Allbritton Communications slashes staff at reorganized TBD.com

February 24, 2011

Six months after it began as a bold new experiment in local newsgathering, TBD.com's fate remains, as its initials imply, to be determined.

After a staff-slashing announcement and wholesale reorganization Wednesday, the Arlington-based operation will become a small, stand-alone Web site focused on local entertainment and lifestyle features - in other words, all of the things it wasn't supposed to be when it launched with great fanfare and the attention of the media world last summer.

The brainchild of Allbritton Communications chief executive Robert Allbritton, TBD was supposed to do for Washington area news what Allbritton's Politico newspaper and Web site had done for political coverage. That is, it would be faster, smarter and more creative than existing digital offerings, using the Web, broadcast TV and cable news. It would gather its own news, "curate" and link to hundreds of allied but independent blogs and integrate with Allbritton's other local-news properties, broadcast station WJLA and cable-news outlet NewsChannel 8.

Allbritton said it would take three to five years for TBD to turn a profit and establish itself as a full-fledged challenger to local news leaders such as The Washington Post.

That seems unlikely now.

TBD.com will jettison about a dozen of its 23 editorial staffers and much of its local newsgathering capabilities following Wednesday's reorganization. Several employees will be reassigned to the newly reestablished WJLA.com, the Web site Allbritton abandoned last summer in an attempt to consolidate its Web operations around TBD.com.

By next week, TBD will have eight editors and reporters who will concentrate on arts, entertainment and lifestyle stories, according to Erik Wemple, who will remain its editor.

According to some internal measures, TBD was thriving, having gained a strong following in a very short time. In January, just five months after its debut, it attracted 1.5 million unique visitors, nearly double its December total of 838,000 and far surpassing November's total, 715,000, the internal figures show.

Indeed, over the past three months, TBD's traffic was substantially higher than Web sites operated by local TV stations WRC (Channel 4), WUSA (Channel 9) and WTTG (Channel 5), according to Compete.com, which tracks Web traffic.

But revenue was another story. TBD has had trouble "monetizing" its growing audience - in part, staffers say, because the company decided early on to scrap plans for TBD to handle its own advertising sales. Instead, the job was given to salespeople from WJLA, who were more accustomed to selling TV airtime than digital ads.

"The traffic has been improving and improving steadily," said Bill Lord, the WJLA station manager who was named to head TBD earlier this month. "But it was still not generating a lot of income. It was still not generating enough to offset the hefty costs."

Lord declined to release actual figures, but he said there was "a very wide gap" between expenses and revenue.

Current and former employees say Allbritton never quite realized the kind of integration among the company's local media properties that was supposed to be TBD's hallmark.

Top managers at WJLA resented the new operation, in part because it meant the loss of WJLA's own Web site, which - unlike TBD - was a reliable promotional vehicle for the TV station's work. Some at the station were upset last fall when a series of TV reports by WJLA reporter Jennifer Donelan about her heart attack appeared only belatedly on TBD.

Some at the station also resented the company's decision to invest in the start-up after they had endured a pay freeze in 2008. "They saw money that could have been their raises being diverted into this new thing," said one manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the company.

One WJLA employee described the relationship between the TV station and the Web site's managers as "palpable resistance and mutual contempt."

Various issues and disputes over the site's direction eventually led to two major defections. In November, TBD General Manager Jim Brady, who helped develop the site, left in frustration (Brady had formerly been the executive editor of washingtonpost.com). Paul Volpe, TBD's managing editor, left in January to join the New York Times (Volpe also formerly worked at The Post's Web site).

In an interview Wednesday, Brady suggested that Allbritton's cost-cutting moves weren't entirely a reflection of the site's financial issues but were a response to financial issues within the parent company.

"You don't give an operation a three- to five-year runway, and then shoot it in the head after six months without there being external factors," Brady said. "This reflects other things going on in the company."

In fact, revenue and profits for WJLA, NewsChannel 8 and TBD were below the company's projections during the final three months of 2010, which make up the first quarter of Allbritton's fiscal year, according to company managers. Revenue for the three properties fell 8 percent short, and profit was 15 percent below budget.

During fiscal 2010, privately held Allbritton - which owns TV stations serving six markets around the country - earned $25.2 million in profit, a big swing from a loss of $5.6 million the year before, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Its sales grew smartly during the last fiscal year, up nearly 11 percent to $201.2 million.

However, during the past three months - the first quarter of its new fiscal year - its fortunes have declined sharply, the documents show. Net operating profit fell 25 percent, from $12 million to $9 million, the company reported.

Lord disputed the notion that any larger financial issues played a role in the decision to clip TBD. "The overall company is doing fine," he said. "It's in a good shape."

Robert Allbritton was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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