TBD’s Night of the Long Knives
Allbritton Communications is giving up on its efforts to reinvent local news for the online era.
Staffers at TBD.com, launched with great fanfare by Politico's parent company last summer, were informed one at a time this morning by editor Erik Wemple that significant layoffs were on the way, and then told whether they were among those laid off. At least 12 staffers, and possibly more, will lose their jobs. Wemple (who left a job as editor of Washington City Paper to go found TBD) is not one of them.
"TBD will become a niche site on arts and entertainment," Wemple says. "We are building out a big new presence on WJLA.com."
The layoffs, according to two staffers, eliminate the site's sports staffers, and will also take away most, if not all, of its news staff. Though TBD's editorial-staffing policy eschewed hiring into traditional beats like city hall or courthouse reporters, it had staff assigned to blog, tweet, and do longer stories about topic areas, including several regional neighborhoods, as well as local pedestrian life.
"They're laying off half the staff," says a TBD staffer who requested anonymity to discuss the changes. "Pretty much all the news people."
After a launch that was praised as visionary by journalism professors and others who spend their days pondering the troubled industry's future, TBD had a harder time becoming a must-read for ordinary news consumers—a perhaps inevitable challenge given the size of the D.C. region and the website's genesis in a merger between Allbritton's well-established WJLA-TV and its new web property.
TBD founder Jim Brady left after three months. Several weeks ago, it was announced that WJLA manager Bill Lord would be given authority over both his station and the website. At the same time, officials announced plans to give WJLA its own website and strip the TBD branding from Allbritton's local News Channel 8 cable station.
"I still have concerns about whether it’s going to exist at all in a year, because I don’t think a lot of the public pronouncements they’ve made have born out over time," Brady tells City Paper. "It was pretty publicly stated when we started that we had a three to five year runway... We’ve gotten some pretty good buzz. [The site] hasn’t been perfect, but there’s nothing that’s happened since we launched that would suggest the massive changes that are being made are really necessary."
The change also means the end of TBD's community-engagement effort, which, at least in the early days, saw the site cultivating relationships with a network of local bloggers via regular bar-room get-togethers. Some of the news-side people may be able to keep working for WJLA, but they will have to re-apply for their jobs.
"They’re saying it’s financial. That, basically, they don’t see the lines crossing any time soon," says a staffer. The logic, though, baffles those who came in with the understanding that Allbritton would be patient with its novel new property. "We all came here under the expectation of that widely-quoted 'three-to-five year' ramp."
Several sources described a funereal scene this morning in the website's Rosslyn newsroom, which TBD shares with Politico, WJLA, and the freshly rebranded News Channel 8. Several staffers appeared to be in tears.