Friday, December 31, 2010

Flying Kite: Good News, and Promoting the Region's Growth?

This post comes from recent Temple graduate Zack Shapiro:

Flying Kite might be Philly’s newest online magazine. Having launched about two months ago, it has a lot of space to make a name for itself or fall flat on its face. After taking a close look at it, either one is very possible.

Every week, Flying Kite sends a kind of e-magazine to its email list that includes links to the week’s stories packaged into a slickly designed little page. The content focuses on hip, young people who do exciting, innovative things. The tone is relaxed, sounding more like a blog than some kind of hard-nosed journalism. Sounds good, right?

It’s hard to tell.

Flying Kite gives off the veneer of a hot new entrepreneurial product, but really it’s just the latest in a string of locally focused online magazines run by a much larger media company. Things get a little strange after a look at the publication’s institution-focused, business-centric financial model. Is it worth taking seriously on its own, or is it just an attempt at pseudo-local journalism looking to make a quick buck?

Honestly, it’s hard to tell.

Flying Kite is ultimately at the behest of the shadowy Issue Media Group, a company based out of Michigan that is trying to climb to invent itself as some kind of mogul of the Internet media. Their business model is based on sprouting numerous online magazines in big-ish cities around the country and trying to tap into the readership of businesses and young professionals. They already have 13 other publications, mostly based in Michigan and Ohio, and claim to be growing – something of course that is uncommon for media these days.

The “official niche” that the whole group is tapping into is something called the "New Economy." This is a highly vague term, but roughly translates to mean people and institutions that are moving regions forward. Again, also vague. “Forward” can mean a lot of things, but again in this case it roughly translates to economic development and entrepreneurial ideas. In short: They write about the people and institutions that are doing smart business and having innovative ideas. Most commonly this means new businesses opening up, citizens groups that are bringing about change or companies that are expanding operations or developing new products.

Joe Petrucci (left), the managing editor of Flying Kite, summed up the mission more concisely, “The mission, I'd say, is to be a publication that people within the region and outside the region can learn about the influencers who are shaping the region's future and to provide a database of growing companies, interesting places to live, work and play, and growing sectors/industries.”

Joe is one of the five people on Flying Kite’s editorial staff. Other than him, it is run by publisher Michelle Freeman, ad man Jon Hermann, photographer Michael Persico and news editor John Steele. Between them, they produce nearly all the content.

The lot of them work as freelancers for IMG. There is no Flying Kite office or headquarters and they all work from home. When I spoke to Petrucci on the phone, he missed my first call at 2:30 pm because he was distracted washing a sink full of dishes. Everybody who works for any of IMG’s local publications signs a freelancing contract. Flying Kite is edited by a freelance managing editor, supported by a freelance business manager and published by a freelance publisher. Talk about decentralized.

Petrucci himself got his start working in broadcast a radio announcer. Sometime after that he switched to newspapers and worked there for about a decade. Afterward, he left that and tried his hand at working public relations. Right now he’s working for IMG in two capacities: He manages Flying Kite as well as another IMG publication called Keystone Edge. He’s not so much an entrepreneur as he just found an enterprising job at a time when traditional jobs are thin. He also plays accordion and ukulele, so if the Flying Kite thing goes sour there’s always that I guess.

On the ground level at Flying Kite, IMG is the ultimate end of the chain of command, but it is hard to tell whether they are benevolent or malevolent corporate overlords. My general rule of thumb is that if the company’s name in no way describes what it is they actually do, then there is a high chance that it is evil. Of course I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but lacking solid data its best sometimes to go on intuition. It is rather obvious; however, that IMG has little interest in the actual content that is produced. Instead its goal seems to be to accumulate as many publications as possible and getting cash from local institutions (but more on that later).

Petrucci said that they mostly stay off his back and let him have free reign. There are some guidelines and the basic business model to stick to, but nobody gets to review or censor content. Like most publications, Flying Kite finds itself sandwiched between the wants of its corporate overlords and its advertisers. Go figure.

As for the actual content, it’s kind of scatterbrained. It jumps from local arts events to business openings to science research to boring official business news. Sure, it fits into the concept of the New Economy, but who the hell wants to read it?

That might be my biggest issue with the site; and in the future, that might be the reason Flying Kite – and the rest of the IMG magazines – fail to take off. Who wants to read about somebody getting funding to install the city with wireless energy monitoring at the same time they read about somebody opening a punk rock vegan pizzeria? The magazine runs very interesting stories, but I doubt there are very many people who would be interested in more than one or two in each issue. There’s definitely a niche within the New Economy, but it’s a broad and strange niche that I don’t think has many devotees. Except, of course, the people that they’re writing about.

Petruccci even said it himself, “Our typical reader is very likely someone we'd like to write about.”

People love it when other people write good things about them. They’ll read it once, twice, a million times and then print it out and send it to their family. They’ll hang it on the fridge or in their stores and show it to everyone who talks to them. It’s like physical paper proof that you’re an awesome person. What better way to make money, then, than to write about people who are making money themselves. They have money, they’ll share the story with their friends that have money, and maybe they’ll give the paper money so they might get something nice written about them too.

And that’s another issue with the site. It’s all good news. Every story is about some upstart who is opening up a new store or planning some big event, there’s nothing negative or investigative about it. If you’re looking to find out how much it’ll cost taxpayers for Entrepreneur X to install a wireless energy monitoring infrastructure into the city, you’ve come to the wrong magazine. The stories write about innovation, growth and little else. Flying Kite never writes directly about its advertisers, but it seems entirely focused on promoting the region’s growth. And that brings us to the ethical conflict of the day.

Flying Kite – and all of IMG – operates under an unusual business model. Instead of promoting the area and recruiting local businesses to support its mission with advertising dollars, it recruits institutional supporters ahead of time and promotes the things they’re similarly interested in. They pump money into the site to function as partners and in turn get their logos placed next to related articles and at the bottom of each page. Right now, Flying Kite is working with groups like the Philadelphia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the University of Pennsylvania, PATCO, PNC Bank, the Delaware River Port Authority, and others in the same vein.

When it comes to content choice, there is enormous potential for a conflict of interest. What prevents Flying Kite from serving as a PR agency for its financial investors? Not much. After all, the partners are paying for something. Since most of them are themselves nonprofits – or at the very least are not businesses -- then the promotion has to do good to something other than the organization itself.

It could just be a common mission though. Who said that journalism has to be opposed to the will of the economic top? Can’t some people get together to write a magazine that promotes an area and get support from people who support the same mission? It’s not like other outlets – like NPR and PBS – aren’t supported directly be people who support their mission. The mission in question here may be different, but who’s to say it isn’t a worthwhile one?

Petrucci defends the model, saying that the partners enter with the understanding that Flying Kite will write on subjects they’ll like yet maintain full editorial control over what goes to print.

“There is certainly potential for conflict, and having worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade, it is something not lost on me as managing editor. It is my job to make sure we do not compromise our journalistic integrity, and I can honestly say our partners have been very hands-off when it comes to Flying Kite. It is made abundantly clear to them when they are engaged as partners that while we will write about the things that are important to them and their stakeholders, it is by no means a "pay to play" arrangement. While we certainly accept their ideas and feedback, we do not allow any of our funders to review, edit or censor content. That said, we do tend to focus on positive, solution-oriented ideas and stories.”

Reaching out to the other side of the galaxy, some others haven’t been so supportive of the business model. In a quoted interview (which was quoted from a quote and etc), Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute’s Ethics Group said that “…Simply going to a government official and saying, ‘Hey, we need money,’ that creates a quid pro quo. Who knows what the unspoken expectations are?”

Institutional donors aren’t anything new though, and even if content is somewhat influenced, is that really such a bad thing? If Flying Kite already has a mission, hasn’t it already sacrificed its journalistic integrity? Couldn’t it just go shamelessly forward and do as much good as it can? These questions would have been shot down a decade ago, but in today’s journalism environment it’s something to seriously consider.

Flying Kite is growing, but we’ll have to wait and see if the City grows along with it.

* The image of Joe Petrucci comes from the Flying Kite site.

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