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 clich√©—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.

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.

I think, on that side of the coin, it was actually harder at TBD than it was at the Post to forge a relationship with the folks from the legacy side of the business. I think there was a fair amount of resistance from the Channel 7 folks, and, in fairness, they’ve accused us of the same. I don’t think they were ever really that happy that Channel 7’s website got rolled into TBD—though I’d argue that the reason that that happened was that Channel 7’s website wasn’t particularly good, there just wasn’t a whole lot of attention or strategic focus on it. So that part was hard. We had a lot of great people, and there are a lot of great people over at Channel 7, and when we were in a breaking news situation, we worked pretty well together. But I think in a lot of the day-to-day stuff, and a lot of our strategies around social media and linking out, I think they were just never on board with those, and I’m sure aren’t to this day.

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?

That’s going to be the real question, which is, How will it distinguish itself now as an arts and entertainment niche site, in a town that already has a fair amount of people focused on that particular niche? I don’t know. I think it’s going to be hard. It sure feels like to me this is the beginning—or maybe midway through—a slow, painful death. Even as an entertainment niche site, it doesn’t look like what we drew up on the blackboard a year ago. But I hope I’m wrong. I certainly wish everyone there the best, because those are all people I know and played a part in hiring. I just think that the problem with going entertainment-niche is, now you’re doing something that a lot of other people are doing, and you don’t have a lot that distinguishes you. In the web world, your strategy has to be focused on doing things other people are not doing—rather than trying to do something that people are already doing, better.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner