Crisp, lively Web pages from promising new TBD hyperlocal site—but D.C.-oriented lead story is a BIG yawner here in Alexandria, VA

imageimage Crisp, lively Web pages are greeting visitors to the new TBD hyperlocal site owned by Allbritton Communications. Here in Alexandria, VA, I hate the D.C.-centric lead story, but I’ll get to that in a moment—and remember, TBD has just fired up.

In the wake of the launch today, I’m more upbeat than ever about this hyperlocal startup for the Washington area. TBD General Manager Jim Brady joked to some bloggers yesterday about how Robert Allbritton himsef had been trying to “break” the site. Talk about a love of detail. The D.C. news scene’s aspiring Steve Jobs? Via a PaidContent Q & A today you can read about the journalistic, tech and business lessons that Allbritton’s Politico experiences have taught him for TBD.

imageAlso, do you notice the USA Todayish influence, direct or indirect, on the TBD site—complete with the prominent navigation bar and the blues, as well as a nice, breezy feel appropriate for a local site as well as McPaper? You’ll get a weather page, stocked with information from WJLA. Also USA Todayish is the use of lists. The most notable  local college classes was the first list on the Web and TBD’s cable channel today (“most ambiguous” is “I lost it at a Turkish movie”—taught at Georgetown University). Hmm. Didn’t USA Today used to be in the same high-rise that TBD and other Allbritton properties now occupy at 1100 Wilson Boulevard in Arlington? In some ways it’s as if McPaper never left.

Likewise in the tradition of USA Today, TBD has structured the site well, so that, for example, the home page (that’s another page you see at the top) gives you a good feel for the rest of the site. In theory at least, you can quickly see what is happening in your neighborhood. Going by the mockup shown the bloggers, TBD will use in-person get-togethers to bridge the gap between the physical and the virtual. This is exactly what I had hoped for.

imageBut so far, the much-talked-about localization isn’t yet evident on the site to the extent I’d want.  As of 7:40 a.m., I see 0 “items in the past 72 hours” for the 22314 zip code here in Alexandria (although I do notice two linked headlines not picked up by the counter). And oh, how I hate the lead story on the home page, Vince Gray’s white paper playbook. Look, guys, I’m across the River. Besides, does TBD really want to be just a localized version of the Politico? This is truly awful for a general audience, given TBD’s many other virtues. The Gray story is fine for pols and fans but lacks the zip of a good personality piece and is too process-oriented. If TBD couldn’t give me customization in the form of a Virginia story, couldn’t it have led with a piece of more universal interest than the Gray one? Speaking of the process of government, here’s a sample paragraph: “Some of the edits to Gray’s plan came in the form of digests, Wilkes said. He estimated that he received about three of the documents, which were more reviews of what Gray thought should be improved than line-by-line edits.” I want intimate looks at the decision-making and policy-creation processes, but, please, not as the lead story for every bleepin’ reader.

Still, despite the inside-baseball feel of the Gray story, don’t look for detailed coverage of, say, suburban city council meetings, at least by TBD itself. TBD is to care more about the actual actions of government. Also, its Facts Machine will examine the veracity of statements by government officials. Such fun could be better reading than the Gray yawner. The challenge will be for TBD to alert readers in time about boring, pedestrian business, such as zoning matters, that could affect them a lot more directly than Gray’s exact decision-making process. After-the-fact isn’t good enough when the bulldozers start growling away. Let’s see the more useful sides of “boring.”

Bottom line on TBD’s local government coverage: I am still skeptical about TBD’s civic coverage despite the 127 blogs in the TBD network. Remember, just a fraction of the blogs are on civic matters per se—rather about the sports or dining scene, or maybe the allergy scene in Loudoun County. Granted, TBD will also benefit from content from from WJLA and NewsChannel 8 and Patch, the new AOL hyperlocal network with offshoots starting up in Maryland and Virginia. But that’s still not enough. And here is a gap for the Washington Post to fill if it has the commonsense and the guts to commit enough people and technology—via the use of databases, for example—to cover local government more comprehensively.

The issue, of course, from both journalistic and business perspectives, isn’t just content. It’s also presentation, and that’s where TBD will shine, with an iPhone version popping up very soon. No iPad-optimization, alas. But such amenities will come later. Meanwhile I hear the site will offer oodles of RSS feeds, so that you can enjoy it on your own news reader. Great way for me to keep up with my surroundings here in Alexandria! The Post is hardly lacking in the RSS department, but let’s just say it isn’t as close to home as the TBD will be if it lives up to the promises. Perhaps hyperlocal from the Post could let readers more thoroughly localize the home page than TBD does—not to mention the potential ability to cover local communities better.

Yet another question is online community relations, and at the meeting with bloggers yesterday in Allbritton Communications’ offices, Jim Brady and Community Engagement Director Steve Buttry continued to show already their already-evinced sensitivity to issues such as use of bloggers’ material. As Brady has observed, the mainstream media’s ‘tude toward bloggers seems to be: “Heads I win, tails you lose.” I remember when I owned the TeleRead e-book site. We broke scads of stories on business and technical issues, and yet the New York Times hardly ever acknowledged either our existence or some of the major issues we wrote about, such as e-book standards (at least until they became too important to be ignored). Smartly, TBD is just the opposite. Reflecting the online mindset, it will go out of its way to mention the little guys—building loyalty all over the D.C. area.

If the Washington Post has the courage to use a similar community-oriented approach and make an Allbritton-level commitment to the effort, then life could be tougher for both TBD and Patch. How to respond? As it happens, TBD and Patch will complement each other, with TBD serving as a traffic driver for the legwork-intensive stories that the latter will serve up in the communities it covers (a long, long way from all of the Metro area). Could we see closer relations than just linking? Maybe even a buyout by one of the other? Or joint ventures or investments? In TBD and Patch’s place, major collaborations are what I’d seriously consider at the first sign of renewed seriousness by the Post in the hyperlocal scene. Perhaps even before that happens, it it does.

We’ll see. The Post may or may not act on the observations present in Morning Miracle, Dave Kindred’s book on the Post. “Some local papers are prospering because they have a monopoly on the news their audience wants,” Kindred quotes Tony Reid, a Post alum now director of the Writing Center of the Hill School in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. “I can’t see them [local papers] going away. That’s the way a lot of big-city papers, such as the Post, will have to go to survive—ultralocal.” But can the Post change to allow that? Will Post publisher Katharine Weymouth care as much about the general Washington community as she does about the elite community of lobbyists, other business people, government officials and journalists? As both a reader and citizen, I hope the answer is “Yes.” If nothing else, as others have noted, TBD is doing the Post a service by pointing the way. If Ms. Weymouth won’t learn from TBD, perhaps the time will eventually come for the Grahams to sell the Post or turn it into more of a national and international paper, give up on local, sell the presses and contract out the printing in various cities, assuming it continues as a pulped-wood publication.

image My question of the moment (now 8:50 a.m.): How long until TBD ratchets back on the Gray lead—either in the normal course of things or because it is so wildly inappropriate for suburban readers? Again, how about something of more widespread interest, whether it’s from D.C. or elsewhere? The jaywalking piece would be better as the lead—and, yes, this can more directly affect suburbanites working in D.C.—even if the topic isn’t as prestigious. Keep Gray on the home page, but downplay him somewhat. Oh, well, as you can see from this partial screen grab of the TBD home page, at least the people there aren’t concealing my feelings about the story. Now if they’ll ratchet it back!

Update, 9:22: TBD host Jeff Sonderman responded during a chat to my concerns with the DCcentric lead. “Our lead stories will be a diverse mix of news and features from different places. For people concerned about finding news only near them, the location filtering tools should be a great help.” But I do want news beyond my immediate surroundings. I just prefer it to be of more universal interest. As for the filter-out feature, it could well be there, but I don’t see it yet. Also, the featured-community selection feature is one-at-a-time, not blended. TBD is considering the blending feature.

Update, 9:37 a.m.: As of now—maybe this will change since the sample is probably still very small—an almost-instant TBD survey shows that 43 percent of the current visitors are from D.C. and 43 percent from Virginia: a tie. Fourteen percent are Marylanders. So most people are from outside D.C. Take that, Gray story! Another instant survey shows that 17 percent of respondents “love” the site, 58 percent find the experience “refreshing,” and 25 say “OK, but not seeing anything new here.” Zero percent hate it” and wonder why they’re “even talking.” Of course, given the interest in the site needed to care about the survey, the respondents are hardly scientifically chosen.

Update, 10:40 a.m.: Further info from TBD’s Lisa Rowan: “Thanks for your thoughts. The top story is not really dependent on your saved location, but it will change frequently. If we have a top story focusing on Virginia or Maryland, we plan to feature it there just as we would a DC-centric story. And of course, when a broad story of interest to the greater community is available, we’ll stick it up top.”

Note: This post has been updated more than a few times—and not just in the “Updates.”

Related: hyperlocal site in D.C. area is live—and my detailed analysis is on the way, my item posted earlier. Also see coverage by the Georgetown Dish, a TBD affiliate, which participated in a Friday meeting between TBD and associated bloggers. To help maintain impartiality in media coverage (a topic related to The Solomon Scandals novel)—no reflection either TBD or affiliates!— isn’t a TBD affiliate. Other coverage is in We Love D.C. (affiliate) and Deacon Does D.C.  (not sure off the bat) and Clarendon Culture (affiliate).

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David Rothman

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