Independent ABC-affiliated station owner Allbritton Communications, based in Arlington, VA, has apparently given up on its bold experiment to reinvent local news for the online era. About half the staffers at TBD.com, launched with great fanfare by the media company last summer, are being laid off.
The brainchild of Robert Allbritton, chief executive of Allbritton Communications, TBD was supposed to do for Washington area news what Allbritton’s Politico newspaper and website had done for political coverage. It would be faster, smarter and more creative than existing digital offerings, combining broadcast and cable news with the Web.
The vision was to gather its own news, curate it and link it to hundreds of allied but independent blogs, and integrate with Allbritton’s other local news properties, broadcast station WJLA and cable-news outlet NewsChannel 8.
Allbritton said it would take three to five years for TBD to turn a profit and establish itself as a full-fledged challenger to local news leaders such as The Washington Post. Now, that won’t happen. TBD.com will lose about a dozen of its 23 editorial staffers and much of its local newsgathering capabilities following last week’s reorganization. Several employees will be reassigned to the newly reestablished WJLA.com, the website Allbritton abandoned last summer in an attempt to consolidate its online operations around TBD.com.
TBD will soon have eight editors and reporters who will concentrate on arts, entertainment and lifestyle stories, Erik Wemple, who will remain its editor, told The Washington Post. The newspaper said that according to some internal measures, TBD was doing well, having gained a loyal following in a very short time. In January, five months after its debut, it attracted 1.5 million unique visitors, nearly double its December total of 838,000 and far surpassing November’s total, 715,000, the internal figures show. Over the past three months, TBD’s traffic was substantially higher than websites operated by local TV stations WRC, WUSA and WTTG, according to Compete.com, which tracks online traffic.
However, revenue was another story, the Post said. In part, the website’s money troubles were due to the company’s decision early on to scrap plans for TBD to handle its own advertising sales. Instead, the job was given to salespeople from WJLA, who were more accustomed to selling TV airtime than digital ads.
The newspaper said top managers at WJLA resented the new operation, in part because it meant the loss of WJLA’s own website, which was a promotional vehicle for the TV station’s work. One WJLA employee described the relationship between the TV station and the website’s managers as “palpable resistance and mutual contempt” to the Post.