TBD Lays Off Most Of Its Employees, Fails To Crack Local Ad Market

Washington DC-area hyperlocal news site TBD is getting rid of most of its staff following the handover of operations to Allbritton Communications’ sibling WJLA Channel 7, Bizjournals and Washington City Paper.

Less than a year old, TBD began with great ambitions. Its parent, Allbritton Communications, started the site after the success of Politico. TBD was positioned as a “one-stop shop for local news.” But ad revenues, which were supposed to be shared with the site and its blog network, never materialized. Now, the site will scale back its ambitions and its coverage significantly, as founding editor Erik Wemple reportedly told staffers that it will not become a niche site focused primarily on the metro DC area’s arts and culture.

At least 12 staffers will lose their positions, though the startup’s founding editor Erik Wemple, who defected from his post as editor of the City Paper for TBD, will remain.

The shrinkage of TBD comes almost two years after the rival Washington Post pulled the plug on its hyperlocal venture, Loudoun, which was named for the Virginia suburb.

The main problem, apart from execution, was that local online advertising has remained untapped for a reason: small businesses are still not used to selling ads on anything but Yellow Pages. They need ad sales executives to provide the necessary hand-holding to pry those dollars away. An operation like TBD, which had initially hoped that its blog network would help provide the necessary outreach and venue to local advertisers, couldn’t provide enough support.

In December, TBD shut down its ad network and said it would no longer serve ads on its partners’ websites. The company cited a lack of interest from advertisers didn’t take off as effectively as the traffic and linking relationship did. It had hoped to develop other revenue solutions over the next few months, but instead, it’s decided to cut its losses and simply serve as an adjunct to Allbritton’s local broadcast station.

One of the first major signs of trouble occurred in November, when widely-respected founding GM Jim Brady resigned from TBD in a dispute over the direction of the site network with Publisher Robert Allbritton.