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.
I’d even go so far to say that that model is, for a local news site, sort of indisputable. The debate over whether you work with people in your community, or whether you just say “Here’s our website, and here’s all the stuff we produced today and that’s it,” I think that has to be over. Newspapers had that power because they had the power of distribution. But on the web, people are going to go to all different sites, and so if you can be that place that connects people to good content that they’re interested in regardless of source, then you’re going to be the place they start their day. And on the web, that’s how you win: you have to be in somebody’s short list of sites they always go to. People would say, “Why are you linking off-site? You’re driving people away from your site!” But what’s the counter-argument to that, that if you never link off-site, then people will never leave your website?
Right, they’ll just read your site all day long.
[Laughs] I mean, they’re going to leave your website anyway, whether it’s to go check their e-mail or go to TMZ.com or whatever. So the concept that you’re losing people by doing that, is actually the opposite of what’s actually happening—
which is that you’re building loyalty by performing the role you’re supposed to perform, which is to be a conduit for useful information.
Traditionally, newspapers didn’t just have the power of distribution, but they also had the power of huge newsrooms, and that’s not the case anymore, either.
That’s true. So, to me, that part of the model actually worked the best out of anything we did. We engaged the community that way. We also got a lot of unintended benefits, too; we had a lot of bloggers in the region who would help re-tweet things we were doing, because they felt like they were a part of us, in a way, and we were a part of them. It’s nice to have a lot of support from people in the community if you want your site to be successful.
How would you compare your time at WashingtonPost.com, which is a web version of legacy media, to your time TBD, where you were building something new from scratch?
Well, starting something from scratch, in its purest sense, was the most fun I’ve ever had. Getting to hire a really talented staff, and getting to create the strategy from the ground up, and being able to be more nimble is, for somebody like me, sort of a dream come true. The truth of the matter is, though, it wasn’t a pure startup; it was under an existing company, and it was a collaboration between two local TV stations.