How Billy Penn is building community through local news coverage
Billy Penn newsroom (courtesy of Chris Krewson)
Allison Griner is a freelance journalist and a 2013-2014 fellow with the International Reporting Program. Follow her on Twitter through @alligriner.
It was a sense of idealism that put Chris Krewson on the road back to the city he’d always hoped to work in, Philadelphia.
Krewson had been given some “great opportunities” during his time in Hollywood, Calif., including two high-profile digital editor gigs at Variety and The Hollywood Explorer. But for the first time in his career, he was offered the chance to help launch a brand new digital media startup: Billy Penn, a Philadelphia-based “mobile-first news operation.”
“I had other opportunities after I left Hollywood, including staying in Hollywood, but I was much more excited about being on the ground floor and shaping something new and helping decide how it was going to look and how it was going to work,” Krewson told ivoh He is now the editor of Billy Penn. “That freedom, that opportunity, was way more than I was able to turn down.”
Billy Penn isn’t a “local” news site that repackages news from around the country; it aims to be entirely local, creating and curating some of Philadelphia’s best hometown journalism.”
“We saw an opportunity to amplify smaller and medium sites that had great content but no audience building, and do some original complimentary content as well,” Krewson said. The goal was to create “an alternate way of looking at the news every day.”
In Billy Penn’s streamlined feed of Philly-focused content, big media meets small. Articles from niche sites like Philadelphia’s Bicycle Coalition Blog mingle with journalism from traditional media powerhouses like WHYY and the Philadelphia Daily News. Even Instagram and Twitter posts make the cut.
Billy Penn, which has five full-time staffers, produces original articles, highlighting underreported issues — or stories that have simply fallen out of the limelight.
Krewson himself reflects Billy Penn’s community-focused philosophy. He grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, went to college in Pennsylvania, and even achieved his dream of working in the big city at Pennsylvania’s largest newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
He would become its online editor. “I really felt like that was the peak of my career,” he said. “I really only wanted to work in Philly.”
But shortly after his arrival at the Inquirer, the newspaper filed for bankruptcy. With two small children, Krewson felt obligated to find a more stable position for their sakes. Hollywood beckoned.
By that point, Krewson had become friends with Jim Brady, another digital news pioneer who was credited with leading The Washington Post’s earliest digital efforts. In 2014, Brady was on to his latest venture: a Philadelphia website called brother.ly with a mission to “to make Philadelphia better.” He asked Krewson to come aboard.
But with the hefty investment comes the priceless gift of free rein. No stalwart brand voice to worry about. No appearances to maintain. Krewson said both he and Brady were tired of the old-school limitations of “legacy” publications.
“He’s seen the approaches of traditional news organizations, and both of us were determined that we didn’t want to live that way anymore or fight those wars,” Krewson said. They wanted a fresh slate, to deliver local news with voice and bravado — and maybe a few custom-made emojis to boot.
Millennials are the ever-so-desirable demographic that Billy Penn is chasing, with its social media-savvy approach. No other big city has had a bigger boom in its youth population than Philadelphia. It’s a market Krewson hopes to cater to.
To meet millennials’ needs, Billy Penn is adopting a style that prioritizes social media activity, rather than concentrating exclusively on its homepage. According to The American Press Institute, 88 percent of millennials consume news through Facebook on a regular basis. “I can’t tell you personally the last time I saw a story develop that wasn’t on Twitter or Facebook,” Krewson said.
But aren’t millennials notoriously uninterested in the news? Krewson rejects that assumption. “And our statistics prove it. More than half of our audience is under age 35,” he said. “And we’re doing that without any real paid promotions, so it’s pretty much the way we’re writing [news] and presenting it.”
Krewson highlighted some of Billy Penn’s latest projects, including its “Whatever Happened With” series.
“Whatever Happened With” aims to update readers on ongoing stories, long after mainstream media has stopped paying attention. The series was one of Billy Penn’s earliest innovations, something the staff dreamt up during “build week,” when they first constructed the Billy Penn website.
“It is the responsibility of journalists, period, to cut through the heat and the blur of something and find out what’s really going on,” Krewson said. “So when we talked about how to differentiate ourselves in Philadelphia, rather than being the 15th person at a press conference, we wanted to tell stories that aren’t being told.”
Krewson recalled that after the series’ first story, on the stalled redevelopment of a gutted Victorian hotel, he noticed a similar follow-up printed in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I knew we were on the right track,” he said.
Another early success came when Billy Penn revisited the mysterious death of a University of Pennsylvania sophomore. At the time, medical examiners had yet to determine whether the student’s death was a suicide or homicide.
“When we did the follow-up on what turned out to be a suicide attempt, that was one of the youngest [demographic] surges we have ever had,” Krewson said. “We think it was just being passed around Penn’s campus, because Penn’s students hadn’t heard anything about it for a long time.”
Billy Penn also produces a series called “The Neighborhood Project,” which delves into the unique history of each Philadelphia neighborhood. Its aim, in part, is to trace the roots of issues facing the neighborhoods in the present day. It’s a level of detail that often does not make the daily news elsewhere, Krewson said.
“Aside from a glancing mention in a news story, you really don’t understand what’s behind neighborhoods like Kingsessing or Fairmont or Grays Ferry,” Krewson said. “I’m learning stuff every week about the city I live in, and it’s phenomenal to be able to see and understand much more about how the city works.”
But “The Neighborhood Project” also offers readers a dose of silly Philly trivia. As Krewson puts it, “You don’t get too many places where you can talk about the cricket club where George Washington used to shoot the shit with Thomas Jefferson while the Constitutional Congress is going on. Literally, that happened!”
“I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life, which is not something I’ve said about any of the other jobs that I’ve worked in for the last 10 years, at any point,” Krewson said.