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Allbritton Communications slashes staff at reorganized TBD.com

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 10:40 PM

Six months after it began as a bold new experiment in local newsgathering, TBD.com's fate remains, as its initials imply, to be determined.

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After a staff-slashing announcement and wholesale reorganization Wednesday, the Arlington County-based operation will become a small, stand-alone Web site focused on local entertainment and lifestyle features - in other words, all of the things it wasn't supposed to be when it launched with great fanfare and the attention of the media world last summer.

The brainchild of Allbritton Communications chief executive Robert Allbritton, TBD was supposed to do for Washington area news what Allbritton's Politico newspaper and Web site had done for political coverage. That is, it would be faster, smarter and more creative than existing digital offerings, using the Web, broadcast TV and cable news. It would gather its own news, "curate" and link to hundreds of allied but independent blogs and integrate with Allbritton's other local-news properties, broadcast station WJLA (Channel 7) and cable-news outlet NewsChannel 8.

Allbritton said it would take three to five years for TBD to turn a profit and establish itself as a full-fledged challenger to local news leaders such as The Washington Post.

That seems unlikely now.

TBD.com will jettison about a dozen of its 23 editorial staffers and much of its local newsgathering capabilities following Wednesday's reorganization. Several employees will be reassigned to the newly reestablished WJLA.com, the Web site Allbritton abandoned last summer in an attempt to consolidate its Web operations around TBD.com.

By next week, TBD will have eight editors and reporters who will concentrate on arts, entertainment and lifestyle stories, according to Erik Wemple, who will remain its editor.

According to some internal measures, TBD was thriving, having gained a strong following in a very short time. In January, just five months after its debut, it attracted 1.5 million unique visitors, nearly double its December total of 838,000 and far surpassing November's total, 715,000, the internal figures show.

Indeed, over the past three months, TBD's traffic was substantially higher than Web sites operated by local TV stations WRC (Channel 4), WUSA (Channel 9) and WTTG (Channel 5), according to Compete.com, which tracks Web traffic.

But revenue was another story. TBD has had trouble "monetizing" its growing audience - in part, staffers say, because the company decided early on to scrap plans for TBD to handle its own advertising sales. Instead, the job was given to salespeople from WJLA, who were more accustomed to selling TV airtime than digital ads.

"The traffic has been improving and improving steadily," said Bill Lord, the WJLA station manager who was named to head TBD earlier this month. "But it was still not generating a lot of income. It was still not generating enough to offset the hefty costs."

Lord declined to release actual figures, but he said there was "a very wide gap" between expenses and revenue.

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