So that’s where I think the evolution of TBD will be interesting, because with the TV station now back in charge of the site, I just fear a lot of the things that I thought were unique about TBD—the linking out, the aggressive social media campaign, and the sort of edgier tone—I fear that those things won’t survive under the new regime. And I think that, once you take those things away, you’re not that far from where you were before, which is an okay website that doesn’t really have any distinction from any of the other ones in the region. That’s what we were aiming for right from the start, that this had to feel different from any other news site in town, and I think it did. If you look at the traffic numbers that Paul Farhi referenced in his story the other day, traffic was pretty good, uniques were pretty good. Obviously we were doing something right.
That story also reported that Allbritton had originally said that TBD would be given three to five years to work itself out. Everyone knows that it takes a very long time for any new outlet to make money. So why do you think it was cut off so quickly?
I’m speculating at this point, because I don’t really know, but I suspect that this isn’t just related to TBD. I assume it’s a company-wide decision, made off of factors that aren’t just about TBD—and I don’t know whether those are strategic, or personnel, or financial. But I do think that, as I said to Paul the other day, you don’t give something that long a runway and then shut it down this quickly without something having changed in the interim. I mean, I saw someone from Channel 7 quoted as saying there was a big gap between our revenue and our expenses. My response to that would be, that’s exactly what was budgeted in year one. It’s not as if we had expected to be raking in the cash in year one, and now we’re taking a hit; it’s part of the building process. You lose money early on when you’re building your audience and evolving your strategy. So I don’t think that alone answers the question, I think there’s got to be more to it than that.
I do think the tension between the legacy media and the startup mentality is really the issue. A lot of people have couched this out to be the TV people versus the web people, or people who are new to the company versus people who have been there for a while—but I think it’s really just a classic legacy/startup conflict. You have to take some resources away from the legacy business if you want to start a new business. And that tends to put a fair amount of pressure on the new business—to perform quickly, and to fit into the culture—and that just doesn’t always happen.
I think if we could do TBD with a pure startup mentality, and if we could fund it more with a V.C. or an angel kind of way, and if we didn’t have the legacy side to work with, then I think it would actually have a better chance to succeed. I wouldn’t have said that before. When I first got there, I felt that the TV piece of it was a huge element—to be able to get that kind of promotion from a TV station with such a big audience, that that would sort of jettison us into immediate relevance. The irony of it was, we got a lot of
media relevance immediate relevance without much promotion from Channel 7 at all. There was no money spent on external marketing of TBD—to this day, there hasn’t been any. There haven’t been any ads for TBD on the buses, or the metro stations, or anywhere in town, and Channel 7 hasn’t promoted it nearly as much as I would have expected.
So now I’ve kind of come out on the other side of it, saying, you know, if you are really aggressive with social media, and you work hard to market it yourself, you can actually build these things out without necessarily having a relationship with a legacy brand. In some senses it might even be better, because you wouldn’t have to deal with some of the tensions that we dealt with. And then, external factors elsewhere in the company wouldn’t end up having a major impact on your fate. Your fate would be a little bit more in your own hands.
Do you have a sense of what TBD will look like going forward, and how it will fit into the DC media world?