Is Hyper-Local News Doomed, or Did TBD Just Get Sandbagged?

As a journalism startup run by a widely-admired former Washington Post(s wpo) online veteran, had a lot of high hopes riding on it. Among other things, it looked like the site could help to pave the way for other smart, locally-focused media experiments, and provide a kind of antidote to the institutionalized approach that AOL’s Patch (s aol) is taking to local journalism. But co-founder Jim Brady suddenly left TBD not long after it launched, and the site has since been absorbed by its corporate parent, which runs a series of traditional TV stations. Some have argued that local online efforts like TBD simply can’t succeed, but others maintain the site’s failure is a result of corporate infighting, and says nothing about the strength of the original concept.

Although the original announcement from Allbritton Communications a few weeks ago suggested the site was simply being tweaked a little, along with some management and administrative changes, this week, it became obvious that TBD has effectively been demolished. More than a dozen employees were let go, most of whom had been hired specifically for TBD, although some were told they could apply for a handful of new jobs at the company. The actual site itself — designed to be an ambitious, Washington-focused, news site with hyper-local aspects involving a local blog network and other crowdsourced content — is apparently going to become a niche entertainment and lifestyle destination, while the TV arm of Allbritton has taken over the news operation.

Alan Mutter, a media-industry veteran who writes a blog under the name Newsosaur, said the failure of TBD was yet another example of how “hyper-local” journalism doesn’t really work as a business and how such projects are “more hype than hope.” Mutter noted that several other hyper-local news experiments have also failed, including one called Backfence that was shut down in 2007, and a more recent one called Loudoun Extra, which was financed in part by the Washington Post and was closed in 2009. Mutter said such sites failed for a number of reasons including:

  • Small audiences. Most such efforts expect a large number of people will want to read local news, but “practically, there is not that much compelling news about the average community in the average month.”
  • Big expenses. Producing quality content requires a lot of staff and significant production costs, and selling advertising to local businesses also requires a lot of people and time.
  • Small revenues. Because such sites have small audiences, they can only sell sponsorships for tiny amounts of money, and “the low yields barely cover the cost of the sales effort.”

Rick Edmonds at the Poynter Institute also argued Allbritton made a number of serious mistakes with the launch of TBD, including choosing an unknown brand for its new venture and relying on the “pedigree” of its founders and early hires instead of coming up with a compelling idea. Poynter has more coverage of the story, and others have also weighed in on the demise of the site, including former Guardian editor Emily Bell, who now runs the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and founder Jim Brady, who talked about the project in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review.

John Paton disagrees with the pessimism of Mutter and Edmonds, however — and he is putting a lot of money on the line in defence of his views, since he is the CEO of Journal-Register Co., a chain of small daily and weekly newspapers in New Jersey, Connecticut and several other states that he took over management of after it went bankrupt last year. Paton has taken an aggressively open and web-based approach to the restructuring of the company, including a number of innovations such as a “community-centered newsroom.” Paton took on some of the critics of TBD in a blog post entitled “Hyperlocal Can’t Be Monetized and Other Lies You Heard This Week About TBD,” saying:

What Allbritton did was ‘back’ a high-profile strategy that got them lots of positive press. It hit some bumps in the road and then they simply stopped because they never understood what they were ‘backing’ and it was costing money. Perhaps more than they first thought. Well, welcome to the business jungle.

Paton made it clear he is moving forward with his company’s hyper-local news approach online, and he’s not alone: AOL’s Patch has spent close to $100 million setting up local news operations in almost 1,000 towns and regions across the U.S., and the company said it plans to continue to roll out that strategy. As Patch continues its moves into the Washington region, Allbritton Communications may wish that it had invested more time and money in building TBD instead of shutting it down so quickly.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Stewart Chambers