Even though TBD was a great idea...
Someone realized that TBD was doing the worst thing in the world for Allbritton, telling the competition that they could compete.
The cut-backs issued to Allbritton Communication’s grand experiment TBD were surprising. First the outlet cut community profit-sharing, than Allbritton paired the organization down to just a website and put it under the purview of a TV guy, finally, the site received enormous staff cuts. It’s clear that the site is now pretty much dead and the ambitious community hub and hyperlocal media convergence that Jim Brady planned for will never see the light of day again.
The reason Allbritton shuttered TBD has been a point of speculation. While the assumption is advertising, it doesn’t seem like Allbritton really gave them a chance to try. There have been other speculations as well. TBD garnered world-wide attention for its novel approach and Allbritton has succeed with new media projects before. There was a lot that TBD did right. So what did they do wrong?
TBD made the ultimate mistake, empowering potential competition.
The Allbritton experiment offered ad placement on local blogs, together with a revenue sharing scheme. In reality, the split was not very good. TBD got the lion’s share of revenue. However, it did succeed in substantially changing some bloggers’ mentality . For many, the idea that their website, that thing they did out of passion, could be worth anything was a surprise. In addition, the fact that TBD highlighted their content, meant that someone was actually reading.
Aggregation of news is a great idea, but there is a significant tripping point when your own horse is in the race, you are creating a site in which your own content competes for eyeballs with content made by outsiders. TBD put the content created by bloggers in on the same level as media made by various Allbritton outlets.
It seems clear that TBD was empowering the local bloggers that made up their community. While this might be a great idea in theory, trying to do so from within an established network of media outlets presents a whole host of conflicts of interest for the parent company.
I found out about TBD’s dropping of community advertising as soon as it happened, but not from a usual source. I monitor the local blogger meetups as part of my job and a member of the group sent out an e-mail to the list talking about the decision TBD had made to drop the service. Within minutes, the next few e-mails sent to the list were all about new ways to monetize blogs and where to find sponsors.
Was TBD’s ‘failure’ due to being unable to monetize in a short time, conflicts between staff silos, or brand failure? Perhaps these all contributed to the great experiment’s downfall. But I think someone at the top realized that all of TBD’s community aggregation and promotion was creating competition with Allbritton’s established media.
By empowering bloggers, TBD was going to make it harder for Allbritton to make money, simply by creating a larger number of venues for advertising.
I think that this potential competition for already difficult to sell online advertising played a serious role in Allbritton’s decision to shut down TBD’s main operations. Taking this perspective, their actions make sense; the move to decrease community focus, the shut down of community advertising before everything else and the eventual elimination of almost all of the community managers. There wasn’t enough time to evaluate if TBD could sell ads, but there was enough to see the positive reaction of the community and make assumptions on where it could lead.
TBD was doing something great, it was elevating the online community it covered and building bloggers up into responsible community journalists. Through process of selection, TBD influenced the community blogs creating something like beat reporters and it helped them understand that their work was worth more than a few Google ads. It would be hard to think of something more impressive, or more threatening to an established multi-outlet media company. Though TBD’s layoffs were a sad day for the state of journalism, from Allbritton’s perspective, I can see how it would be the right choice.
In retrospect, I think that part of the reason that AOL picked up Huffington Post was because it realizes that it faces the same frightening conundrum as Patch spreads. By soliciting community contributions and paying community members for freelance content, Patch is essentially training the next generation of citizen journalists. Rather than give them the opportunity to start-up their own little outlets, diluting advertising potential, I suspect that we’ll soon see a platform for local Huffington Post-style sites through Patch. By providing citizens with a platform and publicity AOL will face less of a threat that contributors might striking out on their own. Not to mention, the content will be on AOL’s platform, so they pretty much own it.
Is there a lesson that future start-ups can take away when seeing TBD’s loss from this perspective? The obvious answer is: don’t try being an aggregator when your parent company owns multiple media outlets in the area. There is also a less obvious path for the future. Own the platform.
Multi-site content management systems are so easy to set up these days. I can think of at least three off the top of my head. Setting up a business model around this isn’t hard, establish yourself, give community members easy entrance and exit with their existing content to the platform, provide them with better tools than they could get at Blogger or WordPress.com, promote the hell out of them, advertise against their content. There is no reason why HuffPo’s model couldn’t be adapted to local.
It’s clear that TBD’s biggest problem was the threat it created by showing people that they need not be part of the church of journalism to create content valuable to the community and earn money with it. They didn’t need to go to journalism school, have a pedigree, or write in AP style. They just need to be dedicated, honest and to create quality content. Considering how many mainstream media journalists seem to lack those very principles these days, it’s clear that empowering citizen journalism was really TBD’s biggest threat.