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Initial impression of D.C. local news Web site TBD; N.Y. Times skips Obama lunch

LAUNCH COUNTDOWN: Allbritton Communications executives and staffers meet to discuss the rollout of their new local news Web site, TBD.com.
LAUNCH COUNTDOWN: Allbritton Communications executives and staffers meet to discuss the rollout of their new local news Web site, TBD.com. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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Mostly, though, TBD produces a steady trickle of community news, searchable by Zip code: "P Street Whole Foods Ditches Restaurant for Expanded Selection"; "Lane closed on northbound I-295"; "Silver Spring's Solution to Crowds of Teens Can't Last"; "Suspicious Package Quickly Cleared at EEOB"; "Housekeeper Sues Rockville, Md. Family for Abuse." (Note to editors: We all know where Rockville is.)

That is the gist of neighborhood news: information that is useful but unexciting. It's not the stuff of prizewinning scandal stories, but more prosaic fare that matters to a slice of the population. When TBD quickly reports that Thursday's monster thunderstorm closed the Cleveland Park Metro station, you care greatly if you're a Red Line commuter; if you live in Virginia, not so much. But that's the beauty of the Web, the ability to track down infobits (such as storm pictures posted on the site's Flickr feed). Brady says he hopes to add such searchable databases as crime reports and home sales.

Some bloggers have chided The Post for allowing talented staffers to leave and launch innovative sites elsewhere. John Harris and Jim VandeHei grabbed a piece of the paper's turf after quitting in 2007 to start Politico (and rejecting a Post offer to create a political site). Whether a big media company such as The Post, with its bureaucracy and turf battles, could have forged a Politico-style site with a faster culture is open to question.

Brady, who helped build The Post's Web site and left last year after a newsroom reorganization, had a free hand at Allbritton to reinvent online local news. Washingtonpost.com, which recently launched a local home page, might have benefited from some of his innovations. But The Post already has a successful site, showcasing the work of a large staff of local, national and foreign correspondents and drawing 16 million visitors last month, according to comScore. TBD's challenge was to come up with something unique to take on The Post -- as well as other local outlets -- with a fraction of the staff.

Mark Potts, whose company GrowthSpur is working with TBD, writes that it is "without doubt the biggest, most ambitious effort yet to create a new paradigm for local news coverage of a major metropolitan area." But the former Post reporter also says TBD "seems to be catering too much to hip downtown 20-somethings and [is] too thin on the suburbs." Covering the suburbs, with their patchwork of towns and parochial interests, is especially tricky, as The Post learned with its now-defunct hyperlocal site aimed at Loudoun County.

No Web site could live up to the months of hype that preceded TBD. At the moment it resembles a sleek, coolly designed, high-tech house with several unfurnished rooms -- and a market value yet to be determined.

No thanks, Mr. President

Eleven White House beat reporters dined with President Obama last week, but the New York Times skipped the off-the-record lunch.

While scribes for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Politico, Associated Press, Reuters, McClatchy and Bloomberg attended, Times correspondent Peter Baker says such sessions are "to be avoided if possible. It can too easily turn into a substitute for on-the-record. . . .

"We're not trying to be haughty," he adds, but "White House reporters get relatively few opportunities to talk to the president on the record." Obama has held several similar sessions with commentators.

Times reporters have attended such gatherings in the past, and Baker did as a Post reporter. There was an internal discussion with editors, he says, because "you do get something out of it, a sense of the person. That's what we lose by not going."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."


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