Hyper-Local News Startup TBD’s Future is TBD

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Hyper-local was a big buzzword in the media sphere in 2010, thanks in part to the multimillion-dollar launch and rollout of AOL’s Patch project, and one of the more closely-watched local experiments was based in Washington, D.C. and launched with much fanfare in August, under the somewhat unusual name TBD. Run by former Washington Post digital executive Jim Brady, the site was designed to be a hybrid of a traditional news operation and an online-first, community-driven news site. Brady left within a few months of the launch, however, and today the parent company behind the project — a media holding company called Albritton Communications — said it is restructuring the site, in what appears to be a scaling back of its original ambitions.

Albritton appeared to be placing a lot of emphasis on TBD when it first launched: not only was there a news website with an ambitious community-oriented strategy, but the company (whose holdings consist mainly of television stations) even renamed one of its cable news channels TBD-TV as part of the project. That has now been undone as part of Wednesday’s announcement, however, and the channel has regained its original name, Newschannel 8. In addition, according to sources quoted by the Washington Post, the television station has effectively taken over administration of the TBD.com website, news that caused New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen to say on Twitter that “the TV guys won” and that there would soon be a “mass exodus” of web staff.

The news of the restructuring sheds some more light on the departure of former president Brady, who quit the company he helped launch in November after what he said was a disagreement about strategy with publisher Robert Albritton. In an internal memo published at Fishbowl DC, Albritton put the disagreement down to “stylistic differences,” but comments from Brady since — including in interviews with a number of different news sites — have made it clear that part of the friction came from clashes between the traditional TV side of the operation and the web side. In a comment today that seemed to sum up both his departure and the new thrust of the site, Brady said:

At good companies, the people who resist necessary change are pushed aside. At bad companies, they are put in charge. RIP, the old TBD.

Brady could well be extra sensitive to this kind of battle because many believe that the Washington Post fought a similar one, and in that case the “print guys won,” as Jay Rosen put it last year. The newspaper, which used to have a completely separate web operation — with separate management, located in a separate building from the print side — merged its two units last year, and according to a number of observers the management of the paper operation had effectively taken control of the web unit.

Although the TBD news caused a number of media observers to sound the death knell for the site, editor-in-chief Erik Wemple — who took over after Brady’s departure — said that the funeral bells are a little premature. He told the Nieman Journalism Lab that the site continues to be a priority for Albritton, and that no one is being laid off; if anything, he said, the head-count might increase as the company builds up a separate website for its television unit alongside the TBD site. Wemple also said that the community focus of the original project would continue as well. And Albritton is no stranger to web-based news startups: the company is also a financial backer of the successful Politico website.

Brady, however, said that the “everything will be OK” message from management didn’t reflect how people still working at the site feel. “They can’t say it, but I can,” he wrote. “It’s not good.” Albritton’s challenge now is to prove that what was once a celebrated hyper-local web startup doesn’t become just another TV station website.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user George Kelly

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