by Bill Reader, Associate Professor
UPDATE: Please see corrections in third and sixth paragraphs and clarified language in the eighth paragraph. I regret the errors and any confusing prose, and greatly appreciate TBD.com’s Steve Buttry contributing the corrections. Buttry’s response can be read at http://bit.ly/fj7nIP. — Bill R.
Just six months after it launched to much fanfare, the Washington, D.C., area community journalism site TBD.com (short for, it is suggested, “To Be Determined”) is CTD (short for “circling the drain”). Some suggest it was too ambitious a business model to launch during a sluggish economy; others suggest the demise of TBD.com was because of disagreements between the owner and the top managers.
I suggest another possibility: That TBD.com tried to do grassroots journalism with a big-media mindset, and that rarely works in community journalism.
The site is still being published, but with a much reduced staff; the content also has diminished, some critics say, from community-focused news and opinion to little more than A&E and gossip. CORRECTIONS from Steve Buttry of TBD.com: 1. “The changes announced last month will take place in a few weeks (I’m not aware that a date has been set yet). Some staff members who have lost their jobs are choosing to leave early, but we’re not ’much reduced’ yet … .” 2. “Gossip is not part of the A&E plan and we’ve never said so.”
Last August, Allbritton Communications Co. launched TBD.com as what many media watchers hailed as a bold new experiment in community journalism. TBD.com was to be produced in partnership with Allbritton’s TV stations in the region, WJLA-TV (local airwave channel 7) and its cable equivalent, News Channel 8, but also was to aggregate content from numerous local bloggers and community contributors.
I was not so swept up in the TBD.com hype last summer, although I was intrigued by the idea. It seems TBD.com gained so much attention by major media watchers because of the star power of its owner, Robert Allbritton, who owns top-rated TV stations in the D.C. area and also founded Politco.com. Adding to the star attraction was that Allbritton hired quite a bit of talent from major media in the region, most notably former Washington Post online honcho Jim Brady. The site was under development for more than a year, which also generated quite a bit of buzz in the industry.
The wheels started to come off soon after launch. Brady stepped down three months after TBD.com was launched, citing “minor differences” with Allbritton. The original plans to have a staff of 50 has been another sticking point — the residual staff of the site is reportedly a mere fraction of the original. CORRECTION from Steve Buttry of TBD.com: “I don’t know the exact head counts, but the 50 employees that many cited when we launched included people added to the NewsChannel 8 TV operation as well as sales and technology staff. The figure of 30 that some media cited last week in reporting on the staff reduction is the approximate size of the newsroom staff. We had lost a few employees since launch (and added at least one), but we did staff at about 50 employees and we had not already diminished from 50 to 30. As the company repositions to relaunch WJLA.com and reposition TBD, 12 positions are being eliminated from the news staff. If other cuts are being made, I do not know details of them.”
The reason I wasn’t so sure TBD.com would be successful is because it was essentially a high-tech, new-media attempt at a very old business model — the attempt of major urban media to pretend they can do small-town journalism.
One of the fatal flaws of the TBD.com model as a conduit for community journalism was the suggestion by some that “D.C.” is a community — it’s actually, of course, a sprawling city with even more sprawling suburbs, and spans two different states and “the District.” TBD.com recognized that it was a regional publication serving many different communities. Large cities are not single communities; they are aggregates of many different communities — communities of place (e.g., “neighborhoods”), communities of identity (e.g., “ethnic groups”), and communities of shared interests (local environmentalists, local business owners, amateur-league athletes, etc. and so on). “D.C.” is a region; Columbia Heights is a community. CLARIFICATION:The italicized text in this paragraph is changed from the original based on feedback from Steve Buttry of TBD.com.
Another problem is that community journalism most often succeeds if it starts with grass between its toes and Ramen noodles in the lunchroom. That is, community media that stick are often started by a small group of dedicated and hard working people who know their communities better than they know journalism. They scratch together just enough time and money to produce a journalistic product that the community wants and will support. Just as the N.Y. Mets is “the worst team money can buy,” even the most well-funded attempts by big-league media to create a grass-roots product is likely to fail unless the journalism is legitimately “grass roots.”
Community journalism is a holistic phenomenon. It begins by identifying a community that already exists (the idea of “creating community” is pretty much social-engineering hogwash — real communities form naturally on their own, they are pulled together by the gravity of shared needs and common interests). There can be instances in which small-market media can foster community, but those are rare. An effective community journalism effort must join an existing community first, and then build genuine social capital by interacting with the community. Once the CJ project has sufficient rapport, it can then assert a leadership role in the community.
The TBD.com experiment failed, I believe, because for all of the brilliance and talent and hard work of the people who spent more than a year developing it, they never really did get a grasp on what community (or communities) TBD.com would be serving. As such, it essentially became yet another metro-wide news source, perhaps an alternative to the local major newspapers in D.C., but no more a practitioner of “community journalism” than the Washington Post. I adore the Post — it is my “national paper” of choice, but it is not by any means a community newspaper. It certainly isn’t my community newspaper. And for all of the hoopla, TBD.com was never really a community website.
See response from Steve Buttry, director of community engagement, of TBD.com: http://bit.ly/fj7nIP