little bit faster than if you were to make the decision on buying an ad campaign. Because you can always wait another quarter, another couple of months to make that decision. But if there’s an event, a Who’s Next
event honoring lawyers, and you’re a law firm, you really want to sponsor that. You don’t really have the choice of waiting another quarter.
So I think it probably got us into business with some companies earlier than they might have done it in a more traditional model. We certainly do sponsorships that roll into that. Some advertising and maybe a newsletter sponsorship as well.
Doctor: What’s a good example of that? What’s a good advertiser who may have come in through an event sponsorship who then became semi-regular in terms of advertising?
Brady: Comcast has bought a number of times with us, and their first buy with us was for a Who’s Next for entrepreneurs. Beneficial Bank came in through a sponsorship for our gala first, and they’ve advertised multiple times since then.
Doctor: How many events this year will you do?
Brady: Well, between the three sites, we’ll do probably somewhere between 100 and 125.
Doctor: Wow. And the marquee ones for Philadelphia, is it the Who’s Next series?
: Yeah, Who’s Next is always one of the major ones. We also did the scavenger hunts in Philly this year. Both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are close to the final stages at getting our movie thing out of the gate finally — like a film night where we just show a movie about the city, or that was filmed in the city, and get people in to see the movie and then bring them to a bar somewhere, serve drinks, and just kind of have the party after that.”
We want them to be things of that city. We want everything to be about the city. I’ll get emails from potential partners saying, “Hey, I love your site. The one thing I notice is when I go to the site it’s all Philly all the time. I can give you some national and international content.” And I’m like: You really don’t understand. Because the last thing in the world I need to do is put national and international content on the site. The whole purpose of these sites is you know if you go there, it’s going to be Philly, or Pittsburgh, or Denver.
Doctor: In these cities, how much effort are you putting into local media partnerships?
Brady: I do think we’re a great value proposition for partnership, but every organization’s a little bit different. Depends on who runs the place, it depends on how open they are to partnerships. It’s just a whole bunch of factors that vary from city to city, but I do hope we get partnerships like that in one of those markets.
Doctor: How about public radio, public media partnerships — wouldn’t they be a good fit, in terms of their mission and voice?
Brady: I think public radio, public television — I think local television stations would be good partners for us, you know? I think your public radio, public TV, local TV, they’re not as web-focused as newspapers are at this point, and we could provide quite a good service to those organizations, and try to reach an audience that everybody’s trying to reach, right? I mean, is there anybody out there who’s not trying to reach millennials at this point?
Doctor: Let’s talk about the content. The voice is clear, the authenticity of the voice is clear. Other than you…your age now is?
Doctor: You are the senior person in this company?
Brady: Yes. I’ve always had a hands-off approach. I certainly have opinions about things, but I also have a longstanding philosophy that one of your jobs as a manager is to say yes to a couple of ideas a week that you think aren’t so great, because the people who are proposing them to you know your audience better than you do. If the only thing that ends up on the site are things I said yes to, then the site reflects the values of a 49-year-old overweight Irishman. I don’t think that’s necessarily what we’re aiming at. I’m focused on strategy, on deals and fundraising, and getting the word out about what we’re doing. I very much let the editors run the sites day-to-day, because they are the demographic we’re trying to reach.