TBD’s hyperlocal judo is smart and ethical: How should rivals at the Washington Post and elsewhere respond to all the linking ahead?

tbdlogo imageIn judo, you can use a big guy’s weight against him, and the same applies in business, especially the news kind.

Reading the Washington Post story on the TBD local news startup—which will compete against the Post, AOL’s Patch local network and the Washington Examiner—I couldn’t help but think “judo.”

This morning TBD is reaping many thousands of dollars in free publicity from Paul Farhi’s WaPo write-up, headlined TBD.com making its move into the crowded market of local news. The TBD people should bow down in gratitude toward L Street.

imageGranted, Farhi’s lead is a bit snarky (one reason for some TBD sympathizers’ depiction of the Post coverage as “sneering” and “condescending”). “Odd name,” writes Farhi, shown in the right photo, ”but let’s move on.”

Still, I see far more positives than negatives for TBD in the story’s existence. Whatever the case, the Post hadn’t any choice. For full journalistic credibility—remember, WJLA-TV and NewsChannel 8 will show up on the Web under the TBD name—L Street needs to acknowledge the new competitor’s significance. TBD will fire up live next week. And the general manager is none other than Jim Brady, ex-editor at Washingtonpost.com.

image Besides, in the end, the Post story today will have been just a sideshow despite its current benefits to TBD. The real judo will happen by way of a principle espoused by Jeff Jarvis, the media guru of BuzzMachine fame—in essence, Do what you do best and link to the rest. TBD’s own news staff is tiny, with just a dozen or so actual reporters and a small band of editors. So, to try to compensate, TBD will be regularly linking not just to the Post but also to the Examiner and Patch, which has drawn more than a few dollops of money from America Online.

No wonder TBD has some nice words to say about Patch (and the Post), and not just for reasons of civility. Others’ opinions of Patch vary (denunciation of working conditions here, a few other perspectives here). What is clear is that Patch, along with the Washington Post and the Examiner, will offer a higher percentage of genuine local reporting than TBD will, thanks in part to the 60- or 70-hour weeks that some Patch editors might be putting in. TBD will be far more linkcentric than its rivals.

That’s a mixed bag for the Post and Patch and other competitors like the Examiner.

On one hand, TBD intends to be ethical about linking openly rather than stealing content, and I applaud the Post for apparently understanding the concept of fair use here, as opposed to showing the cluelessness that GateHouse evinced in its link-related legal battle with the New York Times.

On the other, suppose TBD does become “a supermarket” of local news, a goal of Allbritton Communications, the owner. Regardless of some TBDers’ wish to downplay the competitive aspects, the supermarket approach, if it succeeds, might cost the Post a healthy chunk of local advertising revenue. Same for the the damage from the ad-supported Patch network if it can make its sites compelling enough.

So what would I do in the place of the Post and Patch? I would try to beat TBD.com at its own game. Among other things I would:

—Start my own hyperlocal site, into which people could type as many as five or so zip codes, just as I recall they can with TBD. Washingtonpost.com could replace its current local pages with the equivalent of the site.

–Pay lots and lots of attention to packaging, and not just on the Web. The Post doesn’t even have a genuine iPad application, just an iPhone one with a somewhat hard-to-use interface. TBD says it intends to support mobile devices, and if an iPad version doesn’t exist now, I wouldn’t be surprised if it materialized very soon. The Post and AOL can afford to pay the right techies to do the job well and quickly. Use the wrong techies and even the biggest budget won’t solve the problem. The good news for the Post is that, as others have noted in a more general context, it can learn from TBD.

–Strike an alliance with a local TV station as a major video source, at least if the law allows. The Farhi writeup correctly notes that TBD itself can share content, promo and advertising resources from other arms of Allbritton.

–Woo local bloggers and freelancers and give them FlipVideo cameras or the equivalents. Don’t just throw the hardware at them. Provide training as well—in this respect and others.

–Invest in existing local blogs. AOL’s Patch is expanding its own network, aided by tens of millions from the parent company. The Post could start new blogs or maybe even invest in or buy existing ones. One obstacle here is that just a fraction of local blogs in the D.C. area  are full-service, community-oriented efforts, as opposed, say, to those specializing in coverage of the local dining scene.

–Build up elaborate databases of information, regularly updated, so that separately the Post and Patch can identify social and economic trends faster than TBD can.

–Take the high road. While everyone is dueling with everyone else, I do agree with TBD that zeal and civility can coexist. “Water pistols across the Potomac,” jokes Steve Buttry, TBD’s community engagement director. At least very informally, the competitors can work to fill in the gaps in coverage. Rivals should recognize that there’s no such thing as too much local or hyperlocal news, given all the issues that pop up in this region, from rush-hour congestion on I-66 to the challenges of the D.C. public schools. The re-invented local news scene will be like high tech, in a way—where rivals both compete and cooperate at the same time. To be hypothetical, if the Post knocks the quality of TBD’s coverage, it could be undermining the value of potential link fodder. Vice versa, too.

As a bonus I’ll throw in a thought for the Post in particular. Ignore Paul Farhi’s advice about the Web, especially as applied to local matters.

The Internet and related disrupters aren’t going away, and paywalls and online gouges will hurt WaPo, not help, especially with all the new entrants like Patch and especially at the local level. In the Post’s place, while recognizing that the paper editions are the main source of revenue right now, I would start slowly phasing them out and diverting more resources to the Web side. Thin ‘em! Work toward the time when the papers editions are mostly pointers to the online side. Then sell the presses. Send the suckers off to India or Thailand, assuming they’ll buy. Don’t do so immediately. But start the phase-out. As the music and book publishing industries have discovered, the “tipping” point can come as lost faster than the skeptics ever dared expect. Consider the demographics—all those newspaper lovers who are over 50. The Web push might even keep the older baby boomers reading longer. You can use large “type” and even audio to make the articles useful to seniors who otherwise might abandon the WaPo habit. The iPad and the new and cheaper Kindle are examples of the steady evolution of the technology, which will be getting a lot better. Farhi impresses me from afar as a smart and well-intentioned guy; and I hope he will come around eventually to the possibilities of the new media. Check out Jason Fry’s response to Farhi.

In the case of the Examiner, I would consider most of the above strategies, even if I might lack the resources to try them all. One advantage the Examiner people do have is a sister operation at the national level, Examiner.com, which has thousands of freelancers churning out stories about hobbies and the like, often with local angles. Most of the TBD-network blogs are about sports or dining or other interests rather than about general civic affairs. The Examiner is already in that general territory and could build on its existing strengths, even if it lacks one of TBD’s biggest advantages, the WJLA connection.

Related: Mediagazer’s roundup of some TBD coverage. Hey, didn’t I tell you that linking is great?

And speaking of the Post: It  reports that “Second-quarter newspaper division revenue was up 2 percent for the quarter, although print ad revenue at The Post was down 6 percent. Online newspaper ad revenue was up 14 percent.” Daily print circulation, alas, went down 10.7 percent in the first six months; Sunday circulation, 9.5 percent. Talk about a move toward the tipping point!

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David Rothman

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