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Could Philly become a publishing capitol again?

Sorry I’m not sorry, but I’m an American exceptionalist. And at that, a bit of a Philadelphia exceptionalist. The 215 is the epicenter of the American identity, a concept that frankly (Franklin?) might not exist without the publishing powerhouses located in Old City. Curtis, Winston, Lippincott, Zell, Carey & Lea – titanic men who built empires in their image. (There were also a few women printers/publishers in the 19th century but those businesses did not achieve the same scale.)

This is the heritage tapped by Diana Lind in her recent column for the Philadelphia Citizen, The Once and Future Publishing Capitol. Her premise: Could Philly become a publishing capitol again?

Think of the glassmakers of Murano, the artists of renaissance Firenze, the revolutionary statesman of Philadelphia, the technobrats of Silicon Valley. Clustering is a real thing and I’d be gung-ho for Philly to achieve some status as the single best place to be located as a media entrepreneur.

As a matter of fact, Philadelphia already has a better than average indy media scene, and that combined with PMN’s turmoil formed a key aspect of the Brotherly/Billy Penn project that got pulled out of DFM’s Thunderdome.

Admittedly the problem here is chicken or egg. I’m saying investors are pushing unproven business models and we should be wary; that will only be true until it’s not & it’ll be difficult for anyone to identify what the inflection point might be. Fortunes can be prepared in bear markets! But jumping wave to wave & hiding in the froth is no way to build the next Curtis.

What would it take to build the next Curtis? If the business models aren’t ready yet, what can people like me be doing in the meantime to prepare things?

  • Work with the Lenfest Institute, for one. PMN continues to need help. I’m already a black sheep enough so I don’t want to critique their operations too much as an outsider – and by the way, I don’t think this is purely a “newsroom” problem by any means.
  • Support Temple students. I’ve written about the pipeline problem in media tech and product. I’ve tried to encourage Penn State to own this space, but I’ve had no luck (my own degree bearing ‘History’ worked against me there). Bottlenecks in engineering and product management were a consistent problem at PMN, and between David Boardman, Aron Pilhofer, Jim MacMillan, Jill Bauer, and others at Temple, the Klein College of Media and Communication has an opportunity to dominate this space for the state & maybe region. No reason we can’t have our own version of Northwestern’s kickass Knight Lab! So many of my peers in the media tech/product field came out of that program, and it’s amazing what a little programming, talent, and community can do for a school.
  • Figure out how Drexel relates. I worked with Drexel students briefly when Gerry sponsored Drexel University students to build an app (I expect this project will be an amplification grant recipient, too). Though we got to work with some great journalism students, we did not get to spend much time with Drexel’s impressive cadre of engineers, data scientists, and other technically minded individuals – engineering had been outsourced to Vietnam. I’m not sure precisely how Drexel and Temple could fairly divide the board, but if clustering is the goal, it’s essential both institutions are playing a role.
  • Prepare the climate for technology-driven SMB’s. The wage tax is kinda regressive, Business Privilege Tax leaves a sour taste in your mouth, and now our furniture-heir governor wants to bring back an awful 90’s-era tech tax. Talk to Alex Hillman of Indy Hall if you need ideas on how to help. He represents the best of the Philly business vibe & there’s a whole mayoral campaign that could be run within this bullet-point.
  • Listen to the youth. I’ve got a baby face and a bunch of opinions, not the best combo in a city that respects party, seniority, and “collegiality” above all else. But seriously, think about the formation of American identity in the 18th century; identity formation is an ongoing dialectical and I wonder what Philadelphia could add to the conversation if we really listened to our audiences. Admittedly this is a little vague and not quite actionable, but I’d love to see a media outlet that took more risks in which voices they amplified and what questions they asked. Don’t let smarm win! This city is corrupt & personally I’m fine with my media having an axe to grind. It’s called the news business, not news friends. Dunno folks, I’ve got a rough edge admittedly but the tactic certainly worked for McClure’s.

To quote Jay-Z, these are “Just my thoughts, man — right or wrong // Just what I was feeling at the time.” I would sincerely love to hear what you think in the comments. Peace, love, and blogs.

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Real publishers, real problems, real opportunities

Here is a copy of my presentation and prepared remarks from WordCamp for Publishers 2019 in Columbus.

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