Jim Brady’s Philly gamble: Third time’s a charm?
Jim Brady's escapades in digital news have been fraught.
As executive editor of The Washington Post's website in the mid-aughts, he dragged the venerable Beltway broadsheet into the digital age kicking and screaming, with prescient convictions about things like comments and blogs that initially encountered stiff skepticism from the paper's ink-stained old guard.
Several years later, TBD.com, the Washington-area community news hub that Brady launched in 2010 for Allbritton Communications (Capital's parent company), was gutted within months of its debut in the midst of a culture clash with the business side of sister outlet WJLA-TV, which had been given control of TBD's ad sales.
Brady's next saga was Project Thunderdome, an experiment he spearheaded as editor-in-chief of Digital First Media. Part of the idea was to create a national desk so that the publisher's 75 daily papers and their respective websites could double down on local coverage; it was shuttered in April as company brass began exploring a sale of their dead-tree titles.
But Brady's betting big on a happier ending for his latest endeavor and third putative startup, a civic-minded digital news outlet that will deliver headlines to mobile devices and web browsers in the City of Brotherly Love starting this fall.
How big? The 46-year-old New York native is planning to spend somewhere in the mid six figures in the next year to get the thing off the ground, he told me at Philadelphia's Capital Grille last Tuesday over a cold shellfish platter and bottles of Pilsner Urqell and Peroni.
In its boot-strapped launch phase, the site, which at the moment is being called Brother.ly even though Brady said that's likely to change, will have a full-time staff of eight, as well as a deal with Temple University providing office space and other resources (like student journalists) in exchange for Brady's stewardship of an entrepreneurial journalism course. He'll be living in Philly two or three days a week once his Temple classes begin in late August.
Under the direction of Chris Krewson, a veteran of Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and The Philadelphia Inquirer, Brother.ly's small newsroom will curate a comprehensive stream of local news, optimized for cell phones and tablets, that links directly to primary mainstream sources like philly.com as well as niche local sites such as The Notebook and Technical.ly Philly. On top of that, there will be original journalism covering areas that "impact people's daily lives," said Brady, and that aren't already saturated by the city's dailies—anything from biking to crime prevention to school issues. (Don't expect to see one of Brady's reporters hanging around the Eagles' or Phillies' locker rooms, though.)
Brother.ly's self-proclaimed mission is to inspire "a better Philly." But that mission could prove fraught in its own way given the challenges of scaling a small startup in an advertising market where web rates haven't caught up with the mass exodus of readers from print.
In this sense, the site will be a test both of a Brady's acumen as an independent media executive and of his belief in the sustainability of digital local news.
"The challenge is numbingly obvious," said Rick Edmonds, a media analyst at the Poynter Institute (of which Brady is a board member). "It's difficult for a startup to attract advertising; the rates are low, the case a sales staff can make about why you'd want to be on a site is not necessarily self evident. But I'm sure he has ideas for all that, as well as other revenue streams."
Indeed, Brady said Brother.ly's model will be a mix of advertising, events and memberships. The latter two pieces will be key to the publication's success, according to Brady, though he hasn't figured out the precise breakdown and said it was too early to share any specifics about his business plan and revenue projections, which media analyst Ken Doctor told Capital should be in the neighborhood of $2 million by year three.
"The general philosophy," said Brady, cracking open a lobster claw, "is to monetize passions, not pageviews."
Broadly speaking, Brady said the memberships and events would involve connecting people and groups around issues such as education, transportation, infrastructure and development.
Advertising is trickier. Digital ad formats, even at their most lucrative, "do not command the high prices, dollar for dollar, that legacy ad formats in print or on television do," as was noted in the Pew Research Journalism Project's 2014 State of the News Media report. On top of that, much of the $43 billion U.S. digital advertising market is cornered by tech titans like Google and Facebook.
The good news is that an outfit like the one Brady is building can benefit from targeted relationships with local businesses, and local online ad-spending is growing in the Philadelphia area, where it is expected to reach nearly $2.9 billion in 2018, up from $653 million in 2012, according to Borrell Associates, a research firm.
Brady said a two-person sales team will work on forging relationships with brick-and-mortar businesses as well as with "advertisers who are interested in certain causes and want to participate in discussions." A security company might sponsor a public-safety discussion group, for instance, creating what Doctor described as "a combination of effective digital advertising and community awareness."
"What we're trying to do is say to [advertisers], 'Look, we want you to be involved in the site and we don't necessarily want you to do that by buying a banner ad,'" said Brady.
Despite living in Great Falls, Va., with his wife, Joan, and their two beagles, Fred and Hank, Brady got to know Philadelphia over the past few years while consulting for the parent company of the Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. He thinks Philly's parochial mindset and a recent surge in millennials that has outstripped all other major U.S. cities, according to a January report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, makes it ripe for a local news platform that will emphasize reader engagement.
"I refuse to believe that after 200 some odd years of being able to figure out how to make money on local news and information, that all of a sudden there just isn't a model to do that anymore," he said.
A Queens-born Jets fanatic who grew up in Huntington, Long Island before getting a B.A. in print journalism from American University in 1989, Brady's career arc is that of a journeyman who came to the web early (he was named sports editor of washingtonpost.com in 1995) and has been preaching the gospel ever since, vacillating between legacy shops like the Post and Digital First Media (formerly the Journal Register Company), and Internet natives like AOL and TBD.
The failures of TBD and Thunderdome belie Brady's popularity in the digital media scene, where he has the reputation of an affable visionary, and the loyalty he inspires in current and former colleagues.
"He can be singularly credited for the early digital growth that happened at The Washington Post," said Columbia Journalism Review editor-in-chief Liz Spayd, who was managing editor of washingtonpost.com under Brady. "He helped create a bridge between the legacy newsroom and the digital newsroom that pretty much every force in the building was trying to pull apart. ... He was a bit ahead of his time."
Erik Wemple, a media blogger at the Post who previously served as TBD's editor-in-chief, put it this way: "You know how there's some thought that you can run a digital news organization without being a digital native? Jim's all native. He's immersed in this stuff. He understands the guts of the system."
It will take more than goodwill to build up an audience in Brady's adopted third home, where the city's media community has already been shaken by a fractious ownership change at the Inquirer and the News, and where smaller digital ventures, like Axis Philly, have come and gone.
After dinner at the Capital Grille, Brady walked over to the nearby Pen & Pencil Club, a dim, smokey dive in Center City that's also America's oldest continuously operating press club. A few dozen journalists were milling about, throwing back bottles of Yuengling and Yards while waiting to hear Brady and Krewson speak about the site. Brady, who looked kind of like a studious barfly in his wire-rim glasses and pink-shirt-with-rolled-up-sleeves tucked into jeans, perched his broad, 6-foot frame on a high-top chair and began delivering his spiel.
The curiosity in the room was palpable, but so was the skepticism: How long could they operate before needing to make revenues over costs, one attendee wanted to know. How do they plan to inspire people to the point where they're willing to pay for loyalty, another asked. How mindful would they be of hiring women and people of color? Not to mention the name, which hasn't received the greatest early feedback; a woman leaning against a digital jukebox said, "It makes you think it's for bros."
None of that shattered Brady's resolve.
"I understand the skepticism," he said after the event. "But I want people to not have low expectations. If they come in thinking this is just another effort that's gonna come along and die, then I think we're gonna do a lot better. That's not a bad place to be."