Billy Penn, a mobile-first news platform covering Philadelphia, is not yet a year old. But with 150,000 page views a month and an audience that's half millennial, a model focussed on the advantages of a small newsroom seems to be working.
"Looking around at companies that are bigger than you is frustrating but you're not small, you're fast. Your competitors, they're not big, they're too big," said founder Jim Brady, previously editor-in-chief of Digital First Media.
Brady outlined his 'how to be small' approach to hyperlocal news at the GEN Summit in Barcelona last week, highlighting the importance of knowing when running a small operation can work for you rather than against. Billy Penn has a staff of six.
When looking at much larger newsrooms that compete on the same beat, he said the focus shouldn't be on what they can do because they've got the numbers.When a huge story happens in your backyard, you better own itJim Brady, Billy Penn
Instead, smaller local outlets could think about what the big players can't do, the times when the red tape of a larger newsroom can act as a disadvantage.
"Speed is actually quite a lovely thing to have," he said. He shared his advice for local news sites to make the most of their resources and patch:
Don't chase the same stories as everyone else
Trying to be a comprehensive source of news with a handful of people is an idea local sites should "give up".
"There are a lot of sites that try and even one man bands or one woman bands that try to cover everything happening in the community... And I don't know how you can build a business if that's your focus all the time."
Billy Penn curates stories of interest to its readers, which creates the impression of a site that's "fuller and larger and better staffed than it is".
Brady also explained that his newsroom doesn't focus on "routine stories" that are only relevant on the day of publication.
Billy Penn has a metric in place to measure the percentage of page views that came from stories written in previous days, and the potential longevity of a story is an important consideration when deciding whether to cover it or link to someone else.
Own the big stories
At the same time, Brady doesn't want Billy Penn to miss out on the big stories that happen in the area.
"When a huge story happens in your backyard, you better own it," he said.
"That... once or twice a year kind of story, you can't sit that one out. That's when you got to take your entire reporting staff and throw them at it."
When an Amtrak train crashed near a neighbourhood in Philadelphia in May, all of Billy Penn's reporters and interns were covering the story.
The numbers the hyperlocal managed to mobilise in this case were not too different from the teams other larger newsrooms assigned to the story.
"You can actually be pretty competitive on a huge story even if you're not that big, because you don't have all these other things you have to support everyday," explained Brady.If you try something and it doesn't work, it's not the worst thing in the worldJim Brady, Billy Penn
Think what local can do, instead of what it can't
There's no shortage of talk out there of the limitations of local news, but instead of thinking what your local news site can't do, Brady said it's important to know what your advantages are as a regional publication.
Local outlets have access to the community and major consumers who are "all within your reach physically".
Billy Penn's primary business model is rooted in events, and Brady said they have hosted between 20 and 30 events so far – from happy hours inviting the community to meet the team, to larger events where sponsorship was involved.
"Local sites, they have this perception that they should wall themselves off a little bit. 'We're journalists, we're reporting on what's going on, it's not in our job to get really involved with the community'. And I think that's a huge opportunity for sites if they're willing to really engage."
The final advantage of working with small newsrooms is the ability to experiment, and try things "that sound crazy at first" to get noticed.
Billy Penn created personalised emoji for all the mayoral candidates in Philadelphia for example, and they are now all signed, hanging in the newsroom or in the offices of the person they represent.
"If you try something and it doesn't work, it's not the worst thing in the world, but not trying things and not getting noticed is not an option," said Brady.
Check out the quickfire tips from Jim Brady on Twitter, in this collection of tweets by Juan Andres Muñoz, digital and social media director at CNN en Español.
Billy Penn key advice
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