Six months ago today, I started working at Billy Penn, Philly’s mobile-first news startup. I made the decision about a month or so before that, officially becoming the company’s first hire (Founder Jim Brady and Editor Chris Krewson had already been working on things for months).
We had no website, no newsletter, no keys to our office and about 300 total social media followers. A lot has changed.
We now have a five-person full-time team, and a number of contractors and freelancers working on news, development, design and sales. We have about 5,000 social media followers and counting. And after spending five months in incubator space provided by the Center for Public Interest Journalism at Temple University, we recently moved into new digs at coworking space Pipeline Philly. It’s been an exciting six months for our whole team. Here’s what I’ve learned:
You don’t need to have every piece of the puzzle in place to appeal to an audience.
I mentioned that Billy Penn had no website when I came on. It’s true. I started actively maintaining the Twitter and Facebook accounts in early September. Our email newsletter and Instagram posts followed a few weeks later.
Our site wasn’t ready until October. But the high level of engagement in those early months surprised all of us. Because our strategy is different than most — we publish just a few original stories a day and link directly out to other Philly-related content from all over the Internet — we didn’t necessarily need a website to engage people at first. We were exclusively linking to other people’s content for those first two months, and my days were spent following, friending, reposting and replying to as many people as I could from the Billy Penn social accounts. We maintain that level of engagement every single day. Which brings me to my next point…
News organizations with a single social media editor are hurting themselves.
This is something I thought to be true long before joining Billy Penn, but my experiences there have reaffirmed this belief. A newsroom with one social media person is in trouble. Having just one person with the intuition, time, permission (and job description) who can post to and engage with readers on social isn’t enough.
That person needs screen breaks and time off. He or she has to attend meetings, and will likely leave for another job at some point. Not to mention that time spent training other staff on social media takes away from the time needed to post, reply to and analyze social content. There’s no easy solution here, since additional staffing costs more money, and more established newsrooms often have employees who require social training.
But the new-ness of Billy Penn means we got to start from scratch. We hired reporters who can do more than write. Anna Orso and Mark Dent can write social headlines. They can engage with readers. And they understand that social media is not the thing you do after the interviewing and reporting and writing; it happens everywhere, all the time. That’s why we hired them to be our reporter/curators. They send most of the tweets from the Billy Penn account, and they do a fantastic job of writing in our voice (which is sometimes emoji).
Small teams can accomplish a lot.
Everyone who signed on to work with Billy Penn knew from the beginning that working for a startup is an all-hand-on-deck situation. As the community manager, I’ve managed the social accounts, written content, organized events, made partnership connections, hired interns and even ordered custom sunglasses to be used for merchandise giveaways. It sounds — and can sometimes feel — overwhelming to be responsible for so many different things all at once.
My Type A personality happens to love that, but what helps is that we hire smart and work smart. There’s no room for error here; the wrong reporter who flounders on Twitter or can’t file a story on time would severely hinder our productivity. Focusing too much on the wrong kind of event would mean ignoring a better opportunity that could bring in new readers or make us money.
Our four-person editorial team sits together at a conference table every day, and we’re often joined by our developer. We have thrice-weekly calls — which often become in-persons — about events, development and operations. We have monthly bigger-picture meetings. Everyone knows what’s going on because to leave one person in the dark is to literally block out maybe a sixth or a quarter of the staff. Growing pains are inevitable, but for now, our team has mastered not just a routine but how to adjust with little notice.
I’ve learned a whole lot more than these three things, but as I considered everything we’ve done over the last half-year, these stand out to me as the most important because they apply to every aspect of everyone’s jobs. It’s been a fun and challenging six months, and I’m enjoying the ride.