Media Startup Showdown: Ranking Philly’s Three New Online News Sites

How do Billy Penn, Philly Voice, and The Philadelphia Citizen stack up?

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Pay no attention to those gloomy statements coming out of the city’s long-established newspapers: Philadelphia’s media scene is growing by leaps and bounds! The launch last week of PhillyVoice.com completed the trifecta of new news organizations that have gotten their start in the last year. What they all have in common? They’re built by refugees from so-called “legacy media.” But none of them has a foot in the print world — they’re all digital (and even mostly mobile) all of the time.

Now it’s time to sit back and make some judgments. Here are the three new news sites, and what we make of them. Ranked in order of essentialness:

BillyPenn.com

BillyPenn.com

1. BILLY PENN

What it is: It’s got the backing of former Washington Post online editor Jim Brady and is led by by Chris Krewson, former online editor at the Inquirer. (Full disclosure: I’ve been acquainted with Jim for most of the last decade; Chris and I are friendly). Believe it or not, this site is the graybeard of the new group, having been the first to launch a recognizable news product.  (Philly Mag profiled the startup before it, ahem, started up last year.)

What it does best: Social media and technology. The folks at Billy Penn said they were going to focus on mobile, and they weren’t lying: The website feels about a step removed from Twitter, with a constant scroll of content — some of it original, much of it aggregated from other sites — flowing by throughout the day. In fact, it’s so close to being Twitter that I sometimes prefer Billy Penn’s Twitter feed, which is often aggressively up-to-date about the city’s headlines. But the site has one nifty feature: If you’re interested in a topic, you can choose to “follow” further updates on that particular topic, so that new stories in the thread will be highlighted for you. Vox-like explainer pieces are also a plus.

What it does less-than-best: Um … social media. A lot of mirth has been made around town at BillyPenn’s Twitter voice, whose Valley-speak inflections early on seemed to be trying too hard.  We’re not the audience — millennials —  that Billy Penn is aiming for, so maybe we’re not the best judge. But BP’s attempt to appeal to young ’uns sometimes reminds us of how everything in the late 1990s was marketed as “extreme!” It’s a fine line between appealing to the young and pandering to them.

Bottom line: Of the three sites that have launched recently, this is the one that seems to know best what it wants to be when it grows up. There’s a vision here that tries to do something a little bit different than it’s always being done. But the pitfalls are also pretty plain to see.

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2. PHILLY VOICE

What it is: Philly.com in an alternate timeline? Maybe that’s not fair, but the leadership (Lexie Norcross), many of the editors and a few of the writers were all at Philly.com until last year. Sure enough, PhillyVoice.com feels a little bit like its predecessor, with an emphasis on sports and lifestyle news and quirky wire pieces designed to attract fun-loving readers instead of furrowed-brow news junkies.

What it does best: Overwhelming ambition: The staff is huge for a startup, and many of the contributing voices — folks like Al Morganti, Angelo Cataldi, Jimmy Kempski, Isaiah Thompson — come with established reputations and faithful audiences. That at least gives the site a head start in attracting an audience of its own. And the website’s design looks great and fresh, with lots of white space and bright primary colors that make it enjoyable simply to look at. Believe me: That’s no small accomplishment.

What it does less-than-best: Feel like Philly. This may change as PhillyVoice.com gets its sea legs, but right now it seems a bit too much like Philadelphia.SunTimes.com, a good-looking-but-generic news site that throws in a couple of local headlines. Put it this way: There are three main stories that greet you when you come to the site on a desktop computer. Several times, I’ve experienced that none of the three were directly Philly related. Often it’s just one. And sometimes you don’t know which one unless you’ve chosen to click through. (The screenshot above? The 3D printing story is the local one; the “sociopath” story was written by a local writer, but originated at Ohio State.) The navigation doesn’t help — if there’s a way to just look at the local news headlines, I haven’t discovered it yet.

(One other issue: This is a fine statement of ethics. It does raise a question of what, exactly, a news organization backed by George Norcross can cover in this region.)

Bottom line: Maybe it’s because there are so many familiar faces here, but we’re not sure what PhillyVoice.com brings to the table that’s all that different from what’s already available in the city. That means it’s going to have to work extra hard to get our attention. Deep pockets behind the site mean it might stick around long enough to do so, but it trails BillyPenn.com in feeling like it might become essential.

The Philly Citizen

3. THE PHILADELPHIA CITIZEN

What it is: Right now? More of a mission than an actual news operation. Former Philly Mag and Daily News editor Larry Platt and a couple of folks update this site a couple of times a week featuring profiles of good-citizen types and thoughts about how the rest of us can be good citizen types. While the early manifesto promised to challenge and humiliate the city’s established media, ThePhillyCitizen.com is more of a well-written blog than news source at this point. That could change if Platt secures funding to go bigger and better.

What it does best: Makes you eat your vegetables.  This site wants to be good and good for you, and some of its citizen profiles are inspirational. But…

What it does less-than-best: Makes you eat your vegetables. We never thought we’d say this about a Platt-edited publication, but: We wish there was more fun here. It’s just sooooo earnest.

Bottom line: ThePhillyCitizen.com is a nice and almost completely unmemorable companion reading for your news feed. The most notable thing about it? The oaths.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter. 

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