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TBD’s Washington area news startup: Niche blogs wooed—but no signs YET of a hyperlocal nirvana

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Update, July 2: Here, including further comments from TBD. Thanks for listening. – D.R.

The TBD Web startup for local news in the D.C. area has added Allergy Life in Loudoun, U Street Girl, Rockville Central and other blogs, pushing the number of network affiliates past 70.

But I’m still not yet seeing enough commitment to a strong hyperlocal approach for the formal launch expected later this summer. Jim Brady (photo below), the Washington Post alum overseeing TBD, might be all too right when he says in effect that he doesn’t envision his operation as single-handedly dominating area news.

I won’t blame the affiliate bloggers, most of whom are probably toiling for themselves part-time out of the sheer love of it. But why not aim for more coverage of education, crime and civic matters on these sites and just a little less about the sports, restaurant and retail scenes?

Jim BradyThe big formula for many TBD-network bloggers—as well it should be, because they didn’t start up their sites with Jim Brady in mind—currently seems to be this. Take a certain geographical area and filter it through the bloggers’ passion for sports, cooking, nightlife or whatever. Great! “Local” by itself isn’t enough, and newspapers are in trouble partly because they have not recognized this. But as a citizen and ex-daily newspaper reporter, I also want in-depth school, real estate and zoning coverage and other grubby basics, not just the wooing of big spenders, Skins fanatics and other niche targets.

No, I’m not counting out the evolving TBD, which appropriately stands for “To Be Determined”; and, in fact, as a news junky, I very much want it to succeed. A positive is that Brady and crew are promoting themselves to the D.C. community in person, and TBD has even hired “community engagement staffers.” The staff is at around 25 people and will be almost twice as large when the launch happens. To TBD’s credit, it will hold blogger workshops. So maybe with luck, some of the narrowly focused blogger-hobbyists can evolve into steady providers of comprehensive neighborhood coverage.

image But for that to occur, Jim Brady will have to directly or indirectly reward his bloggers enough to sustain their interest in meeting TBD’s needs. Quasi-volunteerism, long term, can a pretty dicey way to go. While passion can make a gardening blog bloom, the challenge becomes a little more formidable if you’re truly meeting a wide variety of community needs. And 50 editors, reporters and engagement staffers covering the entire metro area will get Brady only so far, even building on Allbritton’s existing resources.

One nice wrinkle would be for Jim Brady’s bloggers to team up with restaurants or hotels near them and run videos of interview with newsmakers—residents and visiting celebrities—the way blogger Carol Joynt talks to local and national figures through her Q&A Cafe, not part of the TBD network. Shown above is her video interview with Oliver Stone, the Hollywood director-producer-writer. if TBD bloggers did one-on-ones in the Joynt vein, the very best of the interviews could end up on News Channel 8, owned by Allbritton—creator of the popular Politico site—which actually sees Jim Brady’s startup as more than just a Web effort alone. Who knows, perhaps Q&As with local and hyperlocal newsmakers are already in TBD’s plans. Meanwhile TBD should immediately buy video cams to its affiliate bloggers for all kinds of purposes and teach video techniques, if it isn’t doing this already.

I also wonder about another possibility within the cafe realm. Why not follow the example of a New Jersey newspaper and make it possible for local residents to meet the bloggers in person, get quick coaching if need be, then post online? This would be one way to generate a steady stream of local content and use staffers and affiliate bloggers as enablers rather than their doing the job entirely themselves.

image Finally, I’d suggest that TBC spiffy up the bland looks of its prelaunch lab site, ASAP, and try some multimedia even now.

Hey, Jim and Editor Erik Wemple—let your people show that TBD can be compelling. How about some interviews with your affiliate bloggers about their blogs and their neighborhoods and personal passions? Ideally the three topics will overlap heavily. Good luck!

Another friendly suggestion: How about a book blogger or even, gasp, a book section? Granted, the Redskins are a bigger draw to the zillionth degree, but don’t at least a few people in the D.C. area read? As others have said and as I’ve discovered first-hand—no claims of objectivity here—the Washington Post is abysmally deficient in coverage of local writers and their works. Perhaps Brady could team up with local bookstores and libraries and create a book forum with a mix of grassroots and professional content. If L Street wants to beat TBD to this, that’s fine by me. Just—someone do it, please. An aside: I hereby disqualify myself for consideration as the proposed book blogger.

Update: OK, it’s official. Lisa Rowan ( @Lisatella ) of TBD says the company is now looking for a book blogger (presumably in the D.C. area). Any takers? She also tweets that TBD plans to do some other things I propose. Thanks, Lisa!

Update #2: Tiffany Bridge wrote a thoughtful reply to my post, where she noted that “local bloggers do this for fun.” Exactly. And that’s terrific! But maybe some local bloggers will want to be paid in return for more comprehensive coverage with more of a civic focus. If not enough do, then TBD may want to hire more staff. My concern is that even with 50 or so people after launch, TBD won’t be able to do justice to coverage of so many neighborhoods—despite the super-talented and well-intentioned people associated with the company. I’m rooting for Jim Brady to get the budget he needs.

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7 Comments to “TBD’s Washington area news startup: Niche blogs wooed—but no signs YET of a hyperlocal nirvana”

  1. As a word of introduction, I’m one of the community hosts on Steve Buttry’s community engagement team. There are lots of valid points here, some we’re already working on and some we should take longer looks at.

    A few points in response:

    — I was glad to see you repeatedly use the word “yet,” as we have a long, long way to go. You’ve seen just the needlepoint of the iceberg so far. That’s especially important when it comes to the site design, as we’ll have a full-fledged news site at launch. The blog you see now is really just a placeholder to keep people updated on what we’re working on, so I assure you we’ll soon be much more ambitious with multimedia.

    — As far as rewarding bloggers, we’re offering them the best incentive of all: financial. We’re not paying them directly as members of the TBD payroll, but we are creating an advertising network that we think will be much more fruitful for them than whatever advertising suppliers they’ve been using. It’s important to us that the relationship be mutually beneficial, so if at any point they’re not happy, we’ll try to figure out a way to respond. So far, though, the bloggers we’ve dealt with have all been very happy to work with us.

    — I actually tweeted a link yesterday to that same story you linked of the New Jersey coffeehouse, and several TBD staffers debated how we could use or modify the concept here.

    — On book blogs: Our only requirement for any blog is that it be about the DC area, and we want as diverse of a network as possible, so we’d gladly take book blogs that fit the bill. We really haven’t targeted any area over others…it just so happens there are many more blogs about food and the Redskins than books. But if you know if any that we should include, please let us know because we would certainly take them.

    — I love your idea of video interviews with our bloggers and will be pushing it now (with proper credit to you, of course).

    — One of our community hosts, Nathasha Lim, has pitched a similar idea of video interviews with local chefs, for example. We may not get everything like that in for launch, but it is something we’re looking at.

    — Finally, as far as coverage of education, crime and civic matters, we do have some bloggers who cover those areas, but keep in mind that we’ll also have our own reporting staff who can hit the must-haves of a local news site. If bloggers are doing a good job in those areas, great, but either way our reporting staff will step up where needed.

    So we’re very much a work in progress…which is fitting, since we still haven’t even announced a launch date. But this was helpful…feel free to keep the feedback coming.

  2. Thanks for mentioning our Rockville Central. We have been volunteering part-time but we fit your description because our passion is civic engagement. The site was founded by Brad Rourke to encourage more people to get involved and volunteer in Rockville. Our coverage includes zoning and schools plus all the other news and we try to make it neighborly and fun. Submissions from the community are strongly encouraged. We’d love for the surrounding communities to have similar sites but there just aren’t any. It’s a lot of hard work.

    We’ve also been having regular lunches called Rockville Roundtables which are open to all. People come together to talk without an agenda. We do get story ideas and suggestions about directions and policies for the site, and encourage contributions.

    Brad and I are excited to join the TBD network. This connected community has great potential. We’re looking forward to “toiling” along with all the other sites.

  3. David Rothman says:

    Nice hearing from you, Cindy (and likewise Daniel, whom I’ll answer next).

    Yes, your Rockville blog is definitely more civic-oriented than the typical one in the TBD network so far. Nice work. I hope that others look to Rockville for an example and that you can spread the word about the glories of serious hyperlocal journalism.

    I almost mentioned your civic-related items in the post but wanted to focus on the bigger picture. You and Daniel are very welcome to do follow-up comments here reporting on the progress in the areas I discussed.

    Thanks,
    David

  4. David Rothman says:

    Once again, Daniel, thanks for your prompt and responsive note.

    I was glad to see you repeat­edly use the word “yet,” as we have a long, long way to go. You’ve seen just the needle­point of the ice­berg so far. That’s espe­cially impor­tant when it comes to the site design, as we’ll have a full-fledged news site at launch. The blog you see now is really just a place­holder to keep peo­ple updated on what we’re work­ing on, so I assure you we’ll soon be much more ambi­tious with multimedia.

    Couldn’t overemphasize my appreciation of “yet”! In my opinion, however, even a placeholder site for a major media start-up should include compelling design and multimedia. The current site is professional-looking, but doesn’t fully reflect the considerable talent and experience of those behind it. There isn’t so much difference in the time required to do what I have in mind—the right blog template would work wonders, especially with an improved flag. Even that, of course, will be a long way from the actual news site.

    As far as reward­ing blog­gers, we’re offer­ing them the best incen­tive of all: finan­cial. We’re not pay­ing them directly as mem­bers of the TBD pay­roll, but we are cre­at­ing an adver­tis­ing net­work that we think will be much more fruit­ful for them than what­ever adver­tis­ing sup­pli­ers they’ve been using. It’s impor­tant to us that the rela­tion­ship be mutu­ally ben­e­fi­cial, so if at any point they’re not happy, we’ll try to fig­ure out a way to respond. So far, though, the blog­gers we’ve dealt with have all been very happy to work with us.

    May this continue to be the case. You do need to think long term. It’s possible some may want more rewards later on.

    I actu­ally tweeted a link yes­ter­day to that same story you linked of the New Jer­sey cof­fee­house, and sev­eral TBD staffers debated how we could use or mod­ify the con­cept here.

    Terrific! The NJ folks are really on to something. I love it when people bridge the gap between the Net and the real world. Y’all come back here and let us know what you end up doing.

    On book blogs: Our only require­ment for any blog is that it be about the DC area, and we want as diverse of a net­work as pos­si­ble, so we’d gladly take book blogs that fit the bill. We really haven’t tar­geted any area over others…it just so hap­pens there are many more blogs about food and the Red­skins than books. But if you know if any that we should include, please let us know because we would cer­tainly take them.

    I’d recommend one particular book blogger, but (1) he seems to have enough on his plate already and (2) he seems generally more interested in reviewing already-established writers than in writing about local obscurities (no reflection on anyone’s talent—just recognition of the problems getting media attention).

    Do keep in mind alternatives to bloggers if you can’t find the right one. You could start a book forum overseen by a TBD staffer, for example.

    I love your idea of video inter­views with our blog­gers and will be push­ing it now (with proper credit to you, of course).

    Wonderful. Of course, the main credit here goes to Carol Joynt, who does such a good job of it with the Q&A Cafe. She is actually broadcasting this for the D.C. cable system, I think. There are other cable system interviewers, including some in Northern Virginia; but I’ve never seen any of them take their work more seriously.

    One of our com­mu­nity hosts, Nathasha Lim, has pitched a sim­i­lar idea of video inter­views with local chefs, for exam­ple. We may not get every­thing like that in for launch, but it is some­thing we’re look­ing at.

    I know you can’t do everything in the beginning, but this is something to aim for.

    Finally, as far as cov­er­age of edu­ca­tion, crime and civic mat­ters, we do have some blog­gers who cover those areas, but keep in mind that we’ll also have our own report­ing staff who can hit the must-haves of a local news site. If blog­gers are doing a good job in those areas, great, but either way our report­ing staff will step up where needed.

    Problem is that there’s so much darn news to report, and you may not always find out about, say, important zoning tidbits, which even the established media might miss. What’s seemingly rather arcane can eventually have a major important on the quality of life in neighborhoods. I’m confident your Rockville affiliate would agree.

    So we’re very much a work in progress…which is fit­ting, since we still haven’t even announced a launch date. But this was helpful…feel free to keep the feed­back coming.

    I said “expected later this summer” or something like that, based on earlier statements. Will it possibly be fall instead? No prob. I’d rather that TBD took its time and did things right.

    Best of luck,
    David

  5. Brad Rourke says:

    Hi there, Brad here. I am partner with Cindy (above) on Rockville Central.

    This is an interesting and useful piece (and thread). David, thanks for it. I want to provide my perspective on just a piece of it: the whole “reward the bloggers” question, especially Daniel’s point.

    I have been a part of starting other blog networks before. I also helped design one. They never work out as well for the blogger as they promise. That’s because the power dynamics are all out of whack between the parties. The host site thinks “we are providing this awesome platform.” The bloggers think “we are providing this awesome content.”

    Because the host site rarely goes out of its way to promote its bloggers (by putting them on the front page, e.g.), the bloggers are more right than the host site. Yet the bloggers are asked to give away their content (and typically have to post or cross-post it into the platform).

    TBD.com specifically is trying to disavow that disconnect by promoting individual articles throughout their site, based on geocoding, AND are explicitly saying that bloggers’ content remains on their blogs. Someone plunks in 20850 as their ZIP Code and they’ll see a bunch of Rockville Central articles — and the links will come back to us. I anticipate an upswing in traffic.

    I founded Rockville Central for civic engagement purposes, not to be a traffic monster. So Cindy and I look at slightly different metrics than others when we determine whether we are succeeding. (We ask ourselves, among other things: Are new people entering public life? Are we hearing new voices and seeing new faces?”)

    However, we don’t mind traffic and part of our joining TBD.com coincides with an attempt to begin to monetize Rockville Central in appropriate ways as a way of making our effort sustainable. So, in fact, I prefer the shared-advertising model of TBD.com to some kind of pay-per-article compensation plan. This will allow us to sell ads to local businesses and so further embed Rockville Central into the community.

    With the advertising model, we have our built-in incentive to crush it in terms of content, and there is no cap to the upside. And, we don’t get into this mindset of “well, they’re just paying me $20 for this article so I will mail it in.”) And, and and . . . it’s sustainable for TBD.com.

    I am thrilled to be a part of the TBD.com community network and I fervently hope (and expect) it to succeed. It’s got smart people at the helm, a lot of runway, and is nimble.

    Thanks so much for spurring this conversation.

  6. Maria Hardy says:

    Thank you for your mention of Allergy Life In Loudoun! The blog was a catalyst to founding of the Loudoun Allergy Network and in my efforts with this group, I have made many professional contacts in the local community who have provided a great deal of help to our members. As a result, they have seen significant business growth due to the exposure to our group, but the Speakers have been selectively chosen and the members have appreciated it. I plan to continue that in my blog efforts to help raise money for Johns Hopkins Childrens Center and national food allergy non profit programs and events. There is a tremendous opportunity in this new medium.

    As a special note, several dedicated Moms in our group this year worked very closely with LCPS in improving the standard guidelines in caring for students with food allergies and we look forward to having safer environments for our kids in Loudoun County in 2010-11. This effort was initiative by LCPS for improved wellness programs in our schools. Our group just happened to be the most outspoken of the diet restriction community and we were invited to participate! Regardless, none of this could have been accomplished without the proactive actions of the Safety, Wellness and Health Board Committee in Loudoun Schools.

    You can see the published LCPS wellness guidelines at http://cmsweb1.loudoun.k12.va.us/50990419143321/lib/50990419143321/Food_Allergies/Food_Allergies_School.pdf?50990419143321Nav=|&NodeID=6113

    Best,
    Maria Hardy
    Founder
    Allergy Life in Loudoun
    Loudoun Allergy Network

  7. […] external bloggers criticized or asked questions about TBD (even before our launch), I (and other members of the community […]

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