TBD’s course raises questions about failure and success on the way to journalism’s future
Many journalists in traditional newsrooms have left their jobs in recent years to work for online news startups and help shape the future of journalism. The sacrifices they've made, though, haven't always worked out as planned. This week, TBD staffers learned what happens when the future you envisioned quickly becomes the past.
Staffers were told Wednesday that the majority of their positions would be eliminated and that TBD would become an arts and entertainment niche site. The news came just two weeks after Allbritton announced WJLA-TV would take over the six-month-old site -- and that the restructuring would not result in any layoffs.
Wednesday's announcement raised an important question not just for TBD, but for all those who want to invest in the future of journalism: How much are you and the company you work for willing to invest -- and at what cost?
When TBD launched, many (including Poynter) suggested the site could provide answers to questions about the future of online news. Its leadership emphasized experimentation and failure as pathways to success.
Erik Wemple, who will remain editor of TBD, told ONA conference attendees last fall, "If you run a website that doesn’t have something that’s terrible on it, you are not trying hard enough. ... You have to fail, fail, fail. You have to fail and fail miserably many times.”
"We were clapping when we heard him say that because that rang true to us so much," Community Host Daniel Victor said in a phone interview Wednesday. When he decided to experiment by using Storify to capture fans' reactions during a Redskins game, "I didn't have to run it by two or three editors to try that," said Victor, whose job was eliminated. "There was always a freedom to do what we felt was right."
Whether a news organization gives its staffers the freedom to experiment and fail depends on whether it views failure as a form of progress or as an end. It's easy to discourage journalists from failing, especially when time and resources are limited. But encouraging failure as a means of learning how to do something better in the future gives journalists reason not to fear it.
Even the failures that show promise, though, are not always good enough -- perhaps because they don't generate enough revenue or because there's not a unified vision of what it means to succeed.
Social Media Producer Mandy Jenkins, whose position was also eliminated, indicated that TBD was not the financial success that Allbritton hoped it would be.
"I really got the impression that they didn't know how much it was going to cost to start a site on as big of a scale as they did. They said flat out that it was just costing too much and they wanted to scale back," Jenkins said by phone shortly after a staff meeting about the announcement.
"It really just seemed like they were not necessarily prepared to spend the kind of money that's been spent and that would need to be spent to keep the experiment going." (We reached out to Allbritton for more information, but were told by Richard Allbritton's assistant that the company had no comment.)
Jenkins said the most frustrating part about Wednesday's news is that despite TBD's many successes, "it failed anyway" through no fault of the staffers. She told me that arts and entertainment content was successful with advertising, which may be why it's becoming the site's main focus.
There were other successes. Several reports say TBD's traffic was "substantially higher" than other local TV station websites.
And TBD's community engagement efforts helped it establish a relationship with the increasing number of readers it was attracting.
"We had high hopes -- not necessarily that we were going to do God's work, but we did feel like we could build a great connection with the community and with the bloggers and really tell news in a way that nobody else had," Victor said.
"As individuals, we have a lot we can call successes. We all came here because we had this grand vision, and it is disappointing that we have to abandon that."
Community Engagement Director Steve Buttry suggested that time -- and what you choose to invest in -- are also factors.
"A website that is not even seven months old has not yet had a chance to succeed," said Buttry, who did not lose his job. "If you haven’t had a chance to succeed, then you haven’t failed."
He also spoke about the plan to sell ads on the community blog network, which TBD stopped doing in December. "It needed someone dedicated to selling it, and we didn’t commit someone to selling it," Buttry said via e-mail, noting that TBD has discussed possibilities for reviving the network. "Is that a failure or another instance of not giving it a chance to succeed?"
As TBD set out to invest in the future of journalism, so have some other businesses and foundations. The Knight Foundation, for instance, has invested millions of dollars throughout the years to fund projects that it believes will pave a path for the industry. Projects like EveryBlock have shown what can be done when enough time and money and talent are invested in developing an idea with demonstrated promise.
AOL has spent millions of dollars building local news sites with Patch.com. And the Journal Register Company has invested in several experimental efforts in the past couple of years, including the Ben Franklin Project and the Open Newsroom.
JRC is of the mindset that failure is a learning experience and an incentive to do better the next time, said Vice President of Content Jon Cooper. He told me that when the Ben Franklin Project first launched, readers weren't submitting the kind of content that staffers had hoped. So the staffers reconvened, figured out how to ask for content in a more effective way and ultimately got what they were looking for.
Cooper said the key -- not just for JRC, but for the industry as a whole -- is to be open with one another about what works and what doesn't work.
"We tell folks, 'Figure out how you're going to find success with this project and evaluate it along the way.' If you evaluate and adapt it, chances are you aren't going to fail; it becomes a living, breathing part of what you do," said Cooper, who let TBD staffers know via Twitter that JRC has some job openings. "It's OK to try something and have it not work out. The failure is not letting others learn why it didn't work."
Wemple said the site will continue to value experimentation. "I don't know how often we failed -- that's for others to judge -- but we want to have that spirit of experimentation and taking risks in the new world," he said. "Moving forward, we want that same sort of mentality."
Even though TBD will be cutting more than half its staff and working under new leadership, Wemple believes that "in terms of our creative freedom, we'll still have a really long leash."
Jim Brady, who ran TBD before leaving in November due to multiple disagreements with the company, is skeptical that the integrated newsroom will "actually feature expanded online resources," as The Washington Business Journal reported.
Brady told my colleague Scott Libin that's "like slaughtering all your cows and saying you're going to make more milk." He also said it would be difficult for TBD to maintain digital relevance because "the people who know the most are being driven out of the company."
Despite what's happened, some staffers said they're still glad they worked for the site. Jenkins, who left her job as social networking editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer to work for TBD, said she doesn't regret her decision.
"For a while, at least, it was a really great time. It was a place where we could really voice our opinions and our ideas and people seemed to care," she said. "That's not something that I'd gotten an opportunity to do in a more traditional newsroom."
Brady said he believes in the importance of finding ways to invest in journalism's future, even if your initial investment doesn't work out.
"I don't think you're going to find too many cases in which a company puts significant resources into a venture and abandons it so quickly," he said. "I might not have hitched my wagon in the right place but I would totally do it again. ... Everybody who works in this business has to keep trying to figure out what the future is."