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A homage to TBD.com

Before Allbritton Communication’s TBD.com even launched in 2010, the media industry was holding its breath in anticipation of its debut. Named TBD, for “to be determined,” it was much lauded as a future journalism model.

As a child of Allbritton Communications, it had a strong foundation. It promised to provide news in a contemporary manner by using the Web in conjunction with Allbritton stations WJLA-TV and NewsChannel 8. But it was also the site’s attention to social media, open news meetings and its team of unpaid Washington, D.C. bloggers, who contributed to the site in exchange for tips on how to get advertising, that made it stand apart from the crowd. And then only four months after its launch, general manager Jim Brady, who was instrumental in TBD’s creation, announced he was leaving. This was followed by the news that the site was headed in a new direction, which ultimately resulted in layoffs. Taking Brady’s lead, managing editor Paul Volpe left in January, followed by editor Erik Wemple and director of community engagement Steve Buttry, who joined Brady at the Journal Register Company.

What was left when the fallout was through was a bare-bones site focused on local entertainment and lifestyle features. Out of the roughly two dozen employees, eight were hired back. Recently, Washington City Paper reported that TBD is now down to 1.5 employees with the departure of news editor Ryan Kearney. This leaves transportation reporter John Hendel. The .5 was special projects reporter Rebecca Armendariz, who split time between the site and WJLA. But she recently departed the news organization, so it looks like it’s down to one.

“It’s embarrassing. I think shutting the site down altogether would have been more dignified. You can’t expect a handful of staffers (or now, just one) to keep up with a site that used to employ more than 20,” said Lisa Rowan, who joined TBD early on as a staffer on the community engagement team and is a former employee of Vocus. Because her status was experimental, she and others on her team were expendable. A mere shadow of its former self, no one really talks about TBD much nowadays. So what happened when its future looked so promising?

Buttry, currently director of community engagement and social media for JRC’s Digital First Media, said TBD’s downfall was foreshadowed before it even launched. Originally, the site was going to have a digital sales staff solely focused on selling TBD, identifying digital sales and potential digital customers. But an internal effort to change directions changed the hierarchy, placing the sales manager under the TV sales staff. This resulted in the sales manager’s swift departure. “So it launched without sales staff, and it never had its own sales staff, and was handled by the TV sales staff, and that’s simply not the way to handle a digital operation,” said Buttry.

There were also tensions between TBD and the two television stations, noted Rowan. “TBD.com replaced the websites for both stations, and the WJLA anchors and reporters were particularly frustrated that their work and bios were getting buried or excluded. Some staffers openly resented our presence,” she said.

Then there was the high upfront cost of the large staff that was brought in to launch the site, noted Buttry. However, the Washington Post reported that TBD gained a strong audience in a short time and attracted double its unique visitors from December 2010 to January 2011. But monetizing that audience was the problem. Even so, Robert Allbritton originally said they would give the site three to five years to turn a profit. But that quickly changed. “It’s his company and he’s entitled to do that, but it obviously affected the outcome of that experiment. In my mind it wasn’t even an experiment when you didn’t give it a chance. I know in my heart that it would have worked, but what you know in your heart won’t prove a thing,” said Buttry.

Echoing his sentiment is Rowan: “TBD was a fantastic experiment. I just wish we all could have had more time to work on it.”

Despite the site’s sorry fate, its legacy lives on, and it could be argued that news organizations across the country have learned something about the power of community engagement and the benefits of local bloggers from the TBD model.

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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