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News site utilizing business model of the future?

August 10: Rarely is one website launch worth an article on its own. However, having compared TBD.com (now that it’s live) to other similar websites, we can’t find anything else like it. This site is boldly going where no news organization has gone before, from the way the site was born within an existing local news organization, to the way the content is laid out, and the mobile apps it’s offering. For starters, its name implies that its news is constantly being refreshed, much like its Web pages. Users are encouraged to correct errors, and additional facts are continually being updated and verified since its sources are coming from so many places.

Robert Allbritton, chief executive, compares TBD to the old, rural way of grocery shopping, where you had to go to one store to get meat, then another store to get produce. “Why don’t we create a supermarket?” he said. “And put it all under one roof.” The plan worked well for grocery stores. But will it work for local news?

Washington, D.C.-based and family-owned-and-operated Allbritton Communications oversees ABC 7 (local network affiliate) and Politico (the Variety of the political world). If the news station and Web managers got together and had a prodigy child, then immediately let that child inspire the news cycle, that would be how TBD.com appears today. The site has the immediacy and visual appeal of television, the brain trust of editorial, and the navigation of an Internet-born idea. Simple, clean, and easy.

This is the first time that a local TV (and radio) news station has allotted some of its resources toward this type of curated production model online, while giving more than 50 percent of its online space to aggregated content. And they’re not just linking to competitive newspapers. They’re linking to independent blogs (gasp). Having started their research over a year ago, the editors have vetted and compiled a selection of 127 blogs that they thought would be relevant to TBD readers. “We wanted a large blog network, so we have four community hosts focused on recruiting that network, aggregating the network’s content and managing our relationship with the network,” said Steve Buttry director of community engagement, in a Live Chat interview with the Poynter Institute. “Those hosts, Jeff Sonderman, Lisa Rowan, Dan Victor and Nathasha Lim, have done tireless work lining up our network.”

Julie Holley, managing editor at Vocus for television and Internet research, saw several things about this launch that were very different. “Other local stations have been trying to be interactive and new and fresh like this for some time,” she said. “The local NBC affiliate, led by its parent company, changed all of its local stations’ websites to the same hard to read, bloggy format. But this [TBD] is not a TV news station’s website. This is a local news site brand utilizing resources from a TV news station. It should be noted that Newschannel 8 is being renamed to match the name of the website. Usually the website follows the station. They are branding themselves the other way around and as a part of a much bigger package.” It’s a package that Holley thinks has several earmarks of success.

However, the basis on which sites judge themselves a success is changing. Marketing speaker David Mearman Scott said at the 2010 Vocus User’s Conference that websites refusing to link to sources outside themselves are basically closing themselves off to die. In the future of media, news sources like the Washington Post have a better chance of survival if sites like TBD provide links to their stories. This feels odd at first, since the daily page view count at the Washington Post is around one million and ABC 7’s is less than half that.

Likewise, TBD.com is not “stealing” viewers from its daily ABC 7 newscasts. If anything, it’s actually catching them online and providing videos and updates when it’s convenient for the viewer. Since airtime is extremely limited, having the expansive room on the site for supplemental footage, extended interviews and Twitter updates to previously covered stories is an answer to the prayers of news reporters and anchors who have spent years whittling 30-minute interviews down to 30-second clips that fit into their 90-second timeslot.

Overall, about 130 people will contribute content to TBD.com. There are three staff reporters – one for D.C., one for Maryland, and one for Virginia. This echoes the winning business formula for the future described by senior vice president of Aol Content Platform David Masson during the annual DPAC conference in New York: a handful of Web savvy editorial staff and 400,000 inexpensive content producers.

So far, Buttry said, there are no current plans to expand this business model into other areas. “It’s too early to say whether Allbritton will do this in other cities,” he said in an e-mail interview. “If it’s successful here, though, I expect that we would try it somewhere else.”

–Rebecca Bredholt

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