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When Robert Allbritton put the money and power of Allbritton Communications behind a new DC political news site in 2007, no one knew what to expect. Sure, he had talent in Washington Post vets John Harris and Jim VandeHei and a way to combine web and print that might actually make money. But we’ve all seen high-profile business plans fizzle. Politico worked. Allbritton admits it’s not profitable every quarter but says it’s turning a profit for any given six months.
Can he do it twice? Can he go head to head with WaPo again with another smart team led by a former exec from the news organization and create another lightning strike? Or is the seasoned pilot about to hit an air pocket with equally ambitious TBD.com? He spoke with paidContent about the community news and info site launching today meshed with Allbritton’s DC TV operations, about the spending and about his willingness to lose money on the effort for at least a couple of years. “The first year of Politico was pretty ugly in terms of revenue,” he admitted. “You’ve got to have some staying power for these things to work.” (My first look at the new site is here.)
On a traditional media clock, eight months between announcing an online local news startup and launch breaks land speed records. But Allbritton is on a different clock — and he knows the new TBD.com is being weighed against his own Politico launch. “It’s been in ‘web world’ a long time and the bar gets raised so I think when folks kind of see this thing, the initial reaction will be like ‘that’s it?’ The expectations of people have gone up dramatically since then but the man-hours to create something is still the same.”
It’s also a different kind of site: “A lot more technology going into it from day one than the original Politico did. The original Politico was very much a Web 1.0 kind of site. As long as you could just post stories to something and have reader comments, that was all we really were aiming to do — and this one does a lot more.”
When Allbritton and I spoke Friday morning, I had yet to see the site. He admitted to just having seen the full form in late July. “It’s the difference between seeing the architectural drawings for a building and then seeing the building when it’s done.” Was his response a “wow, it’s just what I thought” or “huh, I didn’t know it was going to add up to all this?” “It’s kind of a ‘wow, you got a lot of stuff in the first one. Personally, there’s a mix of you’ve finally got this thing going, a lot of the things we talked about wanting to do differently are in here.” But he admits to “a slight amount of disappointment” over some of the ideas that didn’t make it in this time. “About 60 days ago, we finally just had to say we’ve got to stop throwing new things in here and just get this thing out the door and freeze where we are.”
It won’t stay frozen. Alllbritton compares it to the first mile of a marathon “even though these guys have been working like crazy for a long time” and promises a lot more over the months ahead.
Comparisons to Politico: How hard is it for Allbritton not to compare TBD.com to Politico? “It’s a very different product.” He says he’s warned the TBD staff: “You’ve got to remember, in DC, politics is the hot, sexy, intriguing portion of what we do in the city and when you say local, everybody kind of rolls their eyes. But when you look at what people use and need and consume, it’s pretty high on the list. Nobody appreciates electricity until the power goes off.” What’s the biggest lesson learned from Politico? “The biggest one is a pretty global one — it’s not so much about technology, it’s not so much about graphics or presentation. It’s really about the content and it’s really about the stories and the way you can tell stories. Really good content seems to rise above the wrapping and the trappings.” His favorite example is Craigslist. “It’s a site if you go to that just looks horrible, and yet there’s so many wonderful things in there that people constantly use it.”
The biggest internal management lesson?: “The big lesson of Politico was really getting qualified, smart people in the door and be willing to pay for good, qualified smart people.” Then be willing to mix them with an entry-level tier. “Those two really can work well together.” The first group is led by Jim Brady, the former WashingtonPost.com head whom Allbritton hired last fall to expand online operations. (He was also a consultant for Guardian America.) Editor Erik Wemple “just gets the local thing from a totally different point of view. Steve Buttry really gets the community thing from a total professional point of view, Then you team it up with folks who’ve got the drive and the depth but don’t have the depth on their resume. Then you combine those two and it really works well from a variety of points of view.” He sees that as a shift from the days in traditional journalism when you were supposed to work your way up to the big leagues.
From the business perspective — Allbritton’s chief point of view — you get to keep costs in line that allow you “to keep businesses like this that are profitable and this sustainable, which is something I think a lot of folks are missing right now. If it’s not making money, it probably won’t last forever.”
About the money: Allbritton likes to be cagey about numbers. Last year, he arranged to take Politico’s finances completely behind closed doors and TBD’s are so tied up with the broadcast and cable TV stations whose web sites it is replacing that it may not be possible to unweave it all when those numbers are reported next. Allbritton told me the amount invested so far is “not so much” — less than $5 million — but that most of it came reassigning the expenses from 24-hour cable News Channel 8. How much has he spent additionally? It’s a little hard to swallow given how canny a businessman Joe Allbritton’s son turned out to be but he says he doesn’t know. “Unlike Politico, which was broken out totally separately, this is kind of mish-mash in the bigger budget between WJLA, Newschannel 8 and TBD the website, and then all the resources that were going into producing and developing the original websites. I know what it is overall when you add it all up but trying to unscramble the eggs has been a challenge, to say the least.”
When I mentioned the maneuver with Politico’s finances, Allbritton couldn’t resist: “Isn’t that nice? It’s awful easy to tell you what the score is when I’m the only one keeping track — and I admit it.” How do we know Politico is still making money? “I’m willing to lay my reputation and life on the line to say that it is definitely making money.” But he carefully added a caveat: “Probably the quarter coming up we may have a loss because it’s election season, Congress is out and revenue goes down dramatically. But on any given six months, it’s making money.” Politico is also investing in new products and expansion.
Naming TBD: Albritton laughed when I asked if TBD — as in “to be determined” — was a little too cute a name, admitting, “that was a question. Are we going a little too far here?” The team tried registering multiple domain names only to hit wall after wall. “We were just cursed. Every single time there was something else. This was the bane of my existence for the better part of six months.” Finally they found an affordable three-letter name that has nothing to do with being a metro site or all about the DC area but does have some meaning about what they’re trying to do. “I rationalized it. In retrospect, Politico was a really good name and we were able to acquire it. It worked. We got lulled into complacency — and we set our own internal bar with that as the minimum standard. The reality came around, this is really hard to do. The second factor is you can come up with a great name, but to come up with a great name no one has ever used before, that’s hard. That’s really hard.”
Allbritton offers up *Yahoo* and *Google* as examples of names that didn’t meant much to outsiders at founding. What’s a *Yahoo*? What’s *Google* before it’s been defined? You get defined off content, not the other way around, so why not?”
TV to Web: Traditional print media, including WaPo, has been able to create compelling web content. Allbirtton says TV to web has fewer examples, particularly on the local level, of go-to sites for everyday news — not just breaking news or weather. “People on the web want things that are delivered for the web, not just to see the TV station all over again.” TBD.com has its own identity but it isn’t on its own. It’s replacing WJLA.com and News8.net; the latter is now known as TBD TV, “the 24/7 video companion to TBD.com.”
“That was a huge lesson learned out of Politico, which is, you’ve got to drive a primary focus for the web first if you’re going to be a good website. Politico, we’ve always thought of it as a web site that happens to publish a newspaper. TBD is a website that happens to program a 24-hour local cable news channel. With increasing desires to have video on the web, that makes sense for us to do. You’re going to see a lot of changes in the content for News Channel 8 on cable TV as a result of this, You’re going to see a lot more community-based news. We have the ability since it’s delivered terrestrially over cable to physically zone it (geographically). With TBD, we’re going to attempt to aggressively collect from folks their zip codes. I don’t want to know any more about you, and the only reason I want to know that about you is so I can deliver news and information that may be relevant about where you live rather than dumping you into a home page that’s got what the editors decided were most important for the entire city.”
Commitment: “We’ll probably spend a little bit of money, maybe a million or two million bucks a year for a bogey backwards of where you’d been if you’d just left things alone and ridden it out. It’s not a humongous investment compared to the quality of product you’ve got going forward.” It takes people time to catch on and clients and advertisers even longer. At Politico, that went on for about 18 months. “Guys are going, ‘where are the ads?’ I’d remind them rather helpfully, isn’t it nice to know you’ve got somebody who’s committed to this thing?”