Jim Brady Profile: The Billy Pulpit

With BillyPenn.com, Jim Brady — the famed, fast-failing digital evangelist — aims to show Philadelphians the future of local news.

Jim Brady is launching a mobile-focused local news site. Photograph by Jauhien Sasnou

Jim Brady is launching a mobile-focused local news site. Photograph by Jauhien Sasnou

There exists an unwritten rule in many of America’s newsrooms. It stipulates that when a journalist of sufficient stature departs his job, he is sent off, in a display of real or feigned goodwill, with a parody publication — a magazine cover, say — poking fun at his personal characteristics. It is this practice that Jim Brady would like to discuss for a moment.

“Every farewell home page I’ve ever gotten in my life, leaving any site, has had the same three things,” he says. Brady, 46, is sitting at the Marathon at 16th and Sansom, about to commence a lunch of grilled chicken and corn fricassee, along with a lump of vegetables he won’t touch. Brady names the three things: “Diet Pepsi consumption, the Jets, and my wearing jeans.” This information is relevant partly because he happens to be drinking Diet Pepsi, wearing jeans, and talking about the New York Jets. (Not a fan of this year’s first-round pick.) More to the point, Jim Brady’s last two journalism ventures didn’t quite work out. Which, alas, has given him a good deal of experience in the parody send-off department.

Brady began his career as a sports reporter in Washington, D.C., before turning the Washington Post’s website into an industry standard-bearer, before eventually embarking on a monomaniacal quest to create a model for online news that doesn’t completely suck and actually makes money. Despite his recent failures — or perhaps because of them, in an only the good die young kind of way — his journalistic stature seems only to have increased.

His latest baby — and the reason he’s been traveling to Philadelphia from his home in the D.C. suburbs — is a website called Billy Penn, which soft-launched in mid-September. (You may also know it by its previous name, Brother.ly, which was scuttled after a small band of critics deemed it too sexist and/or lame.) Brady aims to turn Billy Penn into a media nerve center for the city, by breaking news and “curating” content from legacy publications and local blogs. Brady, who appears to be in healthy financial shape despite those earlier failures, says he’s sinking more than $500,000 of his own cash into the site — enough to staff it with eight employees for 18 months. His hope is that Billy Penn will start making some money, or at least attract additional investors, before that cash runs out.

Already, Billy Penn has garnered a good deal of national attention (sample headlines: “Jim Brady’s Philly Gamble”; “Brady Takes Another Shot at Local Journalism”). That’s because Brady is a high-profile missionary for a specific type of new-media evangelism that, to its boosters, promises to create a model for sustainable online journalism, and to its detractors is a bunch of techno-utopian nonsense. If the site succeeds, there will be up-voting and liking and retweeting. If it fails, there will be schadenfreude.

In Philly, the stakes are higher, less abstract. Brady is only the latest in a long line of philanthropists, hedge funders and would-be visionaries who have vowed to revive the city’s beleaguered news media. “We know you’ve heard this all before,” Brady noted a few weeks before our lunch to a roomful of journalists at the Pen & Pencil Club, as if addressing some sort of support group. Billy Penn arrives at a critical moment. The city’s dailies and alt-weeklies seem unwilling or unable to craft a coherent Web strategy, while their print products continue to atrophy. (Not helping: Over the summer, the Inquirer’s brand-new owner died in a freak plane accident, while the free tabloid Metro bought the City Paper and laid off a number of its staffers.) None of the city’s digital media start-ups, meanwhile, has come close to filling the gap the thinning legacy publications have left behind, and several have collapsed in the past few years. (Full, probably self-evident disclosure: Philadelphia magazine also has an active online presence.)

The consequences of Philadelphia’s shriveled media environment are almost too obvious to state: Less journalism equals less information equals less accountability equals more bad stuff happens. This is to say nothing of the more ephemeral but no less important civic fabric that starts to fray when no one reads the local stuff — either because it isn’t there or it isn’t worth reading — and everybody just huddles under the covers with an iPad and binges on Mad Men recaps.

Over lunch, I tell Brady I can’t name a single outlet like Billy Penn — local, online, for-profit — that has created solid, meaty journalism on a sustainable basis. “It’s a pretty short list,” he concurs, and proceeds to name zero websites that fit the description. In attempting to fill Philadelphia’s journalism gap, Brady is testing a much larger theory about how to save local news. “I refuse to believe, after 200-some-odd years,” Brady says, “that there’s no longer a model for local journalism.”

JIM BRADY’S BRAND of media disruption made its Philadelphia debut on a Wednesday night in July at the Pen & Pencil Club, the dimly lit journo-haunt situated a few blocks south of City Hall. “The policy at the Pen & Pencil is off-the-record, but we can change that if we want, we were told,” Brady said, wearing a button-down shirt rolled up to his elbows and a requisite pair of dad jeans. He had been invited there to introduce Billy Penn to the city’s journalistic class. Sitting on a stool to his right was the site’s editor, Chris Krewson, a former Inquirer Web guru who most recently ran the website of the Hollywood Reporter. “Everything’s on the record. We’re not trying to hide anything.”

The pitch went like this: Billy Penn is an attempt to “stitch together all the people and the entities in the city that are producing good journalism and providing good information.” What that means: “Reporter/curators” will direct Philadelphians to the stories they most want to read, whether written in-house or by other news outlets or bloggers.

The website, Brady told the crowd at the P&P, will be geared toward the city’s growing millennial population. Its underlying mission will be civic improvement, and it will be calibrated for your iPhone. During a big story — like the 2013 building collapse — it will morph into a throbbing, constantly updated local news hub stuffed with both aggregated and original content. On a slower day, Krewson added, Billy Penn might be “reporting out a great hashtag” or treating you to the “five best Vines” related to Philadelphia.

After about an hour of occasionally pointed but mostly harmless Q&A — Will you cover underserved neighborhoods? Android or iOS? — pizza was delivered, and a roomful of reporters briefly forgot about the many existential threats to their careers. But despite the good turnout and generally good cheer, Billy Penn’s editor wasn’t satisfied with the reception. “Do you know that, like, nobody tweeted out of that thing?” Krewson told me a few days after the event, outside a coffee shop on Sydenham Street, wearing a checked shirt with an iPhone stuffed in the breast pocket. “Why wasn’t there a hashtag? Like, nobody created a hashtag!”

This cognitive dissonance says as much about Krewson’s own social-media awesomeness (18.3K tweets and counting!) as it does about the Philadelphia media establishment’s refusal to fully immerse itself in the digital world. In the late aughts, the Inquirer tapped Krewson and (later, briefly, as a consultant) Brady to “build a culture of thinking about the Internet,” as Brady puts it. Krewson set up the paper’s first Facebook and Twitter accounts, back in 2008. Besides that, it’s unclear either of them made a mark.

Brady and Krewson worked on a couple of mini-sites — one for the Main Line, the other on local colleges — but neither lasted very long. “I don’t know if everybody sitting around the table at the Inquirer totally bought into this idea that they ought to be focusing on the Web,” Brady says. It’s been several years since he and Krewson left, but the papers have barely evolved: The Inquirer and Daily News still upload their content for free on the ghastly Philly.com, a practice that undermines the papers’ paywalled stand-alone websites.

Philly’s online news scene isn’t much more promising. There are the small niche outlets like Plan Philly, Hidden City and the Public School Notebook, which scramble to support themselves largely through foundation grants and memberships. Then there are the dead sites, like wonky Metropolis and hyperlocal NEast Philly. The most successful of the bunch, Technical.ly, which funds itself largely through events, has been clear that it caters to a narrow audience.

The closest the city got to having a broadly useful online-only news outlet was Axis Philly. And it failed badly. Created in 2012 with a $2.4 million grant from the William Penn Foundation, Axis was led by a CEO named Neil Budde, who earned $225K a year but by all accounts accomplished very little. (Jim Brady was offered the job but passed.) “Neil had a talent for spending, he really did,” says former Inquirer columnist and Metropolis editor Tom Ferrick, who ran Axis after Budde. “He went top-flight on almost everything. I literally had my jaw drop over different people saying, ‘We owe this person this amount of money.’” When I ask Ferrick what exactly his predecessor contributed, he replies, “No one quite figured that out.” “I accept some of that as fair criticism,” Budde told me, but added that he was led to believe Axis would receive more grant money.

Budde resigned in the summer of 2013, but by then it was too late to save Axis. The site’s bread and butter — data-driven policy reporting — wasn’t budgeted, organized or promoted according to any discernible strategy. By the time its initial grant money was spent, says Ferrick, it averaged just 18,000 unique visitors a month. With limited prospects for other funding, the site went dead in June 2014.

It’s unlikely a similar nonprofit venture will get a chance to succeed where Axis failed. The William Penn Foundation, Philadelphia’s number one media sugar daddy, decided recently to invest only in local journalism that covers three specific areas of interest: education, the environment and the arts. The man who initiated the shift, former WPF president Jeremy Nowak, says he can’t comment on the decision. (He parted ways with the foundation after a year and a half.) But his explanation for Philly’s start-up failures may help clarify the frugal strategy. “Number one,” he says, “the [traffic] numbers are really low. Second, you’ve got a whole generation of people who aren’t willing to pay for things. … Third thing is, too many of the people trying to do the reinvention grew up in the old world, and they think the reinvention is about re-creating a 20th-century newsroom that just happens to be electronic. So they’re reproducing the same problems.”

The wobbly trajectory of one new-media project lends heft to Nowak’s assessment. Last fall, former Philadelphia magazine and Daily News editor Larry Platt announced his plans for a nonprofit reporting venture called the Philly Citizen. A year later, the Citizen has produced zero journalism. It has, though, hosted a series of events about civic improvement, and recently said it would ask members to “publicly swear an oath” to Philadelphia. The Citizen plans a new website by year’s end designed to “mobilize an army of citizens to take their city back.” Platt declined to speak on the record, but he provided me with a statement about the Citizen’s “dual purpose” to provide “deeply reported journalism emphasizing solutions that can move our region forward, and to actively reignite citizenship.” How the journalism fits in amongst the oaths and salons is unclear.

Ironically, this new-media graveyard, with its dried-up philanthropic funding and balky start-ups, suggests BillyPenn.com is right where it wants to be. First, it’s a for-profit venture that will rely on advertising revenue and membership fees rather than on grants. Second, Jim Brady is precisely the opposite of someone who “grew up in the old world.” “All the people around him, they talk to each other on Twitter all day,” says one Washington, D.C., journalist who’s followed Brady’s career. “In their theory of the world, the only thing holding back Web journalism is the hidebound practices of old-fashioned legacy media.” Time to test the theory.

BRADY, AS FORMER COLLEAGUES and fellow travelers will testify, is perhaps the world’s greatest guy-to-get-a-beer-with. His disarming qualities, however, belie his tendency — the use of mixed metaphors here seems appropriate — to throw bombs at sacred cows. As he told me over lunch: “I’m not particularly sympathetic to newspapers and their plight, because yes, it’s been really hard and all that, but it’s not like you couldn’t see this coming.”

Brady honed his digital-first worldview editing Washingtonpost.com’s sports section, before helming the entire newspaper’s website for a celebrated stretch in the 2000s. More recently, he ran a newspaper chain called, what else, Digital First. But it was his short-lived Washington, D.C., website, TBD.com, that turned him into something of a cult hero among new-media types. “It was the James Dean of local websites,” he joked at the P&P. “Died too young but seems to be remembered fondly.” And it’s pretty much exactly what he wants to re-create in Philly, on a smaller scale.

TBD, which was owned by Politico publisher Robert Allbritton, was launched to great fanfare in 2010 and billed as a competitor to the Washington Post’s battered metro desk. Half a dozen staffers were hired purely to engage with readers, cornering them on social media and at happy-hour meet-ups. The site was also gratuitously transparent, at one point milking an embarrassing gaffe into a sort of Web seminar on the virtues of its own corrections policy. TBD — named thusly because no one ever came up with a real name — was, in other words, putting into practice much of the Internet idealism long practiced in Silicon Valley: High-minded gatekeepers would be discarded, content would be free and collaborative, and the wisdom of crowds would dictate editorial strategy.

Like so many beloved Silicon Valley start-ups, however, it soon crumpled. Three months into his tenure, Brady was out, and by 2012 the site was dead. According to the TBD loyalist narrative — alums are scattered all over, from Slate to the New York Times — the plug was pulled too early by Allbritton, who, Brady says, reneged on a promise to give TBD a three-to-five-year “runway.” “You should be very clear,” says Steve Buttry, who worked as TBD’s director of community engagement, “TBD didn’t fail. If they had executed the strategy and it didn’t work, that’s failing. It wasn’t given a chance to succeed.” (A spokesperson for Politico didn’t respond to a request for comment from Allbritton.)

True or not, that explanation doesn’t address the quality of TBD’s work. “Surely,” wrote former Washington City Paper editor Michael Schaffer in a tongue-in-cheek autopsy several years ago, “this was conclusive proof that the pretensions of hyperlocal journalism were empty, that signing up unpaid neighborhood bloggers alongside professional reporters was stupid.” Schaffer was sympathetic to the TBD-got-hosed-by-Allbritton narrative, but even the most (ostensibly) innovative ideas in digital media can’t necessarily solve local journalism’s bottom-line problem. “People like Brady,” says current City Paper editor Mike Madden, “they have the sense that we’ve got to get people thinking ‘digital first.’ No one going into journalism today is thinking print first. The problem is the revenue. The advertisers are still thinking print first.”

Indeed, Brady belongs to a cohort of new-media soothsayers to whom disruption always seems to be the solution, whatever the problem may be. They include, among others, City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis and NYU journalism professor Clay Shirky. What binds them is a worldview holding that unwieldy legacy newspapers helped doom themselves by refusing to adapt to the digital age, and that media institutions can best survive by making content as accessible and responsive to reader demand as possible. Brady, who invited Jarvis to Temple over the summer to take part in a Billy Penn brainstorming session, says he swears by Jarvis’s oft-quoted mantra: “Do what you do best, and link to the rest.”

One problem with this crew, as Dean Starkman, an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, has pointed out, is that they’re “journalism academics known for neither their journalism nor their scholarship.” For all their faith in the Internet, none of them have found a way to make it pay for costly, deeply reported local journalism that has long been subsidized by print advertising.

In 2000, newspapers’ ad revenue peaked at $65 billion. By 2012, that number had plummeted to $22.3 billion. Print ad revenues are in free fall, and while digital ad revenue is growing, it’s not growing fast enough to make up the difference. Going “digital first,” in other words, won’t pay off for a long time, if ever. Why don’t businesses want to pay newspapers and magazines for costly ads anymore? Largely because Craigslist, Facebook and Google, and their billions of users, make for vastly better online advertising partners. All of which makes Jarvis and Shirky’s digital fetishism seem especially glib.

To be sure, massive digital properties like BuzzFeed and Gawker Media have leveraged cheaply produced viral content into profits, and national newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have convinced loyal subscribers to pay for online content. But nobody has come close to replicating similar strategies — or success — on a local scale. Broken promises or not, TBD wouldn’t have been abandoned if it had translated its impressive website traffic into financial viability. At Digital First Media, where Brady was editor-in-chief, an analogous scenario played out: To increase revenue, DFM erected paywalls at 75 of its dailies — despite being run by a Brady ally who had long criticized paywalls. (Brady, who left DFM after the plug was pulled on one of his pet initiatives, told me he didn’t agree with the decision.)

Even if Brady is able to steer Billy Penn toward profitability, it seems unlikely he can do so while regularly serving up serious-minded public-interest reporting. (After all, BuzzFeed and Gawker, despite their occasional investigative dives, specialize in click-bait.) Of Billy Penn’s initial staff of eight, only two are reporters. And at least one of them will be busy compiling “The Five Best Vines in Philadelphia.” What’s more, social media may end up undermining Billy Penn’s concept: Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, there is decreasing interest in “home pages.”

After our lunch, I sent Brady an email asking why he didn’t make Billy Penn a nonprofit, like most successful local news start-ups. “Local journalism needs a for-profit model,” he wrote back. “People keep saying that local isn’t scalable. But neither are foundations and billionaires, despite the high number of terrific nonprofit sites out there. … So I’ve been determined to keep searching for that. Suppose it’s my white whale. :-)”

It’s a noble sentiment, emoticon and all. But if you remember your Melville, it’s not exactly the most promising one.

Originally published as “The Billy Pulpit” in the October 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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  • Scott Brodbeck

    “For all their faith in the Internet, none of them have found a way to make it pay for costly, deeply reported local journalism that has long been subsidized by print advertising.”

    With all due respect to “costly, deeply reported local journalism,” why does that always seem to be the metric by which journalists judge local journalism projects? Why not judge the number of scoops scored, readers reached or advertisers advertising?

    Wasn’t part of AxisPhilly’s problem the fact that it didn’t have a sustainable source of revenue? And that it focused on high-minded journalism instead of serving actual local readers with original news that’s interesting and relevant to their lives?

    Appealing to readers’ interests is not a sin as long as it’s not done cynically.

    • Dan Mitchell

      Because journalism and widgets (or radial tires, or fruit roll-ups) aren’t the same thing. You can write it off as “high-minded,” with the implication that this is somehow bad, but we’re trying to have a democracy here.

  • Joe

    Just another digital con. Guys like Brady and Shirky and Jarvis dupe desperate newspapers into buying into their brand of bullshit, then when it fails – as it always seems to happen with these guys’ ideas – they run to the next town before the bad press catches up to them. Too bad the author didn’t ask Brady about one of his great brainstorms – Project Thunderdome – at DFM. Along with his stupid name, the concept of supplying “national news content” to their “local” news sites and newspapers went over about as well as the Edsel and New Coke.

  • Chris Johnson

    I’ve worked with Jim Brady before — sat next to him for a year, about a decade ago. He is just about the best digital journalism leader out there. If Jim has paired himself with someone who can generate revenue from the exceptional experiences his teams create, then we’ll be calling this “experiment” a “success” in a few years. Because the problem isn’t that there’s a shortage of good stories, good journalists or good digital content creators. The problem is that there’s a shortage of clever business minds who can figure out creative ways to eek out some margin from the investment in all that content and packaging.

  • Dick Polman

    Please explain why, in this article, there isn’t a single mention of NewsWorks, the local news site sponsored by WHYY? A site launched in 2011 and going strong? Very stupid omission.

    • Simon van Zuylen-Wood

      Dick, I addressed this on Twitter tonight, since you’re the second person I’ve heard this from. See my reasoning here: https://twitter.com/svzwood

  • Scott Shipman

    Today’s advice is free. Thats how good it is: The mobil world has gone app-shit crazy and abandoned the web. Social content is canonical to apps. Want traffic info – look at Waze. Need a taxi? Uber. Compare prices for for something at various local stores – theres several apps for that. People don’t go to news sites anymore. They see what friends tweeted and shared (from pages they liked because of a freebie). There is a huge market opportunity for local app-content aggregation. And if you do it right, Facebook will buy your company for 3 billion.