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August 14 2012


Forget display ads: Technically Media’s events-based business model is working

PHILADELPHIA — The year was 2008. Leaving their school newspaper behind, three Temple University graduates went looking for journalism jobs. Freelancing helped pay the bills, but they weren’t having any luck finding the full-time gigs they imagined.

The more they looked, the more it seemed like the kind of jobs they wanted — smart, high-impact, tech-focused local reporting — didn’t really exist. There were local tech writers out there, sure, but the amount of ink spent covering the Philly tech scene didn’t match its recent growth. The news organization this trio wanted to work for didn’t really exist, and the media companies that did exist weren’t really hiring.

So they decided to start their own. With a $50 WordPress theme, Technically Philly was born. It already had a staff, a distribution platform, and a vision fit for a bumper sticker: “A better Philadelphia through technology.”

The question was: How to pay the bills?

Display advertising revenue didn’t seem like a viable option. Grant money could — and ultimately would — help. But the group wanted to find a diverse, sustainable business model.

“We looked at larger entities like TechCrunch and a few other sites that we admire that were doing events,” co-founder Brian James Kirk told me. “It was really about diversification of revenue and just trying to pound the pavement — looking outside of that world for journalism and figuring out how to make it work.”

Today, Technically Philly’s flagship event is Philly Tech Week, an eight-day conference that shows the local tech scene is “alive and kicking ass,” as one Twitter user put it. It’s free for tech companies to participate, and free for anyone to attend. (Revenue comes from sponsors.) This year marked Technically Philly’s second ever Tech Week, and attendance more than doubled to some 10,000 people.

Kirk estimates about 40 percent of the revenue pie comes from events, 40 percent from consulting gigs, 10 percent from ads, and 10 percent from grants. That’s a shift compared with last year, when events revenue only represented about 12 percent of the pie.

Technically Philly’s consulting work has been to help develop web and events strategies for clients like the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and other companies that have “limited interaction in the tech world” that Technically Philly covers. (If there were any overlap, Kirk says the person covering the company would not be the person consulting for it, and that the relationship would be disclosed to readers as per the site’s ethics policy.)

Technically Philly points to the events-based business model as the foremost reason it has become a profitable business, and that’s the area it will focus on expanding in coming months as it plans to “significantly scale down” its consulting efforts.

“The big pitch has been that it’s a geographic niche publication,” Kirk said. “That’s what entices our sponsors and that’s what entices our readers because they can’t get that niche anywhere else. Why does it work? I think sponsors immediately react to people in a room. They want to meet people. We essentially see Tech Week as, ‘This is our annual “ask” of the community.’ We try to limit when we do ask businesses for support, and it resonates with the people who are within our community.”

An event of that scale comes out of a surprisingly modest workspace.

Technically Philly’s budget is “definitely under half a million dollars” — closer to a quarter-million, Kirk later says — and the newsroom is in a Temple University building surrounded by classrooms and across the street from City Hall. The space has an administrative feel to it. (From her perch at the front desk, reporter Juliana Reyes is easy to mistake for an office manager.) Yet there are hints of color here and there. An American flag drapes over a cubicle partition. There’s a “Let’s Go Temple” sign on one wall, and a Mark Howe — of Philadelphia Flyers fame — poster on another. In between, printer paper with simple, printed-in-bold sayings: “Nobody Cares About What You Do As Much As You Do,” “Err on the Side of Action,” and “We’re Totally Fucked. I’m Sorry.”

It’s enough room for the lean four-person staff, but Kirk says they’re looking for new office space, something that will better integrate Technically Philly with the scene it covers. They’re also looking for new office space in other cities. Technically Media already expanded with a new site, Technically Baltimore, which formally launched over the summer after a soft roll-out earlier this year. Next month, that site’s hosting the first-ever Baltimore Innovation Week.

“We evaluated about a half-dozen markets,” Kirk says. “Baltimore just made sense because it looks a lot like Philadelphia. The narrative that’s playing out there is something we’ve seen popping out in Philly or on the tip of Philly’s tongue. There is a very similar trajectory. It’s been amazing how many of the conversations are so similar.”

From an editorial standpoint, Kirk says Technically Media tries to combine the sensibilities of a community newspaper with the advocacy of a modern journalism startup. Coverage goes into one of three buckets: Tech business, tech education, and tech-related civics. “So looking at municipal government informed through tech,” Kirk said. “The bigger issue — or the more important one we push on a lot — is open data. And then the other side of it, infrastructure. Are they providing wifi or Internet access to citizens? What does City Council’s access look like?”

Technically Philly has also worked directly with the city. For example, it launched an initiative with the mayor’s office that gave people an SMS-enabled tool to help people find the closest wifi access point. Now that Technically Media’s Philly and Baltimore sites are humming, it plans to expand to two or more additional cities by 2014. Some of the cities in the running as of this writing: Boston, New York, Detroit, and New Orleans. “It could be that we’re focused on those post-industrial cities that really have burgeoning tech communities, or the alternative would be that we’ll look at how the Mid-Atlantic is connected,” Kirk said.

Also high on the Technically Media to-do list is a substantial site redesign, which is scheduled to go live in January. “It’s not the most attractive site right now,” Kirk says. “We’re still running on that same WordPress theme that we bought three years ago. People browse us mobilely, or have tried and given up, because we didn’t have the operating budget for it.”

If all goes as planned, Technically Media will have switched to responsive design in a matter of months. Determining what’s next after that comes down to a simple calculation, Kirk says: “Evaluating what value — what specific value — you provide to the community you cover. What kinds of services or products can you offer? We don’t think we’re doing anything particularly innovative. We just happen to be doing it online.”

September 23 2010


'Sourcing Through Texting' Brings Public into Radio Investigations

If a large truck illegally barrels through a neighborhood and no reporters are around to see it, does it make the news? It does if local residents with mobile phones can text truck sightings to a local public radio station.

This is the premise behind a new pilot project called Sourcing Through Texting from a team at "The Takeaway" radio program. Sourcing Through Texting provides a way to connect citizens with journalists via mobile phones.

Picture 1.pngThe Takeaway is a co-production of Public Radio International and public radio station WNYC in collaboration with the BBC World Service, the New York Times, and WGBH Boston. It can be heard live online or on the radio at about 60 stations in "Takeaway cities" across the U.S.

The program is trying to explore how to better connect with communities that are not a typical public radio demographic. John Keefe, executive producer for news and information at WNYC, said that typical listeners tend to be educated, older, and non-Hispanic whites.

"We want to be able to have connections and sources in communities where we're not heard or where people aren't going to our website," Keefe said. "In communities where people are communicating primarily via text."

Studies show that Hispanics and African Americans use their phones, and text messages in particular, more than non-Hispanic whites.

Sourcing Through Texting allows people to communicate with journalists by sending tips or information via text message in response to story topics or specific questions. The pilot project also won a 2010 Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism in which judges said "the experiment opened the doors for engaging non-listeners in ways they liked."

Origins of Sourcing through Texting

Sourcing Through Texting is as much a story about process as it is about a product. The basic question was how to use standard mobile phones to connect journalists with people in communities where public radio was not typically popular.

"We didn't have an answer," Keefe said. After a summit, a planning group formed that included journalists, mobile technology experts, members of the Public Insight Network (a web-based citizen participation platform at American Public Media), and people from the targeted community in Detroit.

Keefe said the process was a combination of experimentation and design thinking in journalism to come up with -- and eventually try out -- various ideas. On the first morning of the summit, the group brainstormed.

"And then we said, it's lunch time. By 2:00 we're taking a bus to the neighborhood, and we're going to try it out," Keefe said. (Read more about design thinking and process experimentation on Keefe's blog or watch this screencast:

One outcome from the summit, which included some prior planning and visits to the neighborhood, was the idea to work with radio station WDET to help people in Southwest Detroit report large trucks that were illegally driving through the neighborhood in order to take a shortcut.

A team went to the neighborhood to make connections and demonstrate in person how to text "truck" to 69866 to send in the location of any spotted trucks. The team worked with Mobile Commons, a commercial mobile service provider in the United States, on the text messaging platform.

Rob St. Mary, a WDET reporter, said that since this initial launch they have received about 300 text messages from 25 to 30 sources. (There have been two subsequent pushes to encourage people to send texts about the trucks.)

Ultimately, Keefe said the response "wasn't overwhelming. But it was enough for the local station to develop some stories around it. It gave them enough energy to go about it." The information that was received led to a week-long investigative series on the trucks at WDET.

Later, the group also invited people in the same community to send via text message their favorite things about the neighborhood in six words or less. Responses included: "proud alive latino growing hardworking home" and "multiculturally divided, but strong when united."

The responses were not used for any specific aired program. "It was more of an experiment to see what would engage people," Keefe said. Over the course of the afternoon, WDET received about 20 texts.

For Keefe, the process was as promising as the product.

"Radio stations, software platforms like Mobile Commons, community leaders, Public Insight -- the fact that we're all working on this together to me is exciting," Keefe said. He stressed the experimental nature of the development process and the importance of bringing together people to brainstorm and talk about issues.

"People are wrestling with this and having conversations together about it," Keefe said. "This is almost more valuable than anything that we actually did on the ground."

The Takeaway for The Takeaway?

Sourcing Through Texting is beneficial for both the local radio station and for The Takeaway. Local stations rely on the resources of the national program to help connect with citizen sources. And "the national show benefits in the end, with stronger stations and content that bubbles up," Keefe said. (The trucks story later became a segment on the national program.)

The citizen text reports also function as a form of journalism assistance, as in the case of the truck sightings. "We can't have reporters canvassing the neighborhood and waiting for trucks to go by," Keefe said. "But we can have neighbors doing that. It's a way to get them involved in our crowdsourcing."

Future iterations of Sourcing Through Texting may include voice and call-in features to allow for longer messages and more community interaction.

h2.Challenges and Approaches to Sourcing Through Texting

Keefe said there are larger, longer term benefits involved in growing a database of contacts. Those who participate are identified "as somebody who has expressed him or herself as someone who wants to participate in covering their community, that we can turn to as citizen sources."

The sourcing project ultimately comes down to ensgaging a new audience. "We're really focused on figuring out ways to develop that soure base from people who aren't listening to the radio and aren't going to our website," Keefe said. He calls this outreach imperative. "I'm trying to use texting to get people into our sphere," he said.

Sourcing Through Texting is not without challenges. One has to do with the role of activism in journalism. If someone in a neighborhood has a specific bias toward an issue or specific company (the trucking industry, for example), this could be reflected in their citizen reports.

Another challenge is figuring out the best way to promote the service and the right level of interaction via texting. "If you ask someone six questions," Keefe said, "how often do you get an answer to the sixth one?"

Adjusting to language and culture issues is another challenge. Cost may be a limit to participation, too, especially since mobile users in the U.S. typically have to pay to send and receive text messages, although Keefe said this hasn't been an issue yet.

One success of the Sourcing Through Texting project was that the topic -- illegal trucks in Southwest Detroit -- was an issue that people were interested in. In other words, they had something to say about it.

"It was really easy to get people in communities engaged in the issue of tracking trucks because people felt like it was a violation of their neighborhood, and that they were being taken advantage of," Keefe said.

A more general or blanket request to ask people to help cover any story may not work as well, Keefe said. "It's harder to try and jazz people when you just ask them to be sources in general."

July 12 2010


Michigan news organisations join together to create aggregation site

News organisations across Michigan have joined together to launch an online aggregation site.

According to a report by Editor&Publisher, Michigan.com features content provided by more than 30 companies from the Detroit Media Partnership, which includes the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News.

The site pools information across a range of categories from news and sport, to traffic and weather updates, as well as a Twitter stream of relevant comments.

Users can reportedly customise topic boxes to suit their needs.

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