By Joie Chen
What’s left is T.B.D.?
Allbritton’s decision to dial back on its daring digital experiment—a hyper-local online news channel for the metro area—made concrete what seemed suspect almost from its launch: TBD.com had been DOA.
In concept, there was reason to think TBD could work. Allbritton had a killer business model to work from in Politico.com. Journos with really solid news pedigrees would be running the place. What looked like solid support from the suits in the Front Office.
DC newsies wanted it to work—not only do we have friends working in the TBD house, but a successful hyper-local, original-content operation could be the template for a new kind of journalism… one that effectively married bloggers and traditional reporters.
Now, just six months after its launch, Allbritton says it will dump TBD to return to its NewsChannel8 brand and more traditional TV news websites for its properties. (The standard TV news website being a sort of digital rerun of whatever happened on the most recent newscast.)
TBD’s leadership vows gamely to move forward with distinctive content. That would be great. But even TBD’s former Editor-in-Brief Jim Brady—who lovingly nurtured the project in its infancy-- but bailed out just four months after the launch-- lamented in a tweet: “RIP, the old TBD.”
In the content strategy world we’ve all got opinions about what it takes to make a news and information online project succeed. But there are some fundamentals:
1. A shared vision and determination to see the project through to success;
2. A commitment to building and marketing an original brand; and,
3. A distinctive offering that served a specific audience.
I’ll leave it to others to point fingers about who failed on the first two points. But what intrigues me is whether TBD was founded on a fragile premise—targeting its audience based solely on geography.
Maybe the problem is that location isn’t actually a shared value. Think about what “community” means today. How many of your neighbors do you know? What are your shared values and interests?
Why did Politico thrive while little brother TBD rapidly unraveled? Politico is directed at an audience of shared interests… not location. Its audience has true passion for a single subject: politics. TBD’s focus requires me to care about the same things as my neighbors in 22314.
This raises an interesting quandary for media companies with limited resources to experiment with in new markets. Across the river, Gannett has quietly rolled out several specialty programs in concert with established partners—Platts Energy Week, This Week in Defense News, and BioCentury This Week. Even Allbritton has formed a partnership with Energy Now to run its Sunday program.
TBD’s abrupt collapse is a jarring development for DC media—not only because it may put more experienced journalists on the job market—but because we’re left not knowing “what might have been.” Is there an audience for original, localized news content online? What’s the most effective way to get and grow that audience? Should legacy media stick to its online model—simply aggregating content and repurposing material from other properties? If its not cost-effective for traditional media to develop original material online, who—if anyone—will step into that breach? All of that is still T.B.D.
Joie Chen is Executive VP of Branded News Worldwide