Feb 252011

Wow, that didn’t last long. TBD, a hybrid of a traditional broadcast affiliate and a community news web site that launched last August, announced major changes including staff cuts yesterday. The question is — was this marriage doomed from the start, or is there a broader message here for the hyper-local business model?

Like a lot of things in life, I think it’s a bit of both. The union of a broadcast TV affiliate and a hyper-local web site must have been awkward at best from the start. Traditional broadcast is, well, broadcast in nature. It’s super horizontal and concerned with big numbers, and its expensive to run from an operational and programming standpoint.

Hyper-local is (obviously) the opposite. Distribution on the Internet is cheap, and so are the content costs if you depend on aggregation, stringers and volunteers. According to Mediaweek, TBD.com didn’t seem to be doing too badly, with around 700,000 uniques as of last month. Of course I have no idea how that audience was being monetized, or if it came close to covering the costs of two separate news organizations.

When I read the first reports, I reached out to my friend Kelly Collis, aka City Shop Girl. I remembered she had been talking to TBD in late summer about an ad sales deal for her very popular email newsletter. She told me she knew something wasn’t right when TBD went through three heads of online advertising in a six week time period. They were bringing in digital people who couldn’t get the legacy sales team to sell in a different way.

In the end I think that Robert Allbritton, head of TBD parent Allbritton Communications, just couldn’t stomach what seemed like duplication of effort in the news gathering function. He already owned ABC affiliate WJLA, so why not go back to consolidating resources with that high profile asset in the lead? Of course, doing so destroys everything that promised to make TBD different from a hyper-local standpoint. Here’s typically strong coverage from GigaOm.

Maybe the writing was on the wall when former Washingtonpost.com editor Jim Brady left last November because of differences with Allbritton. One thing I found interesting at the time — he said the problem from the start was with the broadcast people, not the NewsChannel8 crew – quote courtesy of Sarah Hartley:

Well, it was probably getting the Channel 7 folks to understand and support what it is TBD was doing on the web, and to be truthful, I don’t know that we ever did while I was there. I think, on the web side, everything went pretty smoothly — beyond coming up with a name. But I think the issue any web site faces when it’s connected to an existing legacy brand is the steely desire of some on the legacy side to preserve their own way of doing things, and by extension, their own existence.

That’s a difficult battle to fight, since the legacy folks are entrenched, better-known than new folks coming into an organization and — not insignificantly — still working for the parts of the business that generate more of the revenue. Frankly, it’s a battle I’m not interested in fighting anymore. I want to be somewhere where everyone is pulling the same direction, a direction set clearly and uncompromisingly by senior management. That wasn’t the case with TBD and Channel 7. The former NewsChannel 8 TV folks that we inherited were a joy to work with: they bought into the concept, were willing to try new things and brought a lot of positive energy to the effort.

As Peter Drucker famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

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