By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 10:48 PM
Allbritton Communications will reorganize its fledgling local news site, TBD.com, by naming a new boss for the operation and restoring the NewsChannel 8 name to the cable TV station it rebranded as TBD TV last summer, according to people at the Arlington-based company.
The reorganization represents a retrenchment and, in some ways, a retreat from the original vision of TBD, which has been closely watched as an experiment in local news coverage online. TBD was envisioned as a new multimedia brand, incorporating traditional broadcast TV, cable TV and the Web.
Instead, the reorganization disclosed to staff members Wednesday will restore the old identities to Allbritton's various media properties. TBD.com will remain, but Allbritton-owned WJLA, Washington's ABC affiliate, will get its own Web site once more. WJLA.com had been the TV station's Web site until it was swallowed up by TBD.com last year. In addition, the NewsChannel 8 name will be restored.
Bill Lord, WJLA's general manager and news director, will take over as head of all the company's Washington area media properties.
Another Allbritton executive, Saul Carlin, has been temporarily serving as digital news director, supervising what had been the quasi-independently run TBD.com. TBD.com's editor, Erik Wemple, will continue in that role, reporting to Carlin or his replacement, who will report to Lord. NewsChannel 8's vice president, Steve Chaggaris, who has overseen TBD TV, will continue in his job, too, overseeing the rebranded NewsChannel 8.
The revamped structure suggests that changing the name of 19-year-old NewsChannel 8 was a mistake, and that the loss of WJLA.com complicated the TV station's ability to send its viewers to the Web for more news. TV stations regularly cross-promote their Web sites on the air, and some viewers might have been confused by directives to "find out more" on a Web site that had no apparent connection to WJLA (Channel 7), which promotes itself as ABC7.
With WJLA.com being the most heavily promoted element on WJLA's newscasts, the restructuring will also likely mean that TBD.com will lose some of its identity as a news site. TBD.com has done some original news reporting in its short existence, but its principal strength has been in "aggregating" and linking to outside news sources, including The Washington Post. It has also offered original commentary on local events, sports reporting, traffic, weather forecasting and entertainment listings.
More generally, according to people at TBD (which stands for "to be determined," which is how its editors referred to the site during its development - until the name stuck), the restructuring reflects a triumph of Allbritton's highly profitable old-media franchise - broadcast television- over its newer franchises such as cable TV and the Internet.
"There's a fear that this is going minimize the importance of TBD and to a certain extent NewsChannel 8 within the organization," said one news manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the company. "The fear is that we're setting up second-class citizenship" for the cable and Internet sides. "The message is, WJLA is the focus and will be the focus in the future."
Wemple said TBD's visitor traffic in January was the highest in its existence, but he declined to provide figures. Nevertheless, the site has faced some growing pains before. In November, Jim Brady, its founding general manager (and a former executive editor of washingtonpost.com), left the venture, apparently frustrated by conflicts with Robert Allbritton, the company's chief executive.
"I think we're going to be a really powerful news force, just as we are now," Wemple said in an interview Wednesday. "There are no subtractive elements here. I don't want to say that we'll be anything less than what we now. We're going to push [news and information] out on a couple of platforms instead of just one."
Brady, on his Twitter feed, reacted to the news at his old company on Wednesday with a series of derisive tweets. "Sadly, TBD's six-month birthday party ended up working out as well as Carrie's trip to the prom."