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TBD launched in August 2010 as a general-interest community news site. After an abrupt staff reduction in February 2011, it was scaled back to an arts and entertainment-focused niche site. Though TBD still operated under the WJLA banner for another year and a half, most media watchers mark 2011’s layoffs as “the death of TBD.” TBD’s last dedicated staff member left in June 2012, and the site was shut down two months later.
Plans for TBD were first announced in fall 2009. Jim Brady, a former AOL staffer and former head of the Washington Post’s website, would run the as-yet-unnamed outlet. The site was seen as a test of the long-term journalistic viability of web-native, engagement-focused, and aggregation-oriented community news. (And since the site also leveraged the resources of WJLA through its TV station, TBD-TV, it was also seen as a test of the potential for web-TV hybrid sites.) As the Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson put it in August 2010, given the news industry’s search for new economic and journalistic models, “TBD is something of a canary in the coal mine.”
TBD also hired Erik Wemple, former head of the Washington City Paper, as its top editor, and Steve Buttry as its director of community engagement. The team hired a group of journalists to act as “community hosts,” interacting with residents through both social media and in-person meetups and events. In April 2010, the site announced that its working title — TBD — would become its official title. “TBD will never be a finished product,” its editors wrote in a blog post. “On the web, on mobile devices and on our 24-hours cable news channel, we’ll always be in motion: constantly updating, improving and evolving; seeking more details, reaction or community conversation. We’ll be a place you visit to watch the news unfold in real time.”
TBD built into its business model collaboration with area blogs and other websites. Before its launch, it created a blog network of over 100 local sites with which it shared both content and, significantly, ad revenue. Four TBD staffers were responsible for monitoring coverage in the region, with a particular focus on those existing local sites. And those sites, in turn, were invited to participate in a revenue ad share. (TBD’s sales team — which was also WJLA’s sales team — sold the ads and took 65 percent of the gross.) Ultimately, the TBD Community Network would grow to include more than 200 blogs, with about 50 of them participating in the advertising deal.
TBD’s link-sharing ethos was part of its business strategy, as well. The hallmarks of its news coverage were a heavy emphasis on aggregation and linking, as well as a focus on real-time updates when it came to breaking news. Probably the most notable story TBD covered as a general-interest news site came in early September 2010, when a gunman took and held three hostages at the Discovery Channel building in suburban Washington. TBD dominated the story’s coverage, especially at the outset of the standoff, by aggregating tweets from eyewitnesses, keeping a live blog of developments, and integrating its coverage with the TV-based updates of WJLA.
Beyond breaking-news stories, though, the site generally adopted a “news you can use” approach in its coverage, compiling traffic and Metro updates, writing quirky lists of local interest, and generally aggregating information about community events and neighborhood life. “The concept is, to win big, you have to bet big,” Brady told paidContent before TBD’s launch. “To build a business, you have to build an audience. And to build an audience, you have to have enough interesting content features.”
In December 2010, however, Brady resigned from TBD over philosophical differences with Allbritton Communications. It was speculated that the rift was due to publisher Robert Allbritton’s desire to emphasize original content at TBD, while Brady wanted to focus on aggregation and other more technologically oriented approaches to news coverage.
Later that month, TBD announced it would stop serving ads on member blogs and websites. While “TBD links have boosted the traffic of network members,” Steve Buttry explained in a blog post, “unfortunately, the advertising aspect of the network has not taken off as effectively as the traffic and linking relationship.”
In February 2011, WJLA announced it would take over TBD’s operations, and that the station, under WJLA station manager Bill Lord, would bring back its own website to run alongside TBD’s. (In the realignment, TBD-TV would also revert back to its News Channel 8 branding.)
Though Wemple said at the time that no jobs would be affected by the move, two weeks later, in late February 2011, Allbritton Communications announced it would eliminate the majority of TBD’s jobs, reducing the staff from about two dozen to eight. The previous month, January — five months after its debut — TBD had attracted 1.5 million unique visitors, nearly double its December total of 838,000, and substantially higher than other sites operated by local TV stations.
But monetization was another story. Despite TBD’s traffic and engagement success, Lord explained at the time, there was “a very wide gap” between expenses and revenue.
In May 2011, The Washington Post announced that Wemple would leave TBD to become a media columnist at the paper.
ProPublica is a prominent American nonprofit news organization that produces investigative journalism. ProPublica was founded by former Wall Street Journal editor Paul Steiger and San Francisco-area billionaires Herbert and Marion Sandler in 2007 and launched to much attention shortly thereafter. It is based in New York and had 43 full-time employees as of 2012. Much…