Jim Brady’s experience in media has touched everything from The Washington Post to incredibly hyperlocal sites in booming metros that were trying to be what all of the legacy media in those cities were not.
He has always tried to do things a bit differently — and sometimes ahead of the industry. That was the case with his last venture with Spirited Media, where he built web experiences that were truly reader-first, and where events, not ads, were the key revenue driver.
For the industry, there’s always been a lot to learn from Brady’s ventures.
Just a few weeks ago, he sold his three Spirited Media websites. He pivoted to different business models but eventually faced the reality that building out a consulting business was the smarter path.
We caught up with Brady to hear about his lessons learned. Here they are:
Lesson 1: Find the spaces not being covered
Brady uses the example that in a metro many are covering NFL, so it made little sense to devote resources to it even though there may have been reader interest. It wasn’t an area that was underserved. Find the areas that people care about but are not getting the attention that they deserve.
Lesson 2: Find the niche within the niche
Opposed to saying you are going to cover transportation, determine within transportation what readers really want. In Philadelphia, Brady saw an opening for more content around bike lanes downtown and ride sharing. The big transportation projects around highways were being covered but no one was owning what was really happening downtown with transportation.
Lesson 3: Find your voice
There was — and still is — a conversational tone that Spirited Media sites were able to capture. Brady said it all started by writing like a human. Too often, reporters write in a way that doesn’t translate into the way an average person strikes up a conversation. Brady was trying to fix that. “Write like you live here,” he said was a phrase he would often share with staff. The idea is that if they are writing about a well-known area of town, it just isn’t necessary to explain where it is.
Lesson 4: Hire staff that gets what you are trying to do
Hiring from scratch, Brady said, was a whole lot easier than trying to take legacy staff and make them into something you wanted. But he said Spirited Media was able to target staff with specific skill sets and find people who would get along. They were looking for people who wrote with flair but also journalists who weren’t afraid to go to events and mingle.
Lesson 5: Events are huge
But events don’t have to be those blow-it-out “Best Of “extravagant performances to be a hit. Brady mentioned that Spirited Media’s “Who’s Next” series honored 15-20 people who were the next up-and-comers, and it was a hit with advertiser sponsors. Those kinds of events created brand ambassadors that were big when Spirited Media was young. “Events can’t carry everything but they can be a big piece of your revenue,” Brady said.
Lesson 6: Not launching membership sooner was a mistake
From the start, Brady did not see how an ad model alone could sustain his sites. He put a major focus on events, which provided a healthier revenue mix. Eventually, Brady got to a membership model. But not fast enough. He saw readers flock to becoming members but believes that if he would have done that sooner, maybe the results would have been different. “I don’t know if it would have changed the end game,” he said. “We had a lot going on with getting Pittsburgh launched but not launching membership sooner was our biggest mistake.” He notes pulling that off may have been challenging, but in hindsight, doing it sooner potentially could have boosted revenues faster.
Lesson 7: Brady still a big believer in local
With everything that Brady has experienced in local and with big national organizations, he still believes in the power of local. “The future is going to have to come from reader adjacent revenue,” he said. “Legacy media wants to move to reader revenue but it is not changing its product to align with readers fast enough. You have to be more connected to readers and legacy media is just not used to letting a lot of people in. You have to break out of the chains of that institutional voice.”