Five telling developments probably contributed to the end of TBD.com as we knew it.
Some folks are saying TBD’s demise is because hyperlocal sites don’t work. TBD.com’s cutbacks and reorganization have less to do with whether a “hyperlocal” approach is doable and more to do with the necessary elements required of an organization to achieve something like this.
(btw, I HATE the world hyperlocal. Yes, I was guilty of using it for a while. Then, I realized that journalists were using the term to describe people — often journalists — who were covering communities of 10,000 to 50,000. Ho. Small towns. Most of those small towns have had honest-to-god newspapers for decades. Do you call the reporters at those small dailies and weeklies hyper-local journalists? No, you call them journalists.)
On to the five reasons….
1. The abrupt departure of editor Jim Brady three months after TBD.com launched. When the top guy leaves, it’s likely there’s been a critical change in commitment or approach at the top. In this case, at least one obvious change was the commitment to three-to-five years of growth and development that Robert Allbritton, chief executive of Allbritton Communications, which owns TBD.com, had pledged, and is definitely required when growing a digital news organization. According to Paul Farhi, who wrote the Washington Post article on TBD.com’s demise, it had great traffic for a startup.
In January, just five months after its debut, it attracted 1.5 million unique visitors, nearly double its December total of 838,000 and far surpassing November’s total, 715,000, the internal figures show.
2. Ad sales done by WJLA staff. If you’re making an investment in a digital operation, it has to be a complete investment, i.e., there has to be a robust digital sales staff, too.
3. Not enough organizational separation between WJLA and TBO.com. In Farhi’s article, there was this telling statement:
“One WJLA employee described the relationship between the TV station and the Web site’s managers as “palpable resistance and mutual contempt.””
Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of the Deseret News Publishing Company and Deseret Digital Media, will tell you that you have to separate digital from traditional, otherwise traditional will drag digital down culturally and operationally. If both groups fight for the same resources, it’s likely that the traditional group has more political clout and will win, which means both lose.
4. Not niche enough. The organization was still too mass-media oriented, and, thus, staff-heavy. Sports coverage? Existing local news organizations plus CBS, ESPN, and SBNation provide blanket coverage now. Should that have been in the mix? I don’t know how the traffic to the topics played out, but an assessment of what wasn’t being covered well, identifying where the opportunities are, and building communities around those topics probably would have helped.
5. Abandoning commitment to community engagement. The new TBD.com has pulled the plug on their terrific efforts to build a community of bloggers, also showing that the cultural and organizational weight still resides in the traditional we-talk-you-listen TV news. Oh, my. That’s so 1999.
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