Four Key Questions that TBD Could Answer about Online News

TBD, the new local news site run by the company that brought you Politico, and led by ex-Washington Post online head Jim Brady, was launched early Monday morning. On Friday, Brady and other top staff outlined their editorial and business strategy and showed screen shots of the website.

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If you’ve been following the buildup to the much-anticipated unveiling, you know that the site will rely heavily on aggregation, geolocation and community engagement, through social media and outreach to local bloggers. But Friday’s talk provided further insight into how this news operation will be different from others.

As journalists, news consumers, and industry observers eagerly await next week’s launch, here are my thoughts on some critical questions the site may answer:

Can an online news operation survive by linking to the competition?

Brady told me in April that aggregation will be a key part of TBD, and that was borne out Friday. Half of its links likely will point to external news sources — far more than most local news sites.

Those links could go to any of the 127 local bloggers who joined TBD’s blog network (generally grouped  into neighborhoods, dining, transportation and sports). Or they could be any of 350 other news sources that provide D.C.-area news.

“If we’re competing on the same story, we’ll do our story and we’ll link to yours,” said Steve Buttry, director of community engagement for the site. If another source owns a big story, “we’ll play you at the top of the home page and we’ll cover something else with our staff resources.”

“And don’t think that didn’t raise an eyebrow or two when we raised that possibility” in early discussions about the site, he said.

That philosophy applies to the Post too, though Buttry said, “If a story breaks on TBD, watch and see if the Post links to it.”

On a user’s “My Community” news feed, which aggregates all content relevant to a particular ZIP code, outside news sources may account for more than half of the links, said Managing Editor Paul Volpe, because TBD may not have much original content in certain areas.

The goal is to create a site that people can rely on to find out what’s happening, even if TBD isn’t providing the reporting itself.

“I’ve always believed that where you begin your Web experience is 10 times more important than where you end it,” Brady said. “If you decide that we’re the place you want to begin your local Web experience, I’ll take that over just being another stop on the list of websites that you drop in on.”

Can you build more transparency and accountability into the professional journalist’s workflow?

TBD has built several features into its site that emphasize transparency as well as traditional journalism values such as fairness and accuracy.

Every article on the site will be accompanied by a “complete this story” feature, where reporters will acknowledge weaknesses in the reporting and ask for the community’s help in filling those gaps. “That’s not a strength of most media organizations, to say what they don’t know,” Brady said.

Users’ responses will go to a group of five or six editors and managers, who will review them and send them to a reporter if they look promising. The editors may credit the contributor if they have permission.

Likewise, Volpe said the site will be “very aggressive” about correcting errors, placing corrections at the top of stories, collecting them on a central page and perhaps hosting a corrections blog. (Brady noted that the Post has done a good job of that too.)

“For sources that go directly to reporters, Erik has made it very clear that reporters will not suppress corrections,” Volpe said.

What does a successful partnership between a news organization and the larger community of bloggers look like?

TBD is not the first news outlet to reach out to bloggers to help them fill gaps in coverage. But Buttry and others described a setup that looks like it has less “take” and more “give.”

Buttry expressed confidence that the bloggers invited to join the network (he emphasized that they were selected and invited) are producing trustworthy material.

“The community is out covering the stories in ways traditional media is still trying to catch up with,” he said. His community engagement team will look for the best content and feature it on the site.

Buttry emphasized that bloggers will keep their content on their own sites and won’t be asked to do anything special for TBD.

“This is a completely different relationship between the mothership and the blogs,” said Brad Rourke, who founded the hyperlocal site Rockville Central.

He said he’s been part of other “partnerships” that amounted to him handing over content, only to see it buried, leaving him to hope in vain for referring links.

In contrast, he expects TBD to extend his reach to people in his community — perhaps TV viewers — who don’t know about his site. “News we break on Rockville Central, if people care, there will be a link to us on the home page.”

On the business side, the bloggers can participate in TBD’s ad network, with Allbritton staff selling the ads. Bloggers will get 35 percent of the gross take. Because TBD will take commissions and fees out of its split, Buttry said the net share is closer to 50/50.

Advertisers seem excited “to know they can reach a number of sites with one buy,” Brady said. Buttry noted one advertiser who wanted to advertise on all the blogs in one county.

In addition, Brady said he’d like to explore what kinds of business services TBD can provide for these independent sites, from creating ads to serving them to reaching out to businesses that are too small to be served by large sites.

Is TV a better partner for the Web than a newspaper?

TBD is a partnership between a television and a Web operation. The websites for News Channel 8, an all-news cable channel, and WJLA, an ABC affiliate, will be replaced by TBD. News Channel 8 will be rebranded TBD TV; the ABC affiliate will retain its brand and maintain its emphasis on weather coverage. (TBD’s weather page will carry the affiliate’s logo.)

“We are really now a multimedia operation that is fueled by Web and TV,” said Steve Chaggaris, Allbritton’s vice president for cable news. Television viewers will see a wider variety of local stories, and the station will rely on multimedia content from Web staff.

Brady said he thinks the partnership will work because the DNA of a television station is closer to that of a website. One thing you never need to tell people on TV, he said, is, “You need to move faster.” He and others also mentioned the numerous ways that the website and TBD’s bloggers can be promoted on TV.

About 100 people will contribute in some way to TBD.com, with about half working for the website and the rest, including ad staff, coming from the existing television operation.

“In every ‘converged’ newsroom that I’m aware of, the legacy product was the senior partner,” Buttry said. “And you get so wrapped up in things that the junior partner inevitably gets the short shrift.”

With TBD’s setup, the web staff will be roughly the same size as the television staff. (That speaks to the smaller staff of television stations as much as the size of TBD’s web staff.)

“The Web is not going to have to beg TV for that story,” Buttry said, “because if we want to cover a story, we’ve got staff to cover the story.”

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