For most print publishers, the transition from ink to pixels has been at least somewhat painful. Over the last few years, the industry has seen widespread layoffs, furloughs, bankruptcies and newspaper closures. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News are no exception. The company that previously owned the two daily papers filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and ended up selling them the following year. The new owner, a company called Philadelphia Media Network, has since been trying to reposition its publications for the twenty-first century.
Project Liberty is launching with three hand-picked local startups, all of which are recent graduates of the DreamIt Ventures accelerator program. The companies will be housed in the same building as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com for the next six months. During that time, each company will receive free office space and access to resources within the building. The products they'll be building all have a potential future home at PMN, but there are no guarantees.
Digital Tools Fit For a News Publisher
CloudMine, one of the companies enrolled in the incubator, is a mobile backend-as-a-service provider for developers. It offers a pay-as-you-go API that hooks into their hosted server-side platform, freeing developers up from having to code custom backends. Why would a newspaper company have any interest in the success of such a tool? In PMN's case, a service like this could aid the company's ongoing efforts to bolster their mobile products and tablet strategy. Last year, the company made headlines by offering a $99 Android-based tablet with specialized news-reading apps for the Inquirer and Daily News. It was a bold move for a print media company, even if its earliest iteration was largely based around print-to-digital shovelware.
SnipSnap, a smartphone app that lets consumers scan printed coupons to save and redeem later. SnipSnap CEO Ted Mann, a veteran of the newspaper industry, left his position as Digital Development Director at Gannett New Jersey last year to launch the startup. Today, Mann returns to the newspaper world, however temporarily, as he and his team set up shop in the Inquirer building. They will work alongside the newspapers' digital sales team, although SnipSnap is not officially a product of PMN.An even more obvious choice for a newspaper is
ElectNext, a Web app that helps voters choose the best candidate in an upcoming election on the local, state and federal levels. The app works by asking users a series of questions about social and political issues and then matches them with the appropriate candidates.Those on the editorial side will have the opportunity to collaborate with the folks working on
Rebranding the "Newspaper"
Beyond the nature of the companies being incubated, there are few other obvious reasons for a newspaper company to make a move like this. For one, it serves as a marketing tactic to help rebrand a print publisher as a forward-thinking, tech-savvy multimedia company. By selling news-reading tablets and housing tech startups, PMN can paint itself as a media organization of the future rather than a soon-to-be relic.
Another formerly bankrupt news company, the Journal Register Company (now known as Digital First Media), is taking a similar approach this year by launching a tech incubator of its own, which will be geared toward startups specializing in advertising, editorial content and audience development. Like PMN, this move helps Digital First Media find innovative potential future partners and fits in with a larger strategy of rebranding itself for the twenty-first century.
A few years ago, moves like this would have been seen as particularly revolutionary and forward-thinking. Today, they're still smart, but are more about survival than thinking ahead. As print revenues continue to decline, traditional news publishers desperately need to find new ways to both build their audiences and monetize their efforts in a way that can make up for the cash they keep hemorrhaging on the print side. The Web has made the former significantly easier than the latter.
Incubating tech startups may not lead to an explosion in revenue overnight, but it's a smart step in the right direction. As PMN CEO Greg Osberg said during a presentation at Temple University last year, "I want us to find the next Foursquare and house it at Philly.com." In time, revenue growth is more likely to come out of innovative efforts like these than from clinging to print and milking hideous Web banner ads for every last nickel.
Newspapers and Startups: A Two-Way Incubation
The intimate relationship PMN is establishing with local startups serves not only to fuel the growth of those new companies, but it may also help adapt the culture within the host organization itself. A lot of "future of news" types like to talk about how old media companies should adopt a startup culture if they want to survive. As anybody who's ever worked at a legacy media organization knows, that's far easier said than done.
Having had no other choice, PMN has already started the process by making moves like this, merging its newsrooms and demoting a top editor that they saw as not being digital-savvy enough. What better way to encourage a startup culture than by bringing startups down the hall from the newsroom?