In retrospect, maybe choosing the name TBD was prophetic.
Six months after its birth, the fate of the Washington, D.C., metro news site now appears to be determined — and it isn’t at all what the founding force behind the site had in mind.
That first general manager, Jim Brady, was gone three months after launch. The site he left behind now falls under the control of Bill Lord, general manager and news director of WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate co-owned by parent company Allbritton Communications.
Upon launch last summer, the innovative TBD swallowed whole WJLA’s online presence. It simultaneously absorbed and changed the on-air name of Allbritton’s all-news local cable outlet, rebranding the 19-year-old channel as TBD-TV. But WJLA.com and NewsChannel 8 will be back — and soon.
Lord says he’s working on a timeline this week. He calls the latest reorganization a “mid-course correction” and says he’s telling employees it’s not a huge change.
“Our plan is to have two TV stations, broadcast and cable [WJLA and NewsChannel 8], and two websites,” Lord says: the resurrected WJLA.com and TBD.com, which will continue to provide an online presence for NewsChannel 8.
“All four will have a certain level of commonality of staff. Everybody has to participate in the online effort, or it won’t work.”
What didn’t work, Lord says, was maintaining TBD.com as a standalone site that also served WJLA viewers.
“We need both — an independent site and a way to post very specific content for the TV station. To keep TBD independent, you really couldn’t do that very well.”
At least on that one point, Lord and Brady agree.
When legacies and new brands collide
“The lessons are the same ones I learned at The [Washington] Post,” Brady told me, referring to his decision to depart from his job there two years ago, prior to the newspaper’s merger of print and online operations.
“It’s hard to build something very different” in the shadow of a legacy brand,” he says. “Right from the start it was sort of us versus them. Having lived through my time at The Post, I was familiar with that.”
Brady says, contrary to what many people might assume, his time at TBD.com was not the tale of a former newspaper guy trying to drag TV people into a new online space.
“I think if I’d started TBD as spinoff of another print publication, the outcome would have been the same,” Brady said.
“Too many of these debates turn into some kind of good-versus-bad, old-versus-young thing,” Brady said. “The real natural tension is existing business versus startup.”
Whether the existing business is print or broadcast, Brady believes, “if there’s a huge revenue stream that’s dying off a little bit, there’s the sense that you need all hands on deck to preserve that,” and the risk tolerance that’s vital to innovation — “a certain freedom of thinking,” he calls is — can quickly be extinguished.
Brady also believes that for TBD.com to have succeeded fully in business terms, it needed to handle its own sales.
“That opportunity was taken away even before launch,” he says, in a move he calls “panicky.” And that mentality, Brady believes, was the biggest reason TBD.com fell short of the high hopes so many had at its inception.
Lord downplays the sales side of the story, but defends the decision to have television people involved.
Where’s the money?
“The largest slice of online revenue will come from traditional advertisers who are already on the air anyway,” Lord said, and he doesn’t want two sales people from one organization going after the same client.
This month’s changes, Lord says, are driven by economics. “We need to be more cost-conscious, and we need more page views,” he says. “I don’t think there were specific goals [at the time of TBD’s launch], but there will be now,” and not just in terms of overall traffic. “I want page-view goals for each visitor,” Lord says.
TBD.com’s blog network and aggregation strategy may have had some truly new elements to it, but the tension between it and its broadcast siblings has a very familiar ring. Media companies have struggled for years with how heavily to invest in promising new platforms that show great growth but generate a tiny fraction of the revenue produced by on-air advertising.
“I thought the company had more of a risk-taking, innovative bent to it, and was willing to go through some growing pains,” Brady said. “You have to have an open, honest conversation if you’re doing this kind of thing with an existing television station or newspaper: How does it affect the legacy brand? What level of cooperation can you expect? … I think you have to set that mindset right at the beginning, and that did not happen.”
Brady sounds a lot less angry than some of his biggest fans and staunchest defenders.
The broadcast side of the story
In a blog titled “R.I.P. TBD,” “Recovering Journalist” Mark Potts blames the “smothering” of TBD.com on “incredible lack of vision” as well as “meddling and bad decision-making by executives at corporate parent Allbritton Communications.”
Potts says any disappointing return-on-investment results were “doubtless because the TV people who muscled into the site’s ad sales didn’t really know what they were doing.”
New York University Professor Jay Rosen tweeted succinctly: “The TV guys won.”
As a former “TV guy” myself, I asked another reformed television type for his take on TBD.com.
Cory Bergman is director of new product development at msnbc.com and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board.
When he wrote about TBD last year, he was encouraging and even complimentary, but not gushing.
Here’s part of what he says today:
I applaud Allbritton and the TBD team for launching a bold experiment with the investment to back it up. Local media companies today are not investing nearly enough in new ideas, and the launch of TBD was a risk worth taking. In many ways, it energized the industry, and we shouldn’t look at its recent struggles as ammunition to shoot down new ideas. With local advertising dollars splintering like never before, local TV urgently needs to take new risks to invent new ad products and attract much larger online and mobile audiences.
From my outsider’s perspective, TBD is too much, too soon. Under even the most optimistic scenarios, revenue can’t support that staff size for the immediate future, which requires a very patient parent company. But that patience becomes frayed when the Web and TV teams are pointing in different directions despite having the same mission to deliver a quality news product.
One TV-Web partnership Brady says sets the standard for teamwork is at WRAL-TV and WRAL.com in Raleigh, N.C.
Dominant brands, multiple platforms
“The relationship is very, very collaborative,” according to Vice President and General Manager Steve Hammel. “It’s in everyone’s interest to see that the Web is as strong as possible.”
Even at WRAL, it’s always been easier to get television viewers to the Web than to get Web users tuned in to the TV station. But with one billion page views last year, Hammel says, “If we just get a small percentage of that in on-air viewing, we’re doing all right.”
Brady never felt TBD.com got the consistent on-air promotion it deserved; nor does he believe his bosses or television colleagues understood what the site was really about.
“ ‘Where is the thing that led the news last night on TBD?’ Leading our site with a 90-second piece about a fire that’s been out since last night wasn’t going to work.”
Lord says WJLA-TV will carry extensive on-air promotion for TBD.com, but outside of newscasts. Within newscasts, viewers will be sent once again to WJLA.com.
“TBD will have its own staff, its own reporters and its own content, which will be very unique to that site,” Lord says. “We want it to have its own identity.”
Brady says, during his months there, TBD.com and WJLA-TV did collaborate effectively at least once when it mattered most. He’s proudest of the breaking-news coverage produced across platforms when a man took hostages at the suburban Washington headquarters of the Discovery Channel.
It was, he says, much harder to maintain that level of cooperation and coverage when there was no major breaking event, which may be the one thing the unorthodox TBD.com had in common with every other news organization, regardless of medium.