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Additional thoughts on TBD.com

by Bill Reader, Associate Professor

My recent post regarding TBD.com’s pending decline generated some feedback, including quite a bit within TBD.com itself. Steve Buttry, director of community engagement at TBD.com and a veteran community journalist, weighed in heavily on his personal blog. He also pointed out some factual errors that I have since corrected. I encourage those interested in the issue to read Steve’s reply and the ensuing dialog (and I also am envious of the commenting forum on Steve’s blog, and hope we someday offer the same on this site).

Having considered Steve’s reply and the various comments made by others in/to it, I do want to make some clarifications and some better-explained (I hope) perspectives:

— First, I want to make it clear that I have nothing but respect for the TBD.com team and for what they have accomplished. In journalism practice broadly, it is/was a bold idea that was very well executed, but in the end didn’t have sticking power. I think Brill’s Content (1998-2001) was another example of a great idea, well executed, that had to fold before it could reach its full potential. My critique of TBD.com is within the narrower concept of “community journalism,” not journalism studies more broadly. Apologies to the folks at TBD.com and to readers of the original post if that narrow focus of the critique was not clear, and if it was interpreted as disrespectful of the TBD.com staff itself.

— Second, TBD.com is/was clearly a carefully developed and creative model. As a publisher of community-focused content, it certainly provided a medium that is/was unlike most other regional media in and around Washington, D.C. I think an overarching problem with the model was the idea was that it would be a centralized medium for reports and opinions from the many, many different communities in the region. TBD.com just never seemed, to me, to evoke an overall sense of “community” that is so much part of the appeal, and the staying power, of successful community media. In a lot of ways, TBD.com just struck me as an innovative, online approach to the old metro newspaper practice of producing “zoned editions,” which also was a good idea that, in general, didn’t really work out.

— The overall model to centralize community-focused content is what I mean/meant by “big-media mindset.” That is not to say that big media companies, including Allbritton or Gannett or even News Corp., are unable to have properties that do successful community journalism (I have written before how AOL’s Patch.com is an example of a media conglomerate trying a new approach to ComJ; and, of course, big companies such as CNHI, LCNI, Gannett and McClatchy understand the power of giving each of their community newspapers considerable newsroom autonomy. If big media companies are going to try to do community journalism, they really must get comfortable with and embrace decentralization as a tried-and-true aspect of community journalism practice; if the end result doesn’t provide a clear sense of community, it is not likely to succeed.

— Finally, it should be noted that at this writing, TBD.com is still publishing, and it appears that it will remain part of the Allbritton stable of media outlets in the D.C. area, if in some diminished form focused on A&E. That means, I hope, that the project is not being cancelled, but rather put on the back burner. Because I love journalism in all its forms, and hate to see any source of the work (and jobs for talented and hard-working journalists) diminish or disappear, I hope Allbritton will bring back TBD.com in the future, and give all of those talented journalists another chance to innovate journalism in the D.C. region.

posted in: cj, community, online
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