Three Pennsylvania news start-ups carve their niches

They share a narrow focus and a spirit of innovation that puzzlingly eludes so much of the legacy media.
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Created by Dejan Kovacevic, DK Pittsburgh Sports has more than 20,200 subscribers.

I’m a subscriber to DK Pittsburgh Sports.

It’s not because I’m an avid Steel City sports fan; my loyalties lie with the New England major league teams.

I subscribed mostly out of curiosity. I wanted to see the content that was helping DK Pittsburgh Sports get so successful so soon after its 2014 launch.

Created by long-time Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports writer Dejan Kovacevic, DK Pittsburgh Sports is among several recent startups that are breathing new life into Pennsylvania’s news media landscape.

What these endeavors have in common is a narrowness of focus and, particularly in the case of DK Pittsburgh Sports, a spirit of innovation that puzzlingly eludes so much of the so-called legacy media.

DK Pittsburgh Sports

DK Pittsburgh Sports held a second anniversary party July 23 in conjunction with a Pittsburgh Riverhounds soccer match at Highmark Stadium, where the media outlet also has its offices.

Kovacevic anticipated having to take out a $100,000 loan at the start of his venture, he told Poynter, but taking in $38,000 worth of subscriptions on Day 1 negated the need to borrow.

A subscription — for content also accessible via Apple and Android apps — is $24 for one year or $54 for three years. Subscriptions for active-duty military are free.

DK Pittsburgh Sports boasts more than 20,200 subscribers, 22,000 Twitter followers and 28,200-plus Facebook fans. Of course, Kovacevic and his staff members also have individual social media pages.

With a motto of “Coverage that Connects,” DK Pittsburgh Sports covers Pittsburgh pro and college sports but also has staff writers covering Penn State and West Virginia University athletics.

“We’re the antithesis of newspapers, where it is faceless and you’re never supposed to use ‘I’ in a column,” Kovacevic said. “That doesn’t work anymore … Everything on our site takes a more conversational ‘come-inside-with-us’ tone. We take the subscribers inside the teams. To be honest, I don’t see the newspapers as our competition. They’re not doing it like we’re doing it.”

That’s for sure.

In a blog post in March 2014, I wrote: “I’ve thought for a long time that newspapers ought to turn their websites into something that resembles a local TV newscast, complete with a video-savvy anchor introducing videos and generally talking up the rest of the content.”

DK Pittsburgh Sports does a pretty good approximation of that with its daily “Morning Java” video:

Billy Penn/The Incline
Billy Penn doesn’t want me as a subscriber; I mean, if it even offered subscriptions.

Owner Spirited Media launched Billy Penn for Philadelphia’s 3Ms: mobile-minded millennials. Billy Penn offers original and aggregated content.

“In less than two years, Billy Penn has emerged as a convener and chronicle of Philadelphia, at once covering the city’s critical issues and attempting to rally its people around them,” according to Poynter.

In March, Gannett Co. bought a minority stake in Spirited Media, allowing the latter to expand its Philadelphia newsroom and enter new markets. The first one will be Pittsburgh, where The Incline is expected to open before Labor Day.

“The [Gannett] investment is a vote of confidence in Billy Penn from an organization that has a huge stake in figuring out a way forward for local news,” Poynter noted.

McLean, Va.-based Gannett owns USA Today plus a number of local newspapers, including the York Daily Record, Hanover Sun, Lebanon Daily News and Chambersburg Public Opinion in central Pennsylvania.

Billy Penn makes money from native ads (“Brandland”), display advertising, and live events.

Seventy-five percent of Billy Penn’s audience is under age 44; more than half of its readers are under 35, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

“If I had a choice between a massive audience with very little loyalty and very little connection, and a small, brilliant, intensely focused audience, I’d pick the loyal one,” said CEO Jim Brady.

Two other former Post-Gazette veterans — Ann Belser and Brian Hyslop — have gone back to the future with their weekly newspaper, Print, as in newsprint.

Dubbed Pittsburgh’s East End newspaper, Print is “for the people who live and work in East Liberty, Homewood, Larimer, Point Breeze, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill.” Print publishes 50 weeks per year, taking off the weeks of Christmas and Fourth of July.

Like DK Pittsburgh Sports, Print isn’t giving its content away for nothing. A subscription costs $25 for a year; newsstand copies are $1.

“Community journalism is often thought of as a small-town phenomenon: The weekly paper that prints the school lunch menu, the police crime blotter, the achievements of its business leaders and its residents,” Print notes on its website.

“Print is bringing that hyper-local news approach to the East End because that is our community. We believe there is a need and a demand for the news of where you live, told by skilled journalists.”

A typical issue comprises eight pages, with abundant color photographs from a car show, yard sale, race.

I’m happy to see that these Pennsylvania startups are taking the time to share their own stories as they grow and evolve. It’s another way for them to connect with their audiences.

DK Pittsburgh Sports does it with an occasional “Site Stuff” column by Kovacevic; Print does it with a recurring “Why we do what we do” feature.

One other thing these media start-ups have in common: I’m rooting for their success.

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