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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

The Newsonomics of TBD

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Thirsting for good news, the welcome given TBD.com by news observers has been a bit overwhelming. In a desert of too-scarce good news about the news business, TBD represents one of the potential oases, like its smaller — and largely nonprofit — counterparts from San Diego to Austin to the Twin Cities to New York.

Most of the first appraisals have focused on the site’s product innovations. Let’s now take an early look at the size of this possible oasis and the unique business model under it, to gauge what kind of a test it may be. Let’s look at the Newsonomics of launching what is the nation’s first combined local online news startup/24-hour news channel.

That combination is the most basic to understanding the business of TBD, informing both TBD’s cost structure and revenue models. If TBD turns profitable within two to three years, it may become a prototype for digital/video/TV city-based news businesses.

While there may be two dozen or more metro news channels in the U.S, none has yet combined with a online news site to the extent that TBD is doing. The only parallel may be Cablevision’s News 12, its longstanding Long Island/Connecticut/New Jersey-oriented station that got a new cousin when the parent company bought Newsday from Tribune in 2008. In a post on that acquisition, I noted the potential synergies in the deal:

  1. Joint ad sales.
  2. Synergistic news-gathering and production.
  3. Monetizing cable-produced news video through Newsday’s site.

Since then, we haven’t seen a lot of that synergy in New York, as the cable news site and Newsday.com remain separate, with those who don’t subscribe to either having to pay for direct access. A cursory look at the sites doesn’t betray much sharing, but there may be more under the hood.

It is those three principles, though, plus an all-important fourth one — promotion — that should define this next, and bigger, experiment, as TBD.com and TBD TV (which has been rebranded from the former NewsChannel 8) take flight.

Let’s look first at the costs of TBD. TBD has added 50 new positions, all additional to the approximately 50 jobs ported over from the former NewsChannel 8. Jim Brady, TBD’s general manager, outlined the 50 for me: “About 30 doing news, including 15 reporters, six editors, two senior editors, six community engagement people. Another 20 doing tech, sales, product, and design.”

That tells us that the nut for TBD is about $3.5-4 million, salaries and operating costs combined. It needs to find new revenue — exclusive of what the former NewsChannel 8′s sales staff of seven brought in — to get to profitability. Profitability is a key goal for this for-profit company, and one key to proving out the model for use in other metro areas. The cost side is one of the areas that distinguishes the TBD experiment; it’s two to four times bigger than most of the local online news startups we’ve seen.

Key to our understanding here is that TBD — the website and the cable news station — is one organization. Brady is in charge of the P&L of it, though he has a dotted-line relationship to the ad sales heads. While it adds costs to do 24-hour cable news as well as 24-hour digital news, it offers more revenue opportunities as well.

The key synergy: a kind of virtuous circle of promotion to stoke growth of audience and advertising dollars.

“They have the big megaphone [of promotion],” points out Phil Balboni, now CEO of startup GlobalPost, but also a veteran of New England Cable News, which he built and operated. “They can push TBD on every program. Within a short period of time, they will get great brand awareness.” So, yes, TBD TV pushes people to the website, but TBD.com also pushes people to the cable news channel. And WJLA, the ABC7 affiliate also owned by Allbritton, promotes both. JLA’s been the second-ranked station in the broadcast market.

The idea: Big promotion drives in samplers. Then the site must convert a good 20 percent of them to regular customers.

So what does TBD need to get to profitability — and make itself the model to match? Let’s quickly look at the two big qualifiers, audience and sales.

A big audience: Let’s remember that TBD starts with a significant audience, though one far smaller than WashingtonPost.com, just to drop a name. It gets traffic from both WJLA and the former NewsChannel 8; both of their former websites now point to TBD.com. According to Nielsen, WJLA pulled in about 327,000 unique visitors and 1,516,000 page views in July, while NewsChannel 8 appeared to attract a small fraction of that.

Make no mistake: Gaining attention in a crowded media marketplace won’t be simple — and is one of the reasons for the fast-out-of-the-chute TBD Community Network of 129 bloggers.

The Post is formidable competition. It is a premier regional website (built by Brady and others) and in a June Nielsen report, showed a 5.27-percent increase in unique visitors year over year, to 10,089,000 unique visitors and 106,387,000 pageviews. It zigged — up — while the news category zagged down 2.74 percent overall for the same period.

So figure that TBD.com needs a web audience of between 10 and 20 million page views a month at some point in the next 24-36 months to get to profitability. That’s a fifth to a tenth of the Post’s online audience, which, we should keep in mind comes more from outside D.C. than in within it.

Significant new revenue from both TBD.com and TBD TV: The revenue will be mainly advertising. As a for-profit, TBD.com is taking a different route than non-profits MinnPost and Texas Tribune, for instance, both of which are focusing strongly on membership and corporate/institutional sponsorships. The nonprofits are thinking that maybe a third — or less — of their revenue will come from traditional “advertising.” For TBD, though, it’s all about the sale of advertising. Just as TBD TV is critical to TBD.com site promotion, its own revenue growth will be key.

Figure that as much as 30 percent of new revenue generated out of the new enterprise could come from new TV revenue; to the extent it does, the site’s growth could trend more to the 10 million monthly page views, than 20 million, and still be profitable.

Brady says a new online-only sales staff of four will drive both online-only and bundled sales, working with the established sales force. “You start with a sales force that has relationships with an auto dealer, for instance, ” says Brady. “You don’t need a million uniques to get a meeting with them.”

The questions here are familiar ones for local broadcasters and for newspaper publishers: How do you a traditional ad sales staff — one mainly used to selling “time” — to sell the web effectively? How do you blend the online-only sales force with TV-oriented one? How much do you emphasize online-only sales, or continue a focus on bundling with TV time?

It’s a complex sell, combining sales of space, time, and pay-for-performance advertising. “They need to sell four or five different kinds of advertising,” says Arul Sundaram, an industry consultant who formerly was vice-president of strategy for Internet Broadcasting, which has powered dozens of local broadcast station websites. Beyond selling cost-per-thousand display advertising, Sundaram ticks off various pay-for-performance (largely search-based), video, and mobile ad products that the operation should learn to sell as well.

Pioneering models is a tough business. As the news business looks for new models, the man of the moment is man behind the TBD curtain, Robert Allbritton, CEO of his eponymous company. Allbritton’s gotten credit for seeing, and seeing through, Politico, his first web venture, to on-again, off-again profitablity. Importantly, he’s been credited with allocating sufficient resources, even in cash-negative startup times to create journalistic products that attract audiences.

As Phil Balboni sees it, Allbritton’s move, especially in this economic climate, is “a gutsy statement.” In 2010, especially, no guts, no glory.

                                   
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  • http://jaysmall.com/ Jay Small

    Having managed comparable interactive operations with staffing in markets much smaller/cheaper than D.C., I think $3.5MM-$4MM is rather low. Absent any other operating costs, you’re figuring average compensation of $50K-$80K, which might be what I would figure for a similar team in mid-markets. The execs and top sellers in that 50 skew that number higher, and even support staff in D.C. probably needs $40K to survive.

    Then you have costs of content management systems, hosting, any third-party relationships (even revenue shares on reseller deals) and who-knows-what-else above and beyond comp.

    I’d bet the nut is $7 million or more.

  • http://tbd.com Steve Buttry

    Thanks for this thoughtful analysis, Ken. We appreciate all the scrutiny for the TBD launch. We think we are developing a model for a prosperous future and hope to share the lessons we learn.

  • http://j-lab.org Andrew Pergam

    Great analysis. I think another key factor will be finding the right ad *buyers*.

    Rather than a number-cruncher used to buying TV spots based on HUTs and share, you need to engage people who understand the synergy of a TV and web campaign AND the benefits each provides individually. Find a furniture store that wants people to be able to layout their dream living room online, and then shoot a TV commercial of them winning their living room. TBD has a great platform to leverage.

    And kudos to TBD on its transparency and genuine interest in feedback. That’s quite refreshing.

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