AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   June/July 2010

Determining the Future of Local News in D.C.   

Allbritton's TBD is poised to to join Washington's crowded news market.

By Karen Carmichael
Karen Carmichael is an AJR editorial assistant.     

The already crowded Washington, D.C., news market is about to get a little tighter. Allbritton Communications' online local news operation, TBD, is entering the fray, and it's no nonprofit startup: General Manager Jim Brady expects to support the site through a modern take on old-fashioned ad sales.

Brady, a former executive editor of washingtonpost.com and Allbritton's president of digital strategy, says the new operation is determined to figure out how to make local online news a profitable venture and to reimagine the relationship among reader, blogger and news organization, with heavy aggregation and partnerships with area bloggers key parts of his strategy.

"We are trying to reinvent what local news can look like in a world in which you can combine the technology of the Web and the broad reach of a television station, so you can deliver the macro and the micro at the same time," he says.

TBD, scheduled to debut in early summer, won't be just a Web site, Brady says. He sees the new operation as an equal partnership between the site and Allbritton's D.C. television channels, News Channel 8 and WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington. (Allbritton also owns the high-profile political Web site and newspaper Politico.)

"We're working really closely with them to try to produce a news product that really works across multiple platforms," Brady says. "We're hoping to accomplish a true melding of a couple of different media."

The new site's unusual name, which stands for "to be determined," is an acknowledgement of the changing news landscape, Brady says. "The world is moving so quickly these days, with all the communication tools people have." TBD is meant to suggest that "we're always going to be pushing pushing to find the things we don't know."

The focus will be strictly targeted on news happening in the Washington metro area. "The idea of the site is if..you're a resident of this region, what are the things that really affect your daily life?" Brady says. With a reporting staff of 15 to 18, TBD won't try to be all things to all people. Instead, it will focus on high-interest topics including transportation, public safety, arts and entertainment, government and sports.

Precision is key in covering local news, Brady says. Readers will be encouraged to include their ZIP codes when using TBD, and the site's homepage will feature different content for readers based on their location. For instance, the site might display news of a crime that occurred two blocks away from a reader in the city's Columbia Heights neighborhood that it wouldn't show a reader accessing the site from D.C.'s Maryland or Virginia suburbs.

With the spread of mobile devices, there's even more value in delivering geocoded news to readers, Brady says. "I think the mobile generation is going to change local news for good."

That mobility is also playing into TBD's business model. Along with news content, some advertisements will be geocoded and potential blog ad networks will provide more outlets for local advertisers. The site will have to go after different revenue streams, Brady says. "There's lots of money on the Web, but there's a lot more people fighting for it," he says. "It's much more of a street fight."

Unlike a Web site launched by an established local newspaper, TBD is starting with a clean canvas, says Brady, who pitched the idea for the news outlet to Allbritton. "The world has changed so much in the last 10 years, it's a huge advantage just to be able to build from the ground up."

Adds TBD Editor Erik Wemple, "We're unconstrained by a print platform we don't have to get a paper out every day or even every week." That freedom will enable the editors to channel all of their energy into the Web site, which will be constantly changing, he says.

In a packed market that includes the long-dominant Post, the Washington Times and a free daily, the Examiner, TBD will count on its "immediacy and freshness" to set it apart, Wemple says. A former editor of the weekly Washington City Paper, Wemple joined TBD for "the allure of doing a local site with tons of resources," he says. Wemple describes TBD's approach as similar to a town hall meeting, only online. The site's editors hope to draw in plenty of community voices, with readers providing tips and feedback.

"We want to change the way we do coverage, the way journalists view coverage," Wemple says. Instead of sending out one reporter who can interview only a few people, he asks, why not pull in news feeds from other sources and post fans' thoughts and experiences to cover, say, the opening day of the Washington Nationals' season?

Like Allbritton's other media properties, TBD will be based in Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac from the capital. Brady plans for a total staff of 50, with about 35 in the newsroom (compared with the Post's 600 editorial employees). A team of six, led by Director of Community Engagement Steve Buttry, will scout out talented Washington-area bloggers to supplement the site's content.

"We want to cover the breadth of the community experience," Buttry says. Creating a network of affiliated bloggers, he says, will allow TBD to report on a broader range of topics beyond what the site could do on its own with its small reporting staff. What he's looking for are current, frequently updated blogs focused on the local area.

Brady views the bloggers as the equivalent of reporters on beats. "Instead of having reporters compete with them, we should work with them," he says. "Why would you want to walk away from really high-quality content?"

TBD isn't trying to apply traditional media standards to a blogger network, says Buttry, a former innovation coach and editor at Gazette Communications, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based media company that owns a daily newspaper and a television station. Bloggers won't be given specific assignments, and the reporting staff will provide content on issues and events TBD feels need professional coverage. But TBD will be aggressive in developing relationships with bloggers who write on areas the site won't regularly cover, Buttry says.

TBD won't pay bloggers directly instead, the sales staff will work with interested advertisers to sell ad space on the bloggers' sites, and TBD will split the revenue with them. Brady and Buttry believe that the partnership will drive more traffic to the bloggers' sites and help them to sell more prominent ads.

"We want it to be a mutually beneficial relationship," Buttry says.

Brady and Wemple agree that TBD will rely equally on original reporting, community engagement and aggregation. "We will be aggregating the living daylights out of other news organizations," Wemple says.

Adds Buttry, "We want to be the place to come for news about the metro area, wherever that news comes from."

One of TBD's primary sources of aggregation, according to Brady: the Washington Post. Asked about the emergence of a new rival, Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth wrote in an e-mail interview, "Links back to our content can be a good thing, and we will wait to see his execution."

TBD's connection to Allbritton gives it a huge advantage in the Washington market, says Jack Shafer, who writes about the media for the Washington Post Co.-owned Slate. "It's not as though it's this single startup," Shafer says. "It looks like another iteration of the Allbritton local media empire."

Allbritton's holdings already collect local news and national political news, Shafer says, and its television channels and Politico can help promote TBD. Furthermore, the company already sells advertising in the Washington area. "It's not like they're brand new to the ad sales business in this town," Shafer says.

In a market already covered by the Post, the Times and the Examiner, is there really room for more daily reporting?

"There's always room," Shafer says. "If the history of journalism tells us anything, it's that nobody has a permanent seat at the table."

Weymouth agrees. "I take seriously any new entrant in the local market. And I have great respect for Jim and the team he has hired," she says. "By the same token, I view any competition as good for us."

With so much opportunity for people to create their own blogs and Web sites covering where they live, the democratization of media is already well under way, Brady says. "I'm still a believer that the era of one news organization dominating a market has really been killed by the Web," he says.

At a panel discussion on reinventing local news at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism in April, Brady acknowledged the challenges of launching a news operation. The danger is that "everybody's so averse to any kind of risk," he said. TBD will make mistakes and run into problems, he said, but the site will provide the targeted local news that newspapers aren't built to offer.

"You certainly care about what's happening right around where you live," Brady said, "and we're banking on that."