ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA — When Washington, DC-area website TBD launched in August of 2010, it was supposed to shake up the entire media landscape. A local news website with the backing of multiple local television stations and a major legacy media brand, it would combine new media aggregation and reporting methods with old media resources. Politico parent company Allbritton had committed five years of financial and organizational support to the website, and had recruited several high-profile local media figures, including Washington City Paper editor Erik Wemple. The famously cantankerous Jack Shafer, then Slate’s media critic, declared the site a success a mere four days after its launch.
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But only fifteen months later, TBD is an arts and events listings website with five full-time editorial staffers, and only a token connection to Albritton’s Washington, DC properties (the front page of TBD still links to the WJLA and News Channel 8 websites, but they no longer promote one another or collaborate on coverage). It features a front-page blog that updates about a dozen times each day with local news tidbits, as well as an arts newsletter, an events sidebar, and the occasional slideshow–a format familiar to readers of other urban news startups, such as the Gothamist family of websites. In many respects, TBD now looks like the total opposite of the potentially groundbreaking website it was once intended to be.
The site’s change in course is attributable to Albritton’s decision to pull its funding for the project this past February, a decision that resulted in the layoff of most of the staff and the departures of both general manager (and chief TBD architect) Jim Brady and site editor Wemple. Ten months later, both are still unsure why Allbritton changed its mind on TBD. “It’s just cash,” says Wemple when asked to speculate as to why Allbritton stopped supporting the site. “It’s just revenue. That’s it. There were obviously some personalities in there, and some heated discussions, but those discussions never would have gotten very heated if we’d been rolling in cash.”
But Allbritton had committed to funding the site for up to five years. Brady still doesn’t know why that five-year runway was shortened to just five months. “That’s more a question for Robert Allbritton than it is for me,” says Brady, when asked to explain why Allbritton changed its mind about TBD so quickly. “It was his funding and he decided to scale back on it and it isn’t clear to me why.”
Even if the exact reason for Allbritton’s quick reversal is only known to a handful of the company’s executives, former and current TBD employees still have a sense of where the TBD experiment went wrong. Andrew Beaujon, an arts editor who survived the February purge and who is now one of two acting editors for the website (which is currently searching for a permanent editor-in-chief), says that a combination of hype and high expectations hampered TBD. “I wish that we had started smaller and I wish there had been a lot less attention on us,” says Beaujon. “I was really uncomfortable with the press that we were getting when we started. Jeff Jarvis said that we were doing ‘God’s work.'”
Wemple says that, in retrospect, the site might have been ill-served by the glut of corporate backing it received in its early days. “The whole thing proceeded the opposite way it should have,” he says. “It should have gone from small to big instead of big to small.”
Yet TBD’s size and backing from an established, legacy media organization was part of what once made the site so exciting. During the Allbritton period, TBD boasted over thirty newsroom employees, including a dozen reporters and five editors. TBD also had the kind of market penetration that an independent web startup would not immediately have had. The site had “the most muscular aggregation machine probably that’s ever been tried in a local news context,” according to Wemple. TBD also launched with a network of eighty blogs, which grew to over 200 within a few months, according to Brady. TBD’s relationship with Allbritton gave the site more than just the ability to sustain both a large staff and a complex, multifaceted news operation. It also allowed the site to cross-promote with Allbritton’s other Washington, DC-area properties. The website for WJLA-7, Washington’s ABC affiliate, was merged with TBD, and for eight months, News Channel 8, a twenty-four-hour local cable news station, was called TBD TV.
According to Brady, the combination of hype, high-quality local journalism, and comprehensive corporate backing paid off quickly, at least in terms of traffic. “If you look at the metrics we had, any site that’s two months old would be thrilled to have them,” Brady says. According to the Washington Post, TBD was drawing 1.5 million monthly unique visitors within five months of its launch, and had better than doubled its traffic between October and January 2010. Brady believes that if increases in traffic had continued and Allbritton had continued its commitment to TBD, the site would have eventually become “sustainable.”
But TBD’s burgeoning readership belied a couple of possibly fateful realities: the site wasn’t making money. (“It just wasn’t pulling in enough cash to float itself to the degree that the ownership was projecting or hoping,” says Wemple.) And there was ever-present tension between TBD and its corporate funders.
“If you want to lift the issues that hamper most web legacy media relationships it’s always culture” says Brady, who was responsible for developing the Washington Post‘s web presence between the late-1990s and mid-2000s. “It’s winning the culture battle.” Brady cites the strained relationship between WJLA and TBD as one front in the “culture battle” between TBD and Allbritton’s more traditional wing. WJLA resented the fact that the channel’s website had been eliminated because of TBD; perhaps because of that, WJLA barely promoted the site on air, despite the organizations’ theoretically close partnership. Meanwhile, the mere fact that the site was so closely affiliated with a high-profile regional television station meant added pressure for TBD to find its stride quickly. “It’s hard to market two sites under the same brand effectively, but it would have given us time to prove [TBD] and experiment more,” says Brady. “We had to prove ourselves faster than was realistic.”
TBD was in many ways a victim of its own initial good fortune. Corporate support meant the site could maintain a large newsroom, as well as a sizable staff for developing new means of reporting local news, like geo-coded news pages and enhanced aggregation methods. But a high level of corporate commitment meant high expectations for success, and the large staff and infrastructural commitment made immediate profitability all but impossible.
For Wemple, the most salient culture battle fought over TBD had to do with this clash between the entrepreneurial ethos of local, nontraditional journalism and the sort of expectations that a large legacy organization like Allbritton was bound to have for a site like TBD. “If you’re going to do local it has to be more of a calling than a business sort of venture,” says Wemple. “You’ve got to be in it just because you love it. You’ve got to have very minimal executive staffing. Everybody has to be producing content because the margins are so thin. And no one can expect to take home a lot of money on it.”
TBD still exists, even if it’s no longer the standard bearer for the web journalism crusade. The site is in the process of looking for a permanent editor-in-chief, and while TBD no longer aggregates material from its former blog network, it continues to publish original reporting on local issues and the Washington, DC arts scene. Beaujon, who points out that the site has “been around longer in its new incarnation than it ever was in its original one,” believes that TBD is still fulfilling its original purpose, even if it isn’t widely thought of as a success story. “This was not a site that was built with the idea that it was ever going to be one thing forever. Hence the name,” he says. “I think viewed from that point of view it’s probably fulfilling its original mission, which is to never stop experimenting.”
Beaujon, who has been a first-hand witness to TBD’s entire, so-far tumultuous history, still draws a cautionary lesson from the site’s brief moment as a much-touted new media-old media hybrid. “From my point of view, I do journalism. I find and edit and report stories,” he says. “And I think asking people who have that skill set to save journalism is risking a lot.”
He hopes that TBD won’t be remembered for its apparent failure to “save journalism” on its own. “I think if people are generous,” Beaujon says, “they’ll remember us for the journalism that we did and not for what we were and weren’t, or what we did and didn’t promise to do.”
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