Four ways Billy Penn does 'local news that doesn't suck' -- and how PR fits in

Four ways Billy Penn does 'local news that doesn't suck' -- and how PR fits in

Hi there. I work for Billy Penn, a new local news site based in Philadelphia that aims to cover the city for millennials. You may have read about us. We try to do things differently, like covering important political discourse using emoji, or explaining dynasties in our area as if we're on Game of Thrones.

What we are: Our tagline says 'A mobile platform for a better Philly.' In practice, that means: We're an independent digital newsroom that relies on social media as both a reporting tool and the primary distribution method for the stories we produce.

One thing to know about us: We're small. Our editorial staff is five people -- four full-time, one part-timer to cover weekends. All in, we fit nicely at a conference table. Now, we've worked some pretty big and important places, from the Washington Post to the Philadelphia Inquirer to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But all of us are excited to be in a small place, because we're finding small can be awesome.

Here are a couple of ways we're trying to connect local news to an engaged, young audience.

Pick your shots. The Amtrak 188 tragedy was the first time our strategy -- curation of the best reporting that already exists, and filling in second- and third-day stories as soon as possible -- got a real-time, real-world test. We won some praise that night and in the days that followed for pretty serious stories, including how crashes were investigated, what was known about the train's engineer, and what our local Congressman had to say, and we built credibility (and an audience) that has stuck with us in the weeks after the event.

Have fun with things. We knew the 2015 Philadelphia mayoral primary would be kind of slow. There were six candidates, an endless number of in-person forums, and -- we would later learn -- a pretty dismal turnout for our demographic. But we livened things up a few ways: We turned the candidates into emoji, and compared them to candidates on The Wire. We scoured the Web for silly photos of them, as well.

Remember the long tail. More than half of Billy Penn's traffic every day comes from stories that were written earlier. Sometimes that's a day earlier, but it occasionally can be a week ago, or longer. You'll see a lot of explaining words in our headlines -- why, how, inside, etc. That distances us from a news cycle that seems like it's getting shorter every day.

Packaging key. To gear up for Election Day, we built The Procrastinator's Guide to the Election; over the next few days it would be our most popular post. The all-time biggest-traffic post on Billy Penn ranked Philly-area colleges by campus crime rates, which was publicly available data on the Web, and had been for years. How you put things together can have power, if it's got a clickable headline and good graphics.

How PR fits in. We appreciate good stories, above all. The "How to Instagram Your Drink" story that we did grew out of one restaurant's pitch for one specific cocktail. Our "Secret Philly" series, for us, is a way to take users inside places they wouldn't ordinarily go: The skyboxes at the Wells Fargo Center, or Boathouse Row. We walked around the Philly suburbs with a backpack full of Google gear. All of these stories have been facilitated by communications professionals; some were pretty close to pitches we received; others grew out of pitches; others were our ideas, executed with an assist. But none of them happened in a vacuum.

In all, we're excited about Billy Penn's future in Philadelphia. We've still got growing to do, and learning about the audience we hope to serve. But as I've said more times than I can count, it's the most fun job I've ever had.

Chris Krewson is the editor of Billy Penn, a new local news site for Philadelphia that launched in October 2014. He's a veteran of newsrooms in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Allentown, Pa. You can find him on Twitter at @ckrewson.

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