As the old joke goes, I'm shocked but not surprised by the smothering of TBD.com.
Founder and president Jim Brady's departure, three months ago, amid frustration with meddling and bad decision-making by executives at corporate parent Albritton Communications, was a gigantic warning sign, of course. For all intents and purposes, Jim was TBD's heart and soul. Without him, the end was probably inevitable.
But those of us who were following the project closely, through friendships and business relationships, had begun worrying about TBD's longterm viability even before it launched. First trouble sign: when the site's smart GM, Whitney Patton, walked out last summer, frustrated by interference from clueless sales executives at Allbritton. And in the past few weeks, top site talents like product development whiz Bageshri Ghate and managing editor Paul Volpe have departed as well; other TBD stars have been actively looking.
So today's news that TBD will be folded into local TV parent WJLA is not really a surprise. But it's still a shock that such an important, innovative experiment in the future of local news coverage is being snuffed out so quickly. It shows an incredible lack of vision by parent company Allbritton Communications.
This was the biggest-budget effort to reinvent local news, and it didn't even survive a year. Way to innovate, Allbritton. Could TBD's leaders have done a better job with the product? Sure—it never really seemed to capture the local vibe, and it was always too city-centric and ignorant of the Washington suburbs. Was the name a disaster? Oh yeah. Like all startups, it had growing pains.
But I hear TBD was doing just fine, thank you, in terms of traffic, meeting and exceeding its projections. It probably wasn't making its ad numbers—but that's doubtless because the TV people who muscled into the site's ad sales didn't really know what they were doing. Hint: You don't try to sell a local blog network on a blog-by-blog basis. (Oh yes they did!) And if you can't then figure out how to monetize that blog network with run-of-site ads, well…
The Allbritton people, led by CEO Robert Allbritton, said all the right things at the outset about giving TBD time to find its audience and grow—but they did little to back up those promises. Indeed, there were troubling early signs that jealous TV station execs were working behind the scenes to cripple their own startup. (Otherwise, why do the absolute minimum to promote it on-air?) Typical old-media stupidity and shenanigans. What a pity.
TBD was important, as I've written before, as an effort to find a new model for local news. By cleverly building a network of more than 200 independent local blogs around a skeleton staff of journalists and community managers, TBD was laying a path for a next-generation online metro newspaper (and broadcast) replacement that offered much broader coverage, relevance and reach at a fraction of the traditional cost of covering a large market. The model was completely sound (minus old-media meddling), and some smart entrepreneur or VC or media company will take it and run with it. You can bet on that.
I'll leave it to Jim Brady and others tell the full horror stories about what went on inside TBD—the insane battles over who should sell advertising, and to whom; the choking of the site's innovative blog network; the utter failure to promote the site in the Washington market; the creeping dominance by know-nothing TV people; the crazy, irrational personnel machinations that finally drove Jim out the door.
But as Brady tweeted today: "At good companies, the people who resist necessary change are pushed aside. At bad companies, they are put in charge." In other words, once again, the retrograde forces of old media have won–indeed, arguably, TBD, from the start, was DOA. But in the long run, by stifling this sort of innovation, they can only lose.
Update: TBD Editor Erik Wemple is quoted by Nieman Journalism Lab as saying: “I think that we will continue to emphasize and to engage the community in a way that is very competitive with the industry and industry standards. … I think that 99 percent of the people won’t really notice too much of a change.”
Frankly, I doubt it—TBD as we know it is over if it's subsumed into WJLA-TV. Brady, who's still very, very close to his erstwhile staff at TBD, tweets: "I love my @TBD peeps, but the 'everything will be OK' tweet does not reflect how people feel. They can't say it, but I can. Not good news."