Is the Alacarticle the Answer to Selling Content Online?

Could it be that publishers are looking at the notion of charging for online content all wrong?

To date, just about all the talk and experiments with paid content have involved selling online subscriptions or, on the iPad, individual issues. Makes sense, since that's how publishers historically have sold their print versions. Or, actually, it doesn't make sense, because many of us believe that online customers who can find equivalent free content elsewhere will simply ignore the publishers' subscription/single-copy offers.

We need more empirical evidence to prove or disprove these theories and settle this religious debate, but so far, only a handful of specialized sites have made online subscriptions work, the jury is still out on The New York Times' much-watched Web subscription effort and single-copy magazine sales on the iPad started strong and then sputtered in most cases.

But maybe there's another model: selling content by the article.

Last week, Fortune magazine published a big takeout on Apple—and held it off the magazine's Web site. Instead, it made Inside Apple available as a downloadable file for Amazon's Kindle, at 99 cents a pop. 

By all accounts, it sold like hotcakes, even reaching the Top 10 in Amazon's Kindle bestseller list. Behold: the a la carte article. Let's call it the alacarticle.

The alacarticle may not be the ultimate answer to legacy media's online revenue woes—no one solution is. But Fortune's experience, while a limited sample, of course, seems to indicate that readers will pay by the story, under the right conditions.

For years, some publishers have babbled hopefully about "micropayments," a term none of them really seemed to be able to define. Theoretically, I think, it meant that any article could be sold for a few pennies, but the publishers could never quite figure out how to actually collect those pennies (long-established online payment systems like, oh, PayPal, Amazon and iTunes being just a tad too futuristic for these publishers to grasp, apparently). 

For all the talk about the micropayment idea, the problem is that, even with the long tail, there's not a big market for the vast majority of articles, and too much free competition. Advertising is still a much better bet for mass-market online publishing revenue, as it always has been in print.

But there may be a market for certain, high-interest, high-value articles, as Fortune is demonstrating. If the (excellent) argument against online subscriptions is that readers can usually find pretty much the same news and information elsewhere, for free, then maybe Fortune's alacarticle experiment shows that there may still be specific stories or packages that could be held off the Web and made available as Kindle or iBook downloads, or apps.

The number of potential stories that fit this model is small—they probably have to be major and exclusive—and there's a calculable tradeoff in lost traffic and associated ad sales. But the Fortune experiment points to a new way of selling content that lets customers buy just a story they want, rather than a broad subscription they may not care for. Other examples are appearing as well: Long-form journalism site Byliner is also selling content by the story for Kindle and iPad, incidentally. And ProPublica's "Wall Street Money Machine" investigation was just made available as a 99-cent Kindle download.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because there's a parallel in the recent evolution of the music industry, which found its favorite form of distribution, the album, unbundled by iTunes so that customers could buy just the songs they wanted, individually. The music industry is still grumbling about this, but selling songs a la carte is preferable to not selling albums at all. Maybe that's also true of selling alacarticles, as opposed to subscriptions. It's giving the customers what they want, at a price they're willing to pay. What a concept.

 

 

 

A (Slightly) Premature Report of the Death of The New York Times

Former Oracle/Microsoft exec Dick Brass famously predicted more than 10 years ago that the last print edition of The New York Times would roll off the presses in 2018. Slate and a group of parodists have jumped the gun a bit, imagining a suddenly final edition of the Times. In the grand tradition of 1978's Not The New York Times, it's hilarious. But I'm still betting on Brass' prediction.  NYT Slate

Understanding the Business of Journalism: The Columbia J-School Report

Everybody in journalism should spend time reading Columbia Journalism School's voluminous new report on the digital journalism business. Bill Grueskin and team have done a superb job of surveying and encapsulating, in very clear (and clear-eyed) language, the current state of the online journalism business, including a wealth of interesting examples and case studies.

It's hard to summarize the many findings here, many of which have been clear to a lot of us for a long time. At the risk of oversimplifying, I'd say the report concludes that there's money to be made in digital journalism, that there are online news sites making money (usually by keeping costs very low), and that the onus is on legacy journalism businesses to double-down further reinvent themselves to adapt to the revolutionary changes in the industry.

But probably the best conclusion in the study is a striking quote from Randall Rothenberg, the former New York Times reporter who now runs the Internet Advertising Bureau: 

"Here's the problem: Journalists just don't understand their business."

Amen to that. I'm becoming more involved in teaching business and entrepreneurialism to journalists (I taught an entrepreneurialism course at University of Maryland this semester, I'm leading a session on business at a Knight Digital Media Center journalist "boot camp" next week, etc.) for precisely that reason: It's critically important that journalists become more business-literate and understand how their business works. Reading the Columbia report will go a long way towards educating journalists about their business, what's happening to it, and how to start fixing it.

The New York Times’ Porous Paywall

I think there's a rule today that every media-business blogger has to weigh in on the New York Times' finally announced online subscription plan, and I'm going to do my part by deferring to Felix Salmon's excellent analysis, which I think is spot on:

What does all this mean for the New York Times Company? I can’t see how it’s good. … By my back-of-the-envelope math, the paywall won’t even cover its own development costs for a good two years, and beyond that will never generate enough money to really make a difference to NYTCo revenues. Maybe that might change if the NYT breaks its promise to offer full website access for free to all print subscribers. But that decision would be fraught in all manner of other ways.

For the time being, though, I just can’t see how this move makes any kind of financial sense for the NYT. The upside is limited; the downside is that it ceases to be the paper of record for the world. Who would take that bet?

Agreed—this really looks like small potatoes, perhaps just a sop to virulent "we must get paid!" factions within the Times. I think it's just porous enough that it won't affect more than a small number of die-hard Times readers—and I'll bet most of them are already subscribers to the print edition, and thus will get the online version at a weird discount

Me, I'm in the latter camp—I still get the printed Sunday Times, so the online version will be free for me. Truth be told, as much as I'm a fan of the Times, I can't imagine paying for the online edition. As with the Wall Street Journal, the Times paywall appears to be porous enough that I'll be able to read what I want, through links and the occasional site visit, without triggering the subscription bar.

Critically, I understand that what I pay for when I subscribe to the print edition is printing and delivery of the paper. Those physical production costs don't exist online (per the comments below, advertising foots the bill for the journalism), and thus I don't understand why I'd pay $15 a month for NYTimes.com.

In any case, as Salmon says, it doesn't appear this is going to make a material impact on the Times' finances. Which really makes you wonder what the point of it all is, except maybe to make some sort of "we must be paid" statement. Sorry: Just wanting to be paid does not a business model make.

 

 

Gannett: Repainting the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

Circulation is down. Ad revenue is down. Staffers are facing week-long furloughs, yet again. There are whispers that USA Today is in trouble. The classifieds business is pretty much gone. Newspapers are dying. The broadcast business isn't much better. Even the company-backed Newseum is a disaster.

So what's Gannett going to do?

Change its corporate logo and slogan, of course. Of course.

New-logo

That's the spiffy new logo—guess they laid off most of the company's designers amid all that cost-cutting. And that's the equally plain new corporate slogan: "It's all within reach."

Scintillating. That's really gonna make me run out and buy a Gannett paper. Corporate rebranding—yeah, that's the ticket. As has already been pointed out, it worked so well for Knight Ridder. Remember them?

What a joke. What exactly does Gannett gain from this farce? A fresh coat of paint on the corporate logo and a meaningless slogan aren't going to move the needle at all.

And what does Gannett lose? Do the math. How many hours of high-priced executive and consultant time went into choosing and market-testing the new logo and slogan? Plenty. How much is it going to cost to change stationery, reprint business cards, update signage, run ads, etc., to implement and publicize the new logo? Conveniently, Gannett isn't saying, although CEO Craig Dubow allows that it's "significant." It's safe bet that "significant" means millions of dollars. (Not to be missed: The voluminous corporate-mandated guidelines on use, care and feeding of the new logo.) 

Those are dollars that could have been used to keep Gannett's staffers from being furloughed, or to invest in interesting innovations and startups, or even to hire a few more reporters at the chain's staff-strapped papers. Instead, they're being thrown to the winds in a burst of corporate-suite ego that's right up there with Gannett's elephantine—and increasingly empty—corporate headquarters in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. (Hey Gannetteers: If you haven't been to corporate HQ, you've missed the eye-popping experience of strolling across the highly polished marble floor of the building's vast, arena-sized lobby to the security desk located about a football-field's length from the front doors. I kid you not. See photos below. The annual costs of heating and cooling that cavernous empty space probably could pay for another round of city hall or cop reporters at several Gannett papers.)

Gannett's not totally dumb—the company has some interesting local and advertising initiatives going on. For instance, check out TheBoldItalic, its sharp, stealthy San Francisco site for 20-somethings. Smart stuff.

But spending millions for a corporate rebranding to adopt a blah new logo and dumb slogan? Not so smart.

Gannett 1

Gannett 2
 

 
 

 

 

 

My New Front Page—And Tina Brown’s

I've been noticing something about my news consumption over the past few months: While I've all but given up print newspapers over the past few years, rarely look at newspaper Web site home pages and consume a huge amount of my news via RSS feeds and Twitter, one site has emerged as my go-to "front page" for a smart overview of what's going on in the world: Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog.

Apparently I'm not alone: Sullivan's blog has been the biggest traffic draw on The Atlantic's Web site, accounting for fully a quarter of its traffic—and now Tina Brown has stolen Sullivan to be an anchor for her every-more-interesting Daily Beast/Newsweek hybrid.

Sullivan's blog, like any well-put-together, old-school front page, is an engaging smorgasbord of news (plus commentary) that provides readers with a guide to a wide range of topics. No, Sullivan doesn't create original copy, in the traditional sense. There's no original reporting going on here. Rather, The Dish is a well-curated, continually updated snapshot of the world, through the eyes of a polymath with a broad range of serious interests and his own set of personal hobbyhorses—which is pretty good description of just about any good front-page editor.

Sullivan and his small staff span the globe and the Web to bring readers dozens of short posts a day pointing to the best reporting and commentary on world events (the blog's coverage of the Egyptian uprising, from multiple angles, was superb, for instance), economics, society, culture and even humor. More often than not, the links are couched in a bit of commentary on the subject or the link's author. It's all good reading, and meat of each item is just a click away, on its originating site.

This is Web curation at its best, starring Sullivan as omnivorous, authoritative editor. Is it idiosyncratic at times? Sure—but all good front pages are. But it's also wildly readable, and an excellent way to keep up with a wide variety of important and/or interesting topics, with the ability to dive deeper at the click of a link.

This approach isn't necessarily as objective or "newsy" as a traditional front page, because of its heavy use of commentary. But it's bursting with personality, passion and wit, in ways many most front pages have long been missing. It's both informative and entertaining, and that makes it a must read—even if I don't always agree with Sullivan's opinions. 

The Daily Dish (like Jim Romenesko's indispensable Poynter journalism roundup) is why some of us get so excited about the Web's ability to remix a wide variety of news and commentary sources into aggregated, curated collections. They provide invaluable guides to the firehose of news and information we're all facing, picking out the best stuff and pointing us to it. That seems pretty obvious, but sites like Sullivan's and Romenesko's do it so well that they stand out. It's like having a smart friend constantly roaming the Web and sending you interesting links.

Tina Brown apparently recognizes the importance of this approach—and Sullivan's enormous following—and has annexed The Daily Dish for the Beast/Newsweek combo. Guess I'll have to redirect my bookmarks and RSS feeds to Sullivan's new digs. Like a great front page, it's become an essential part of my daily navigation of the flood of news.

 

The Daily Snooze

The hype around Rupert Murdoch and News Corp.'s new iPad news app, The Daily, is deafening. And baffling.

"The newspaper hits the information age," headlined TechCrunch. A "digital renaissance," crowed Murdoch. "New times demand new journalism." (His Fox News even broke into coverage of clashing protesters in Cairo to cover The Daily's introduction today.) "The app appears rich and magazine-like," wrote Damon Kiesow on Poynter. "This is a significant launch," wrote Insanely Great Mac. 

And then there was this breathless gem, also from TechCrunch: "Provided the content quality stays high and the news value is there, this could be the first iPad app to beat Angry Birds and, more important, truly bring journalism into the 21st century." 

Really? Seriously? Actually, The Daily barely brings digital journalism into the late 20th century, much less the 21st. I don't think Angry Birds has anything to worry about. Maybe—to steal a comment from Jim Brady (thanks, Jim!)—Murdoch's bigger problem will be Angry Readers.

Unfortunately, the Daily is yet another example of a newspaper pasted on a screen—in this case a tablet screen—that epically fails to acknowledge or take advantage of the way people use and interact on the Internet.

There are virtually no links in The Daily. Its interaction with social tools like Twitter and Facebook is perfunctory, at best. There are symbols hinting at Facebook, Twitter or e-mail sharing, but when you tap them a warning pops up that says, "This article is only available in The Daily app." Gee, helpful. Comments seem to be attached to pages, not individual stories. The interface is pleasant, but a little clunky and stiff. And don't even think about aggregating content from The Daily. It's largely verboten.

The journalism itself? Brief and superficial, sort of a Time magazine/USA Today hybrid. Yawn. Missing in action: Business and tech news. Huh?

Maybe most incredibly, The Daily truly is…daily. It gets published in the morning, and that's basically it. While the world is riveted today by the violence in Cairo, the premier issue of The Daily leads with an outdated story about yesterday's peaceful million-man march in Tahrir Square. This is intentional, apparently. While The Daily's app supports more frequent updates, PaidContent quotes The Daily's editor, Jesse Angelo, as saying, “I don’t want another site that’s constantly updating.” (Okaaay. Good luck with that.)

Despite its vaguely slick veneer, The Daily is yet another symptom of a running problem with traditional news people trying to bring traditional news products into the digital age: They just don't seem to understand the current state of the technology and the way audiences use it. They seem to think multimedia glitz is all that's needed, even though, in digital news, we've been there, done that.

Whenever I see the latest whizbang attempt to create a news app for the iPad, I wonder whether the creators were paying any attention to what was happening in the early '90s, when the first multimedia CD-ROM news prototypes and products were showing up. CNN, for instance, had a terrific CD-ROM news prototype in 1992 that was every bit as good as the overhyped Sports Illustrated tablet prototype that surfaced in late 2009. Newsweek published a quarterly CD-ROM product in the early '90s whose presentation and features weren't very far removed from what The Daily is doing. The delivery method is different—tablets vs. clunky desktop PCs—but the products are remarkably similar. It's as if multimedia news presentation concepts have been frozen in amber for 15-plus years—and completely ignorant of the revolution in interactivity and social connectivity. The digital world has moved on; news providers apparently haven't.

Murdoch is hoping that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, will download The Daily's iPad app and sign up for a subscription, and that advertisers pay to reach that audience. (Jeff Jarvis crunches some numbers on The Daily's economics.) But even at 14 cents a day, I can't imagine actually wanting to pay for The Daily when the two-week free trial runs out (I'll bet that trial period gets mysteriously extended. Yep, thought so!)—and I should be the ideal customer for The Daily: a news junkie with an iPad. Sorry, no thanks. The Daily just doesn't break any ground in digital news, nor is it a product that I can imagine anybody coming to rely upon for a regular news fix.

Want to see some nice work being done on iPad apps for news? Look at Pulse and Flipboard, both designed by smart tech people, not news people, to leverage technologies like Twitter and RSS feeds, in an attractive package with loads of social features. Maybe these apps don't have The Daily's cute graphic of a plane landing on the screen to illustrate a travel story, or live Sudoku and crosswords—but they're infinitely better as news products. And isn't that the idea?

Fortunately, not everybody has bought into The Daily hype—especially folks, like me, who've actually tried The Daily and found it wanting. Scott Rosenberg nails it: "Reading it feels like a spin in the Wayback Machine." And Seth Weintraub on 9to5Mac wrote: "Was anyone else as underwhelmed as we were? … I seriously don't get it." Neither do I.

Newspapers Still Not Out of the Woods—If Ever

It turns out that 2010 wasn't quite the bloodbath in the newspaper business that some of us expected. After an initial outbreak of significant cutbacks, bankruptcy filings and closures that largely began in 2009, the vast majority of major papers made it through the year alive, mostly by cutting costs to the bone or by getting protection from their creditors in bankruptcy court. Revenue and circulation continued to decline at most papers, but at least they survived the year.

Still, a  flurry of industry headlines in the past few days indicates that the bleeding continues:

  • Gannett announced another week of unpaid employee furloughs—and in one case, pay cuts—at most of its papers.
  • The Raleigh News and Observer cut another 20 positions.
  • The bankers that own MediaNews Group, one of the nation's largest newspaper chains, ousted much of the company's top management.

The management shakeup at MediaNews is a real eyebrow-raiser, because the soon-to-be-deposed CEO, William Dean Singleton, is one of the industry's longtime titans—chairman of the Associated Press and a wheeler and dealer who has assembled a group of more than 50 papers, including the Denver Post and most of the dailies in the San Francisco Bay Area (outside of Hearst's San Francisco Chronicle).

Singleton built his empire on a mountain of debt, always staying one step ahead of his creditors. But MediaNews had to file for bankruptcy protection a year ago, and now it appears the bankers have taken over, ousting Singleton and his handpicked board, forcing company president Joseph Lodovic IV into sudden retirement, putting a bunch of bankers in temporary charge of the company and announcing a search for a new CEO.

That's a big fall for a big name, and it echoes the 2010 toppling of Sam Zell at Tribune Co. and Brian Tierney at Philadelphia Media Holdings—two others who tried to run newspaper companies with large amounts of debt, but ran into the realities of the industry's decline and the lousy economy, and were forced out by their bankers.

The Wall Street Journal is speculating that MediaNews might wind up merging with Freedom Newspapers, the publisher of the Orange County Register, which went bankrupt itself in 2009 and was taken over by its creditors–who happen to include investment firm Alden Global Capital, conveniently a significant owner of MediaNews, as well. Can two sick newspaper companies be combined to create one healthy one? Be skeptical.

The backdrop for the continuing upheaval in the newspaper business is a slowdown in print advertising that has morphed from ongoing to chronic. While the rest of the economy (including other advertising media) is slowly recovering, newspapers are still hurting. As Alan Mutter has pointed out, newspaper revenue dropped 5.4 percent in the third quarter, the latest period for which industry figures are available, the 17th consecutive quarter that newspaper ad sales have been down. As Mutter wrote, "Although the decay in newspaper ad sales has declined in each of the three quarters of 2010, the industry is the only one of the mass media still in negative territory." That's not good.

It doesn't seem very likely that things will get better. Newspaper circulation continues to decline, which in turn makes newspapers less attractive to advertisers. The deep cuts in most newsrooms have had predictable effects on newspaper quality, as well, which turns off readers and advertisers and adds to the vicious cycles of decline in circulation and revenue. A lot of advertising dollars are also shifting to other media, especially online players. There just aren't a lot of positive trends in the newspaper business.

And now, the news from Gannett, the News and Observer and MediaNews may be the canary in the coalmine for continuing problems. While most companies haven't released their fourth quarter results yet (much less aggregated industry totals), the timing of those actions, right after the first of the year, indicates that the numbers continued to be lousy as 2010 wrapped up, requiring still more Draconian measures.

It's painful to watch the newspaper industry get hollowed out like this. But it's hard to see the downward spiral truly being reversed. Cost cutting may restore a measure of profitability, at least temporarily—but it will also continue to make papers less attractive to customers that pay the bills. We may not have seen the barrage of newspaper closings or publication-cycle cutbacks in 2010 that many expected—but that doesn't mean they aren't still to come.

 PS: Ken Doctor's got an excellent post on Singleton's demise.

Smart Stuff

I haven't posted in a while because, frankly, I got tired of repeating myself and because I'm more and more frustrated by the media industry's inability to make the fundamental changes in product, technology and business model that are needed for survival. The shift from traditional media to digital continues, inexorably slowly, and at this point I'd rather work to make it happen than yammer about it.

But others are saying smart things, and if anybody's still reading this blog, you should click over to these posts by a couple of the smarter people on the subject of the future of media:

  • Judy Sims, continuing to fight the good fight against shortsighted newspaper executives and the lies they tell themselves (and employees and stockholders): Newspaper Execs: Still Denying, Still Crying and Still Lying to Themselves
  • And John Paton, the smartest newspaper executive of all (mostly because he refuses to define himself as a newspaper exec), with a progress report on the massive changes he's pushing through at once-moribund Journal Register. (If you want the summary version of John's presentation, Matt Ingram has it here.)

Judy and John are saying (and doing) the things that I've been railing about for years. If you care about the future of journalism and the media business, you have to read and learn from them. They're telling the truth about what's happening and what desperately, urgently needs to happen.

As Judy says, "As [newspaper] execs dilly-dally with pay walls and iPad apps, I can only say that things are getting worse, not better."

And as John says: "What is painfully obvious to the outside world apparently is blind to many on the inside of our industry."

It's astonishing and frustrating, nearly 20 years into this revolution, that there aren't more John Patons running media companies, or that Judy Sims, like so many others, has fled the newspaper business in frustration with the slow pace of change. Or that Jim Brady had to bail out of TBD.com because of classic, tired old-media/new-media tensions and clashes.

Can't we just skip all this nonsense and get to the inevitable future? That's what smart people like Judy Sims, and John Paton, and Jeff Jarvis, and Jim Brady, and others are trying to invent. That's where the action is. And that's why I'd rather concentrate on trying to figure out how to make it happen than just keep ranting about it.

One more quote from John Paton:

Stop listening to Newspaper people.

We have had nearly 15 years to figure out the Web and as an industry we newspaper people are no good at it. No good at it at all.

Want to get good at it?

Then stop listening to the Newspaper people and start listening to the rest of the world.

And, I would point out, as we have done at JRC – put the Digital people in charge – of everything.

Find new voices and let them push you around.

 

Why TBD is Important

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.