The Conversation Issue: Can We Talk?

conversation-issue-nov-2014-cover-400x540This is the transcript of a chat on Slack — the intra-office messaging system Philly Mag uses — between editor Tom McGrath, senior editor Richard Rys and editor-at-large Christine Speer Lejeune.

TOM: We’re calling this the Conversation Issue. You two oversaw the whole package. Explain what we’re up to here.

RICH: A fool’s errand?

CHRISTY: Haha. For real. Proof that the art of conversing isn’t dead, despite Google’s and Apple’s best efforts. We wanted to have the city’s most interesting people talk to each other and see what stories came out.

RICH: I keep coming back to the idea that in this age of high tech, we’re communicating more than ever, but the art of conversation is often lost in all the texting and tweeting and Facebook-status-updating. This issue is a chance for folks to put their phones down — for the most part — and really talk to each other.

CHRISTY: Emojis can only go so far.
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CNN’s Jake Tapper on Growing Up in Philadelphia

jake-tapper-conversation-issue-400x400LIZ: You and I first met as students at the Philadelphia School in second grade, in 1975. That was the third year of the school’s existence, when it was still in rented rooms and before it was the normal, respected, fully accredited institution it is today. How did you end up at such a wacky place?

JAKE: My parents were hippies and looking for like-minded idealists who were coming together to form this school that visited a farm once a week and didn’t have homework or tests. Instead of gym we had “Movement.” Remember?

LIZ: Yes, we ran around the classroom to the drumbeat of our names.

JAKE: Amosita Robinson McClain! I assume you remember her.

LIZ: Of course. She had the best name to run around to.

JAKE: I wonder what happened to her. I’m going to look her up on Facebook right now.

LIZ: No, she had to keep that name because it was so rhythmic and important to the rest of us.

JAKE: I can’t find her on Facebook. But I’m sure she’s on there. She might have a fourth name added.

LIZ: Your name wasn’t that exciting to run around to, I have to say.

JAKE: Nah, Jacob Tapper, even with the two syllables.
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Eagles Offensive Linemen Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans

Photos: George Gojkovich/Getty Images (Mathis); Associated Press

Photos: George Gojkovich/Getty Images (Mathis); Associated Press

Interview by Sheil Kapadia and Tim McManus

PM: At what point in your lives did you realize that you had a chance to play football professionally?

TODD: Probably my junior year in college.

EVAN: In ninth grade, I wrote a journal and said I was going to make straight A’s in high school, and I was going
to go to Alabama and play football and baseball and then go to the NFL and then go to the WWF. Obviously, everything there was far-fetched. It’s not like I was good at anything at that age — except writing journals.

TODD: The old Twitter.

EVAN: [laughs] The old Twitter.

PM: Is wrestling still in the plans?

EVAN: Nothing is off the table yet.

TODD: Except for baseball at Alabama.

EVAN: Yeah. Baseball at Alabama was a failure.
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Stephen Starr and Pierre Robert on Music in Philadelphia

Photograph by Dustin Fenstermacher

Stephen Starr and Pierre Robert. Photograph by Dustin Fenstermacher

STEPHEN: You know, growing up, my goal was to be a disc jockey.

PIERRE: Really? Wow.

STEPHEN: I got my FCC license when I was 15. I was 16 at a radio station in Vineland, New Jersey. I wanted to be Scott Muni. Same guys that you probably looked up to. I used to love listening to Michael Tearson and Ed Sciaky. Michael was my favorite — that voice. Then I got a job at WMGM in Atlantic City.

PIERRE: That’s so cool. I came to town in ’81 from San Francisco, and the Ripley [Music Hall, Starr’s club] was already established.

STEPHEN: That was on South Street. It opened in ’80, next to what is now my restaurant, Serpico. I knew all the radio guys ’cause we advertised a lot, so we got to know Pierre through that. And then we did a big welcoming of John [DeBella] when he came.

PIERRE: He was amazing. When he walked into the studio, he had a red beret on, and red mirrored sunglasses and a red leather jacket — at six in the morning. I knew the world had changed at ’MMR. … I was floored by how alive the music scene was at that time. There were all these great local bands: Kenn Kweder, the A’s, Beru Revue, and, later, Tommy Conwell, the Hooters, Robert Hazard and the Heroes. I walked down South Street on a Monday night and it was bursting with energy. You wouldn’t find that today.
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Helen Gym and Bill Green Try to Find Common Ground (or Not) on Education in Philadelphia

helen-gym-bill-green-coversation-issue-940x540

He’s chairman of the School Reform Commission. She’s co-founder of Parents United for Public Education. They have very different ideas about how to run the district. In mid-September — a month before the SRC voided the district’s contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers — Bill and Helen sat down for a lengthy chat. Here, their (abridged) conversation about trying to see eye to eye.

PHILLY MAG: Helen, what do you think the advocate’s role is when dealing with the SRC? Is it to convince them? Is it to pressure them? How do you attempt to influence the SRC’s decisions?

BILL: Sometimes she calls me and yells at me, and sometimes we …

HELEN: He loves it.

BILL: … have a very cordial conversation.

HELEN: I’m his voice of whatever. I think about a lot about this question of who really has power. When we’re looking at large, complicated systems … it makes me think a lot about how we listen to one another, and how we define power and decision-making and authority, and in some cases I think that we haven’t always had governing authorities that are really aware of, responsive to or reflective of the things that parents and community members care very deeply about. I think we should agree that we’re in an extremely undemocratic governance structure. The School Reform Commission is a state takeover body, it’s an unelected body, and — this isn’t, you know, personal or anything like that.
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Joan Shepp and the Rebirth of Chestnut Street

Joan Shepp and daughter Ellen in front of the outdoor garden in their new Chestnut Street digs. Photograph by Steven Laxton

Joan Shepp and daughter Ellen in front of the outdoor garden in their new Chestnut Street digs. Photograph by Steven Laxton

It’s a steamy evening on Chestnut Street, and not just because of the humidity. It’s the press opening for Joan Shepp’s new boutique, and the requisite champagne flutes and trays laden with hors d’oeuvres are present, as are the chic people who wouldn’t dream of taking a bite. (This is the fashion set, darlings.) PR maven Rakia Reynolds, wearing what appears to be a corset made of white wicker, gabs with Where Philadelphia publisher Laura Burkhardt, who will show up to the opening of an envelope. Nicole Paloux, another PR maven, though of the more mousy, elfin variety, peruses some jewelry near Nigel Richards, a fledgling fashion designer better known as the husband of the city’s brassy high priestess of PR, Nicole Cashman, whose absence is surely due to Ebola or some such catastrophe. Elizabeth Wellington, the Inquirer’s fashion writer, is here, channeling Audra McDonald chic, while in a corner flits Danuta Mieloch, the Polish beauty who has made Rescue Rittenhouse the place where Women of a Certain Station come to have their crinkly complexions turned to the texture of mayonnaise.

They’re here because Joan is here, and the style story line in town has been All About Joan since last fall, when her eponymous shop on Walnut Street suddenly shuttered and then turned up in the mall at Liberty Place (the mall! At Liberty Place!), and then she said she was going to open a new store on Chestnut (Chestnut!), and, well, kittens, it turned out she meant it. This has raised the fashion stakes considerably. Now the question isn’t whether Joan Shepp,who has been dressing the stylish Philadelphia woman for four decades, can make a success on Chestnut Street. It’s whether she can make a success of Chestnut Street.
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Why Does Neil Theobald Think Football Will Save Temple?

Photography by Clint Blowers

Photography by Clint Blowers

It was a date that would live in infamy.

The news hit the scholar-athletes gathered in Temple University’s Student Pavilion on December 6th of last year like a brick to the gut: The sports teams they’d been recruited for, trained for, worked for, played for, were being eliminated — “Chop, boom, you’re gone,” read the headline in the Temple News. Seven teams went poof: men’s crew, women’s rowing, softball, baseball, men’s gymnastics, and men’s indoor and outdoor track and field. Dozens of young hearts — along with those of their coaches — were broken as the university’s new athletic director, Kevin Clark, wielded the ax in a brief, succinct speech. And everybody knew where to lay the blame. “Make no mistake: Football drove cuts” was the headline on a student-newspaper editorial. The Inquirer’s Bob Ford chimed in: “No kidding they had to cut sports to save money. They just didn’t cut the one they should have.”
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Philadelphia + a Pipeline (or Two) = America’s Next Energy Hub

The PES refinery in South Philly. Photograph by Jonathan Barkat

The PES refinery in South Philly. Photograph by Jonathan Barkat

About 1,400 miles from Philadelphia, at the northern edge of the Louisiana bayou, lies a spaghetti junction of steel tubing called Henry Hub, where 13 natural-gas pipelines converge amid farmland and little else. The nearest town, Erath, population 2,100, is about four miles away.

Gas from all over the country flows through the Henry Hub. Even gas extracted from drill pads just 100 miles or so from Philadelphia — gas sucked from the almost unfathomably rich reserves of the Marcellus Shale — is often pumped to distant Louisiana before making the long, and expensive, return trip to homes and businesses in Philadelphia.

Apart from Henry Hub, this section of Louisiana is probably best known for the bizarre cautionary tale of extraction run amok at nearby Lake Peigneur. There, in 1980, an oil crew dug too deep, puncturing a hole in a working salt mine that lay beneath the lake bed. As water rushed into the mine, a swirling vortex formed on the lake surface, swallowing two drilling platforms and 11 barges. The suction reversed the flow of a canal leading to the Gulf of Mexico, and within a few hours, a shallow fishing hole had turned into a 1,300-foot-deep saltwater lake.
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Terrell Owens: 10 Years After the Eagles

Photograph by Drew Hallowell, Getty Images Sport

Photograph by Drew Hallowell, Getty Images Sport

The wide receiver explodes off the line of scrimmage, shakes his defender, and curls hard to the right sideline. He’s a step ahead of his man, more than he needs to make a catch. The football sails high, but he reaches up and pulls it down, tiptoeing to stay in bounds.

“I would cut all that chit-chatter out!” he hollers to the defensive back he just beat, without so much as a glance in the man’s direction. “Let’s go!”

I’m on the sidelines of an empty football stadium at Pierce College in suburban Los Angeles, on a cloudless Tuesday morning in August. All across the country, NFL teams are midway through their training camps, and the start of the season is just weeks away. Here, the handful of athletes who work out twice a week are mostly in their 20s, with pedigrees from big-time schools like USC and stints in the pros. They’re staying in shape, hoping for the football equivalent of a winning Powerball ticket — a call inviting them back to the big show. Then there’s that receiver who looks so familiar. The long, chiseled frame, factory-built for highlight reels. The trash talk. It’s Terrell Owens.
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Jim Brady Profile: The Billy Pulpit

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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