First, the disclaimers: Jim Brady, president of TBD.com, is a good friend. So are his top editors, Erik Wemple and Steve Buttry. And my company, GrowthSpur, is working with TBD to build local ad-sales networks for bloggers in the Washington area (contrary to one report, there is absolutely no financial relationship between GrowthSpur and TBD, btw; they certainly aren't paying us). So I may be a bit biased.
But I think TBD, just launched this week, is an incredibly important development for the future of local news, for many reasons. Let's tick off a few:
- It's laser-focused on local news and information, not wasting any resources on non-local content that's available elsewhere.
- It's Web-focused, but also smartly incorporates traditional media—in this case, a local TV station and local cable-news station—as key elements. But make no mistake, the Web site is first and foremost, not playing a supporting role.
- It's aggressively curating and linking to every source of local news in sight (more on that in a bit)—even links to WashingtonPost.com and rival TV stations Web sites have already appeared on its home page. (Linking to competitors! What a concept!)
- It's taking a smart approach to the all-important mobile space, with apps that don't paste the Web site onto a phone screen, but offer the kinds of things—traffic, weather, headlines—that people really want and need when they're on the go.
- It's doing some very sexy things with geocoding, putting a relevant, hyperlocal face on content in a metropolitan area whose sprawling geographical diversity makes local relevance essential. (I don't want news and info and listings about a suburb 40 miles away, in another state. I want to read about my neighborhood.)
- Its leadership is convinced that TBD can make money covering local news and information. With $100 billion spent a year on local advertising in the U.S., and more and more of that moving to the Web, that's a very canny bet. Brady and the TBD gang are focused on making local online advertising work—not on protecting a print product or chasing dreams of subscription revenue. That focus makes a big difference.
All great things. But I think the most important thing about TBD is its approach to covering the Washington area: aggressively and adroitly mixing professional and blogger content. Finally, a well-funded, big-time local effort is taking to heart Jeff Jarvis' infamous "do what you do best and link to the rest" maxim.
That allows TBD to look like a big-time news organization with a very small staff. Indeed, it's got just 12 reporters roaming the vast DC area—a fraction of what The Washington Post deploys locally. But TBD's secret weapon is that it avidly supplements its staff reporting with content from more than 125 local bloggers (and counting), covering everything from neighborhood politics to food to allergies to parenting to living green.
In doing so, TBD is taking advantage of a powerful phenomenon that also underlies what's driving GrowthSpur: the enormous explosion in local blogging around the country over the past couple of years. Everywhere you look, every town, every nook and cranny, on all sorts of odd—and not so odd—local subjects, somebody's blogging, and they're often doing it passionately and well.
Fed by cheap blogging tools, an increasing perception of the need for micro local coverage, and, frankly, a surplus of underemployed journalists (though not all of these practitioners are journalists, of course) the local blogosphere has turned into a hothouse of coverage–tens of thousands of little local journalism startups.
And that's what TBD is taking advantage of. I hesitate to even type the words "taking advantage," because it sounds pejorative, and TBD is doing anything but exploiting its blog partners. Indeed, contrary to a lot of arrogant, not-invented-here journalism organizations (Washington Post, I'm looking at you), TBD is bending over backwards to be a good partner to these blogs, giving them home-page credit, pushing them traffic and providing them with a cut of advertising (and GrowthSpur is helping with the latter, too). TBD is treating its blog partners with respect, and that counts for a lot. They deserve respect—these bloggers are working their butts off to cover things that are important to their community, and TBD is giving them recognition, traffic and revenue. Nice.
What does TBD get in exchange? Breadth and depth. TBD is going to be able to cover a huge percentage of what The Washington Post covers locally with less than one-tenth the staff. Not a bad equation—but the reality is that TBD may wind up covering much more than the Post. That's because TBD is going to link to Ellie Ashford's blog covering Annandale, Va., (a suburban town the Post barely knows exists, even though it's less than a dozen miles from the paper's newsroom), and to Lisa Rowan's D.C. vintage clothing blog (not exactly a Post beat), and to Mark Zuckerman's blog about the Washington Nationals (hands-down better than the Post's coverage of the team, and one of several Nats baseball blogs in TBD's stable) and to Jessica Sidman's blog about ice cream and other frozen treats (not generally part of the Post's mainstream food coverage). Multiply those examples by 125-plus blogs and you see that TBD is giving its readers one-stop access to a breadth of local content the Post can't even imagine.
To be sure, TBD is hardly the first site with an aggressive linking strategy and blog network–the "ist" sites (Gothamist, DCist, etc.) do a great job aggregating and expanding on urban blog content in several markets; NBC's owned and operated stations have quietly built strong (though a bit clumsy–they don't share credit well) local aggregation sites; Examiner.com is mixing staff (well, "examiner" reporting with aggregation to build city sites) and there are countless smaller local curation and aggregation experiments going on.
In addition, TBD is very much still in its infancy, and working out the kinks—at first blush, I'm not sure its priorities and beat structure are quite right (it seems to be catering too much to hip downtown 20-somethings and too thin on the suburbs), and Brady concedes that many planned innovative features are still sort of TBD themselves. So it will be interesting to see how the site evolves and better serves the Washington market.
But TBD is without doubt the biggest, most ambitious effort yet to create a new paradigm for local news coverage of a major metropolitan area. To paraphrase Cory Bergman on LostRemote, TBD isn't just talking about a theory of a new kind of coverage—it's walking the walk. It's building the future.
As it develops, I think TBD is going to prove a model for other local efforts around the country. It understands something very fundamental, something that once upon a time, a group of us referred to it as the Tom Sawyer strategy: when you're working with limited resources, use them to the maximum–and turn to the rest of the Web for help with filling in the blanks.