TBD.com making its move into the crowded market of local news

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 2010; C01

TBD.com -- odd name, but let's move on -- is a new all-local news Web site that seems to be the answer to a question that no one has really been asking: Do media-saturated Washington and its environs need yet another source of information about Washington and its environs?

Fair question, acknowledges Robert Allbritton, the affable chief executive of the family-owned media company, Allbritton Communications, behind TBD. No question there's lots of local news out there now, and some of it is quite good, he says. But Allbritton offers an analogy: "Right now, [getting local news on the Web] is like trying to buy groceries in the old country. First you went to the fishmonger, then to the baker, then the grocer and so on. And it worked until someone said, 'Why don't we create a supermarket and put it all together in one place?' "

That's the basic idea of TBD, which goes "live" next week after nine months of preparation. By Allbritton's reckoning, the site will supply an all-encompassing local news fix, with a side of whimsy and quirkiness thrown in.

Friday was TBD's coming-out day. The site's top brass showed off what they've been working on at media sessions at company headquarters in Rosslyn. There was a lot of talk about how TBD will incorporate content from local blogs (127 of them, including one that covers allergies in Loudoun County); how it will integrate video from Allbritton's other media properties, especially WJLA and NewsChannel 8 (the latter of which will be renamed TBD for cross-promotional purposes); and about how mobile apps and "community engagement" will be harnessed to build a powerful new brand and news source.

The early line suggests that TBD will primarily be an aggregator of local news coverage, relying on all those fishmongers and bakers for its daily feed. Although the site has an editorial staff of 35, including 12 reporters, general manager Jim Brady and editor Erik Wemple acknowledge that TBD's journalists will have to hustle. Wemple says one reporter will be deployed in the District, one in Maryland and another in Virginia, each covering "the denser communities," such as Arlington, Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

In the absence of direct coverage, the heavy lifting will be done by linking to other news sources, including direct competitors such as washingtonpost.com and WTOP.com, the two most-popular local Web-news sources in the region. As Brady -- the former editor of washingtonpost.com -- puts it: "You don't win on the Web by shutting your doors to the rest of the world. . . . If we find a great source on a story, we'll link to it."

Local-news sites, of course, aren't exactly an exotic species, and TBD is wading into a crowded pool. With the continued humbling of the newspaper industry, lots of former ink-stained wretches have started Web sites to cover their home towns. Dozens have sprung up in recent years, with names such as VoiceofSanDiego.org, MinnPost.com in Minnesota and Baristanet.com in New Jersey.

The overwhelming majority of these local-news start-ups, however, are small, mom-and-pop ventures. One of the granddaddies of the field, Baristanet (so named because it's seeking to foster a coffeehouse-like conversation among its visitors) surpassed $100,000 in annual revenue only last year. It now draws about 10,000 visitors a day, according to founder Debbie Galant -- a solid number for an independent but microscopic compared with the likes of The Post's site, which draws in excess of a million people a day.

A few of the many local-news sites around the country are making a profit, but the mortality rate is high, even for the wealthier entrants. The Post experimented with a "hyper-local" site targeting Loudoun County but gave up on the venture last year. It recently launched a new local homepage aimed at readers across the Washington area. The New York Times tried something similar in a few of New York's suburbs but shut it down after an 18-month trial last month. A start-up venture called Backfence.com (co-founded by a former Washington Post editor, Mark Potts, now an adviser to TBD) opened news sites serving Bethesda and communities in Northern Virginia before it, too, expired in 2007.

As TBD moved toward launch, in fact, another well-funded start-up quietly slipped into its territory. Patch.com, a network of neighborhood news sites owned by AOL, recently opened "micro-news" sites covering College Park and Riverdale Park-University Park, and is readying similar sites targeting Annapolis, Hyattsville, Wheaton, Annandale, Burke, Reston and Woodbridge. AOL says it will spend $50 million this year on the nationwide expansion of Patch.

Allbritton may be in a unique position, however, says Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: the Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University, because it owns other local media properties (WJLA and News8). That means TBD can borrow content from its corporate brethren, and gets promotional help and advertising support from an existing sales staff.

What's more, the family-controlled company -- founded by former Washington Star and Riggs Bank chairman Joe L. Allbritton, Robert's father -- has an enviable track record for media start-ups. Politico, Robert Allbritton's politics-and-government newspaper and Web site, has quickly grown into an Internet sensation, drawing millions of visitors each month. Its founding, too, was overseen by former Washington Post employees, political journalists John Harris and Jim VandeHei.

Allbritton said the notion of a local-news Web site became obvious with the continued growth of the Internet and the decline of his company's main business, television broadcasting. "It used to be that everyone went home every night and watched the news," he says. "Let's face it, those days are gone. We're crazy if we think we're going to draw those people back to the set." Besides, he adds, "TV is no longer the first destination for local news. . . . So our challenge was, 'How do we diversify away from TV?' "

Asked how long he planned to carry TBD's inevitable start-up losses, Allbritton didn't hesitate: "Years." Privately, TBD staffers say the boss has told them he thinks the Web site can turn a profit within two years.

TBD will face intense competition for scoops, visitors and advertisers. Among others, The Post has been watching its progress closely. "We take all rivals seriously," says Marcus Brauchli, The Post's executive editor. "Channel 7 has been among our local competitors for a long time, and they're clearly putting a lot of energy into the revamp of their Web site. We'll be interested to see how it comes out."

For media watchers, TBD offers several intriguing subplots. Wemple, the site's top editor, is the former editor of the weekly Washington City Paper, where he penned a media-watch column that frequently criticized The Post. Brady's ties are even more direct; he helped build washingtonpost.com into an award-winning site before leaving the company last year after a reorganization of the newsroom.

Brady says he's "very competitive" but plays down the TBD vs. Post angle. "You don't have to be number one to be successful," he says. "I think the field is so wide open right now that there's room for more. . . . It's not some fight to the death."

As for the funny name: TBD stands for "to be determined," which was how Brady and Wemple kept signing memos or answering people when they asked, "What are you going to call this thing?" The name stuck, in part because other names they considered had already been registered by others.

Now it's their own prospects that are TBD.

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