This week, the staff of TBD, Allbritton’s local website in Washington, D.C., learned that the site would undergo massive layoffs, and that the format would shift from local news to an arts and culture hub under the umbrella of the WJLA-TV site. For a site that launched last summer to so much fanfare, it was a story as surprising as it was familiar. Now, some are using TBD’s rise and fall as evidence that “pedigree does not equal strategy” and that “hyperlocal is all hype.”
Assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with Jim Brady—who was instrumental in the conception of TBD, and was general manager there until he left last November—about the site’s original promise and what lessons its decline might offer. Brady was also previously executive editor of The Washington Post’s website. On his personal blog, he has posted what amounts to letters of recommendation for TBD’s laid-off staff members, now available for hire. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
What’s your version of the elevator pitch for TBD? What were its goals when it first launched?
I think its goals were to be a regional site that had hyperlocal elements to it, and I think that’s kind of been lost in a lot of the discussion in the past few days—it’s just getting lumped in with, “Well, this is another reason why hyperlocal won’t work.” It was never considered a hyperlocal site at its core. I mean, we were geo-coding a lot of content, and we were doing a lot of things to try to target specific communities, but we never called it, ourselves, a hyperlocal site. That was really just how it was described by other people outside the building. I agree with a lot of people who say that it’s really hard to make money on hyperlocal; that’s why we decided not to do it.
The concept of TBD was to be a regional website that pointed into the future and wasn’t rooted in the past. To produce a local news site of the next generation, it has to be conversational with its community, it has to include content from its community, it has to lean on that community to help report news and give context to news. And, in an area where six blocks makes a huge difference to people, you have to specifically target people where they live, or where they work, or whatever areas are important to them. The site has to be mobile, and it has to answer questions that people have through the course of your day: What’s the weather going to be like? Is my train going to be on time? What’s the Wizards score?
So I think we were trying to be not platform-agnostic—to think very carefully about every platform we were on and how it needed to be different. So we thought it was a regional site that—to quote the line I’ve used a billion times, so much so that it’s almost a cliché—would be not on the web, but of the web. That was the elevator pitch. And it was never about us making an insane amount of money by doing hyperlocal. Because, as many people have said, that’s very hard to monetize at this point. Which is why we went broader.
I thought it was interesting that you had a lot of original content but that you also aggregated and integrated a lot of blogs, and linked out of your website a lot. In retrospect, how do you think that worked? Was it harder or easier than you thought, to figure all of that out, logistically?
I think it was easier than I thought it would be, in the sense that, you know that phrase, “the pioneers always get the arrows?” You always think that you’re going to be the one who tries something new, but then learns some really hard lessons along the way, and of course they’re public lessons. I’m not afraid of learning those lessons; I’ve learned plenty over the years. But we never actually had any problems in terms of linking out or with working with local bloggers that created any trouble for us at all. We had great partners across the area who produced content about their communities, or about arts and living, or about the Washington Capitals or whatever, and I think we’ve helped build their audiences. There were a lot of tweets early on in the process where someone would say, “TBD linked to my blog post this morning, and it’s my best traffic day ever.” We were helping drive new audience to blogs that had not been able to do that just on their own.