Lessons from launch: How TBD.com is trying to engage the community to build its business

This week, Allbritton Communications launched its new online portal and news website for the Washington D.C., metropolitan area: TBD.com. TBD.com draws upon the reporting staff of Allbritton’s DC-area ABC affiliate, WJLA, and its existing cable news channel (formerly known as News Channel 8), blending them with an expanding online reporting staff, as well as a network of dozens of local blogs and websites.


Broadcasters have been attempting to build local online portals for more than a decade, following a variety of models – including nationally-branded networks, outsourced websites, and lavishly funded local staffs. By aggressively soliciting local bloggers to participate in this network, TBD.com is building upon the experience of a team of online news veterans, who’ve won praise and honor for their efforts at other “old media”-affiliated news websites, including general manager Jim Brady, late of washingtonpost.com.

This week I interviewed TBD’s director of community engagement, Steve Buttry (a former colleague of mine in Omaha and for American Press Institute training, for disclosure’s sake) about the launch.

Q. You, Jim and several others on the staff are veterans of previous online efforts by “old-media” companies. What have you learned from those efforts that’s changed the way you’ve approached the development of TBD?

A. Starting fresh is a lot of work, but it’s easier than trying to steer an ocean liner up this narrow, swift stream. (It’s late and I’m using bad metaphors).

Q. What’s remained the same?

A. The community wants to know what’s happening and they want information sources they can trust. And, by the way, we’re going to learn a lot more in the next few weeks & months.

Q. Ever since newspapers and TV stations started websites, we’ve debated whether to have the website continue the branding of the “old media” outlet, or to establish a new brand. With TBD, Allbritton’s dropping its TV station branding in favor of a new brand. Why?

A. This is new. It’s not a TV station’s website. And the TV station is the No. 5 station in the market. So the risk is low, and the upside is that we’re something new and we’re getting great buzz in the community.

Q. How many additional people has Allbritton hired from outside the company to staff TBD?

A. Roughly 50. When you include the existing News Channel 8 staff, the WJLA people (particularly weather staff) who will be providing web content, the TV sales staff, the existing Politico tech staff that’s doubling in size (and serving both sites, but spending a lot of time on us during launch), we have more than 100 people involved in the project. But we staffed up by about 50.

Q. Your focus is local news, to complement Politico’s coverage of Washington as the nation’s political capital. [Allbritton also owns Politico.] Are you striving for comprehensive coverage all communities and neighborhoods in the D.C. metro area, or are you being selective and focusing on certain communities?

A. We are covering the Washington metro area. We can’t cover every community and neighborhood with staff, but we are aggregating all the local blogs and news sites we can find to cover every area. We have three neighborhood reporters, one each covering a newsy area with dense development in DC, Arlington and Silver Spring/Bethesda/Takoma Park.

Q. Your job has been to do that, to reach out to existing online publishers and to build TBD into a network. What’s the criteria for a local publishers to get into the TBD network? How did you determine that? Will you be measuring partner performance and excluding anyone from the network who fails to meet expectations?

A. We looked for blogs covering local news, life and issues. We looked for blogs that appeared to provide quality content and post frequently. Washington has lots of outstanding blogs covering national and international affairs that we didn’t invite. We may at some point add a “Washington people” section, but at this point, we have decided not to include any of the many outstanding blogs that are primarily personal. We have some blogs that are mostly about cooking. They have been told that we will be more likely to link to a post that has a sense of place (here’s the recipe that I used to cook the eggplants I got at the Reston Farmers Market) than just a recipe.

We have a DC Foreign Policy Beat blog that I initially turned down because we’re not about foreign policy. But she said she’s going to be blogging more about DC’s many international communities and their activities and issues, and we’ll link to those posts. We’re hoping to note the traffic they steer to us and how many of our users click their links. But that’s to determine some incentives we’ll pay to them. (For traffic to us, we’ll count only from our badge, so as not to encourage link spam.) We might exclude a blog that we learn is reckless or inaccurate or doesn’t correct mistakes, but we think we vetted them well and we don’t expect to have that problem. More likely, we might drop blogs that become inactive as people’s interests and life circumstances change.

Q. What kind of traffic and CPM do you hope to deliver to TBD network publishers, in exchange for their participation?

A. Traffic will vary with how frequently they produce content and the kind of content they produce. I presume we’ll steer more traffic to a Redskins blog than to the yoga blog (though I could be wrong). We’re not charging a flat CPM. We charge a flat rate by traffic category. The minimum flat rates are based on 8 CPM, but we’re selling at rates based on 10.

Q. How are you positioning TBD versus other start-ups, such as Patch, which are trying to enlist bloggers covering local communities?

A. We are pleased that Patch will give us content to aggregate in local communities (their first two are in areas where we haven’t yet recruited bloggers). We have talked with each other about exploring possibilities for partnership or collaboration, though we are both focused on launching, so at this point it’s just an agreement to talk. We are not na├»ve enough to think that there is not competitive aspect to Patch’s presence in the marketplace (or Gannett’s new DC effort). But I (and we) don’t think of media innovation as a zero-sum game. If you limit yourself to advertising revenue, that might be the case (though I think people who serve local merchants well can generate new ad business). But, as I have written about in C3 and mobile-first strategy, I believe media need to move beyond advertising for revenue sources.

If we can develop ways to offer a digital marketplace for local businesses, conducting transactions and helping them in more meaningful ways than selling eyeballs, I think the marketplace can grow exponentially. I see every competitor (and I include the Post as well as Patch in this statement) as a potential collaborator or customer, if we can find the right solutions to serve the people and businesses of our communities.

Q. The Achilles’ Heel of “old media” website efforts to build community online has been the reticence of newspaper and TV reporters to engage in comments and discussion with readers. Can you get your staff to engage?

A. Absofreakinglutely.

Q. What are you doing differently than other publishers to make that happen?

A. We have hired a digitally attuned staff (lots of digital natives and at least one graying but enthusiastic digital immigrant who doesn’t long for the old country) who understands that engagement is not only part of the job but the path to success.

Q. What’s the goal here? What does TBD need to accomplish for Allbritton to consider it a success?

A. We need to provide a news source/connection that users view as useful and essential to staying in touch with their community. We need to provide a valuable way for businesses to connect with customers in multiple ways. We need to develop a profitable and sustainable business.

Q. What can other TV and newspaper companies learn from TBD? What can independent online publishers/bloggers learn? (Or, what do you hope each will learn?)

A. How to do [the answer above], if we’re successful.

I’ve had a fabulous and fun career, but I’ve never enjoyed myself more than I have the past eight months, especially the past month. This is an exhilarating adventure and an exciting group of people to work with.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.