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.”

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  • http://www.myfoxdc.com/ myfoxdc

    Citing a self-employed blogger and Compete.com for DC web metrics is questionable. Comscore, and even Alexa, are more established metric trackers and neither show TBD with these hard to believe numbers.
    Especially since most of TBD’s news content was cherry picked from other DC news websites.

  • http://twitter.com/TedSchnell3 Ted Schnell

    I think too many newsrooms have been far too short-sighted for far too long. Companies have reaped huge profits off news media and now, when a paradigm shift occurs, they fear risking new investment to pave the road to their own future. In the end, people who provide a value to their communities — and their employers — in their pursuit of journalistic excellence get cut. Ultimately, they lose their jobs, as I did, and maybe their homes as media companies cut their most valuable commodity: the very people who provide or ensure the quality content their communities deserve. I believe that in making these kinds of cuts, many of these companies will find their short-sightedness leads to its own failure. Time will tell.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, whatever, dude.

  • Anonymous

    Mallary–

    Part of the problem is that editors and reporters these days no longer are trained with a competitive instinct for gathering and disseminating the news — which, in the old days, meant you developed the ability to report and write five or more stories in one day. As direct competition died, reporters and editors got lazy — and they stopped trying to write second-day and third-day stories as followups, because no competitor was on their heels.

    It’s difficult to see, looking at tbd.com, exactly what the huge staff was producing every day, because so few local news stories seemed to be posted by tbd.com staff.

    Getting back to the old standards in competitive news gathering would translate well into the current electronic environment, because reporters would no longer have the need to nurse their sources until air time or press time to make sure they didn’t talk to a competitor.

    As I said previously, electronic forms of immediate communication don’t require reinventing the wheel — which everybody seems to want to do, for some strange reason. It just means that experienced reporters can publish the news they gather much faster than in the old days.

    The problem with tbd.com, as well as most news media in the D.C. area, is that they seem to have little idea of the time-honored practices that experienced journalists use to develop sources and gather news. Being overly dependent on the Internet and official government sources is what’s ruining the news business. If the corporate bosses at news organizations realized the value of experience and mentoring in newsrooms, they wouldn’t be turning loose a bunch of newbies who haven’t yet learned the trade — and, therefore, need to make a ridiculous number of expensive mistakes along the way.

  • Anonymous

    ANY media co. is too cheap to try anything innovative. Will never happen.

  • Anonymous

    Uh, they DID try new things. In fact, that was part of the problem: There was a lack of actual content.

    It’s easy to spout cliches like “Innovate or die.” How about an original idea on how this innovation — which is expensive — will bring in revenue.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    @WDCresident,

    I appreciate you taking the time to write. When highlighting some of TBD’s successes, I looked for measures of success — such as traffic — that weren’t just tied to the anecdotes staffers shared with me. I can’t speak to the editorial decisions TBD has made, but I do know that the staffers I talked to realize that not everything worked. While they highlighted the site’s successes, they also acknowledged that they sometimes failed along the way. The key, they said, was learning from those failures.

    In general, I think it can beneficial when readers like yourself offer news organizations constructive criticism when they’re not delivering the content they promised, or when they lack coverage in a particular area. Even if a news org has a community engagement team like TBD’s, it’s harder to meet readers’ needs if readers don’t articulate them. Better to articulate them before it’s too late.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    @WDCresident,

    I appreciate you taking the time to write. When highlighting TBD’s successes, I looked for measures of success — such as traffic — that weren’t just tied to the anecdotes staffers shared with me. I can’t speak to the editorial decisions TBD has made, but I do know that the staffers I talked to realize that not everything worked. While they highlighted the site’s successes, they also acknowledged that they sometimes failed along the way. The key, they said, was learning from those failures.

    In general, I think it can beneficial when readers like yourself offer news organizations constructive criticism when they’re not delivering the content they promised, or when they lack coverage in a particular area. Even if a news org has a community engagement team like TBD’s, it’s harder to meet readers’ needs if readers don’t articulate these needs. Better to articulate them before it’s too late.

    ~Mallary

  • Anonymous

    Mallary, this is a very one-sided look at what happened at tbd.com — extremely myopic by only giving the perspective of the folks at tbd.com who thought they were doing such a good job.

    The promise of a local news side never materialized — it was always too entertainment-oriented and opinion-oriented with too much reliance on local bloggers (who often are full of hot air and their own agendas). If you consider neighborhood news that is days old to be “news” and the lack of any real followup or updates of what’s happening locally to be “news,” then that attitude was the real problem.

    Plus, the community knew there was a problem when the launch of tbd.com kept getting delayed — and then it launched with such a ridiculous name! These were outward signs that people didn’t know what they were doing.

    I don’t think tbd.com’s failure was a failure of the original concept at all. I think Allbritton and the people they hired to execute the concept were the problem. How do you possibly hit the ground running with in-depth and broad coverage of local news in such a large metropolitan area when the people you choose to create the operation have almost no experience trying to do anything close to such a far-reaching project?

    Those of us who live in the D.C. area would love to support a good local news site that tells us what our local governments are doing and how we can have some impact on those actions that affect our lives before they are done deals. We would love to support a site that gives us breaking news coverage in our communities.

    But it doesn’t make sense that NOBODY among the D.C. area news media seems to realize that they can accomplish this without reinventing the wheel with inexperienced younguns — by running an old-style daily newspaper newsroom structure and simply publishing and otherwise communicating all of it online.

  • Anonymous

    Big surprise, a news organization NOT committed to the web as a news medium? This attitude has been prevalent since the mid 90′s, and they just don’t get it. This isn’t traditional media anymore, you can’t do the same things you did before. Innovate or die.