TBD: A hyperlocal work in progress

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

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 on 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 prize-winning 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."

Gibbs's goof

Robert Gibbs's slam against the "professional left" fueled the August dog days last week, and Maureen Dowd -- who's not generally in the business of calling for scalps -- says the spokesman should step down:

"Obama -- who bonded with Gibbs during the campaign, over sports, missing their families and how irritating the blog-around-the-clock press corps is -- would be wise to promote him to a counselor. Let someone who shows less disdain for the press work with the press, and be the more engaging face of the White House."

At Politics Daily, Alex Wagner says the remarks "are no reason to call for the press secretary's resignation, as Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) did. But were they enough for onlookers to slap their foreheads in disbelief, the 'D'oh!' heard round the (left-wing) world? Yes.

"The press secretary's belittling, foolish commentary comes right as the Democrats face a battle to close what pundits like to call the 'enthusiasm gap' between liberal and conservative voters ahead of this year's midterm elections. It would have been demoralizing enough if Gibbs had just left Dems with his bons mots from an interview on 'Meet the Press,' where he proclaimed, 'I think there's no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control.' But bashing Obama's base at a time when Democratic congressional candidates need all the support they can muster? Questionable strategy. . . .

"What's happening over at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.? For a team that was so incredibly skilled at managing the message and reading the pulse of the country throughout the long, hard campaign slog, it has been weirdly, tragically tone deaf these last few weeks. George W. Bush, not someone known for his nuanced approach to anything, managed to keep his head down during the dark days, clearing brush in Crawford, abstaining from the golf course, and waving goodbye to his wife as she took off on low-cost (and domestic!) camping trips. For a country that's hurt, an economy that's limping, and a base that feels bruised, President Obama and his team would do well to descend from that high horse and put their feet back on the ground."

Whether her larger thesis is right or not, it is pretty ham-handed to lose ground during a vacation.

Hyping Hillary

The Hillary-for-veep -- well, it's too much to call it a boomlet -- but the chatter is growing louder. The Daily Beast's Tunku Varadarajan adds his voice:

"The secretary of State has been quite magnificent at her job, the only member of the Obama Cabinet who has not looked mediocre or worse in recent months. If The New York Times were functioning as it would, without doubt, under a Republican administration, there would, by now, have been a Page One story--above the fold!--headed: 'Clinton Forges Own Path in Foreign Policy.' In an administration that has become a byword for overreach, Hillary has struck a tone of hard-nosed, understated dignity, of no-nonsense professionalism, of a pant-suited determination in telling contrast to the panty-waist in the White House.

"My thesis is simple: If Obama wishes to be re-elected in 2012, he would hamstring himself if he did not hire Hillary as his running mate. Biden has served his purpose. He should be offered the vista of a dignified retirement and the prospect of a vice-presidential library in Scranton, Pennsylvania, that 'absolute jerkwater of a town' where he was raised. (Would Obama dare to dangle Biden before the nation as a Supreme Court nominee? Don't count it out. Remember Harriet Miers!) It is quite unlikely that Biden would agree to replace Hillary as secretary of State, as some have suggested."

This is a fun summer topic, but seems totally unrealistic to me.

Future of marriage

Now that the judge in the Prop 8 case has limited his stay, gay marriages could resume in California this week. That would help the pro-repeal side, because as in the five states and District of Columbia that have legalized same-sex marriage, the more such unions take place without cultural apocalypse, the more that the steam seems to come out of the issue.

At 538, Nate Silver sees a changing public climate:

"In April, 2009, when we last took a survey of gay marriage polls, we found that support for it had converged somewhere into the area of 41 or 42 percent of the country. Now, it appears to have risen by several points, and as I reported yesterday, it has become increasingly unclear whether opposition to gay marriage still outweighs support for it. . . .

"Something to bear in mind is that it's only been fairly recently that gay rights groups -- and other liberals and libertarians -- shifted toward a strategy of explicitly calling for full equity in marriage rights, rather than finding civil unions to be an acceptable compromise."

Failing grade?

The LAT gets a rap on the knuckles:

"The Los Angeles teachers union president said Sunday he was organizing a 'massive boycott' of The Times after the newspaper began publishing a series of articles that uses student test scores to estimate the effectiveness of district teachers."

Sounds like those teachers only want to give out grades.

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