TBD: A hyperlocal work in progress
Monday, August 16, 2010; 9:58 AM
One of the most intriguing features of the new, buzz-generating local Web site TBD is an invitation to readers to add some journalistic input. At the bottom of a piece on D.C. mayoral candidate Vincent Gray is the header "Complete This Story:"
"Help! Just like the Mixing Bowl, work on a TBD story is never done. . . . What other issues should Vince Gray be tackling? What questions hasn't he answered? Have you ever discussed a policy issue with Vince Gray's campaign? Tell us about your experiences."
There were no takers, unfortunately, but it's early.
The venture launched last week by Politico's parent company, Allbritton Communications, is a closely watched experiment in hyperlocal news. But the oddly named site has also become a test drive in racing away from old-media thinking (large, reporter-driven staff) toward online innovation (a lean staff buttressed by a slew of outside bloggers).
So what's the initial verdict?
TBD (for To Be Determined) has a voice, a sense of fun and a knack for packaging short items that creates the appearance of flow and momentum. It's thin on detailed reporting and sports but thick with service-oriented squibs about traffic, weather and restaurants.
By linking up with 127 independent bloggers, TBD gets -- free of charge -- some idiosyncratic postings, such as The Anti-DC's take on last week's Alaska plane crash: "Disgraced-then-undisgraced coot-off runner-up Ted Stevens, the former Republican Alaskan senator who was indicted then unindicted on corruption charges, has died. And while it's always sad when someone dies, I'm sometimes a little skeptical of the public mourning surrounding the deaths of politicians. Why do we suddenly forget all the unscrupulous career moves deceased politicians (most of whom are probably psychopaths devoid of normal markers of humanity anyway) ever made and only remember the good?"
That may or may not have offended some folks, but it's not something you'd read in a daily newspaper. Other bloggers range from Allergy Life in Loudoun (about a young girl with life-threatening food allergies) to Arlington Real Estate News (a Realtor who gives advice on buying and selling) to Bitches Who Brunch ("they cook, shop and chat about the DC area food scene").
With a staff of 15 reporters, the site puts pride aside by regularly linking to stories from other news outlets -- including one of its main competitors, washingtonpost.com -- without a Huffington Post-style summary page that boosts its own traffic. And that's fine with General Manager Jim Brady, who used to run The Post's site. TBD, he says, is aimed "at someone who says, 'I want a quick read on what's happening, and they're not playing favorites with their own stuff.' " Brady concedes he's making a virtue of necessity: "We're not in a position where we have 20 things competing for six spaces on the home page. At least it's clarity of focus."
TBD has offered some good political reporting, such as a piece undermining a radio ad by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) that accused Republican challenger Robert Ehrlich of representing oil companies. And unlike most local sites, it gets a boost from Allbritton's two television stations, WJLA and NewsChannel8 (rechristened TBD-TV), posting video packages from the stations mainly in the evening.
As for its own staff, one TBD reporter is assigned to compiling that age-old magazine staple, lists. Brady insists that "lists are addictive, people love them on the Web. Some are frivolous, some are serious." Among the maiden efforts: cataloguing the area's free outdoor movies and weirdest college classes.
In an attempt to tackle the area's football obsession, the site has one full-time reporter, a part-time blogger and onetime Post columnist David Aldridge covering the Redskins.