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February 25 2011

15:00

This Week in Review: TBD gets the axe, deciphering Apple’s new rules, and empowering more news sources

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

The short, happy-ish life of TBD: Just six months after it launched and two weeks after a reorganization was announced, the Washington, D.C., local news site was effectively shuttered this week, when its corporate parent, Allbritton Communications (it’s owned by Robert Allbritton and includes Politico), cut most of its jobs, leaving only an arts and entertainment operation within the website of Allbritton’s WJLA-TV.

TBD had been seen many as a bellwether in online-only local news, as Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore documented in her historical roundup of links about the site, so it was quite a shock and a disappointment to many future-of-newsies that it was closed so quickly. The response — aptly compiled by TBDer Jeff Sonderman — was largely sympathetic to TBD’s staff (former TBD manager Jim Brady even wrote a pitch to prospective employers on behalf of the newly laid off community engagement team). Many observers on Twitter (and Terry Heaton on his blogpointed squarely at Allbritton for the site’s demise, with The Batavian’s Howard Owens drawing out a short, thoughtful lesson: “Legacy managers will nearly always sabotage innovation. Wall of separation necessary between innovators and legacy.”

Blogger Mike Clark pointed out that TBD’s traffic was beating each of the other D.C. TV news sites and growing as well. The Washington Post reported that while traffic wasn’t a problem, turning it into revenue was — though the fact that TBD’s ads were handled by WJLA staffers might have contributed to that.

Mallary Jean Tenore wrote an insightful article talking to some TBD folks about whether their company gave them a chance to fail. Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau was unequivocal on the subject: “Some of us have been talking today on Twitter about whether TBD failed. Nonsense. TBD wasn’t given enough time to fail.”

While CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis lamented that “TBD will be painted as a failure of local news online when it’s a failure of its company, nothing more,” others saw some larger implications for other online local news projects. Media analyst Alan Mutter concluded that TBD’s plight is “further evidence that hyperlocal journalism is more hype than hope for the news business,” and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds gave six business lessons for similar projects from TBD’s struggles. Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton ripped Edmonds’ analysis, arguing that Allbritton “can’t pretend to have seriously tried the hyperlocal business space after a six-month experiment it derailed half-way in.”

Applying Apple’s new rules: Publishers’ consternation over Apple’s new subscription plan for mobile devices continued this week, with Frederic Filloux at Monday Note laying out many publishers’ frustrations with Apple’s proposal. The New York Times’ David Carr and The Guardian’s Josh Halliday both covered publishers’ Apple subscription conundrum, and one expert told Carr, “If you are a publisher, it puts things into a tailspin: The business model you have been working with for many years just lost 30 percent off the top.”

At paidContent, James McQuivey made the case for a lower revenue share for Apple, and Dan Gillmor wondered whether publishers will stand up to Apple. The company may also be facing scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission for possible antitrust violations, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The fresh issue regarding Apple’s subscription policy this week, though, was the distinction between publishing apps and more service-oriented apps. The topic came to the fore when the folks from Readability, an app that allows users to read articles in an advertising-free environment, wrote an open letter ripping Apple for rejecting their app, saying their new policy “smacks of greed.” Ars Technica’s Chris Foresman and Apple blogger John Gruber noted, though, that Readability’s 30%-off-the-top business model is a lot like Apple’s.

Then Apple’s Steve Jobs sent a short, cryptic email to a developer saying that Apple’s new policy applies only to publishing apps, not service apps. This, of course, raised the question, in TechCrunch’s words, ”What’s a publishing app?” That’s a very complex question, and as Instapaper founder Marco Arment wrote, one that will be difficult for Apple to answer consistently. Arment also briefly noted that Jobs’ statement seems to contradict the language of Apple’s new guidelines.

Giving voice to new sources of news: This month’s Carnival of Journalism, posted late last week, focused on ways to increase the number of news sources. It’s a broad question, and it drew a broad variety of answers, which were ably summarized by Courtney Shove. I’m not going to try to duplicate her work here, but I do want to highlight a few of the themes that showed up.

David Cohn, the Carnival’s organizer, gave a great big-picture perspective to the issue, putting it in the context of power and the web. Kim Bui and Dan Fenster defended the community-driven vision for news, with Bui calling journalists to go further: “Let’s admit it, we’ve never trusted the public.” There were several calls for journalists to include more underrepresented voices, with reports and ideas like a refugee news initiative, digital news bus, youth journalism projects, and initiatives for youth in foreign-language families.

The J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer gave 10 good ideas to the cause, and Drury j-prof Jonathan Groves and Gannett’s Ryan Sholin shared their ideas for local citizen news projects, while TheUpTake’s Jason Barnett endorsed a new citizen-journalism app called iBreakNews.

Three bloggers, however, objected to the Carnival’s premise in the first place. Daniel Bachhuber of CUNY argued that improving journalism doesn’t necessarily mean adding more sources, recommending instead that “Instead of increasing the number of news sources, we should focus on producing durable data and the equivalent tools for remixing it.” Lauren Rabaino warned against news oversaturation, and the University of Colorado’s Steve Outing said that more than new sources, we need better filters and hubs for them.

Blogging’s continued evolution: The “blogging is dead” argument has popped up from time to time, and it was revived again this week in the form of a New York Times story about how young people are leaving blogs for social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Several people countered the argument, led by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, who said that blogging isn’t declining, but is instead evolving into more of a continuum that includes microblogging services like Twitter, traditional blog formats like Wordpress, and the hybrid that is Tumblr. He and Wordpress founding developer Matt Mullenweg shared the same view — that “people of all ages are becoming more and more comfortable publishing online,” no matter the form.

Scott Rosenberg, who’s written a history of blogging, looked at statistics to make the point, noting that 14 percent of online adults keep a blog, a number he called astounding, even if it starts to decline. “As the online population becomes closer to universal, that is an extraordinary thing: One in ten people writing in public. Our civilization has never seen anything like it.” In addition, Reuters’ Anthony DeRosa argued that longer-form blogging has always been a pursuit of older Internet users.

Reading roundup: I’ve got a few ongoing stories to update you on, and a sampling of an unusually rich week in thoughtful pieces.

— A couple of sites took a peek at Gawker’s traffic statistics to try to determine the effectiveness of its recent redesign. TechCrunch saw an ugly picture; Business Insider was cautiously optimistic based on the same data. Gawker disputed TechCrunch’s numbers, and Terry Heaton tried to sort through the claims.

— A couple of Middle East/North Africa protest notes: The New York Times told us about the response to Egypt’s Internet blackout and the role of mobile technology in documenting the protests. And Amy Gahran of the Knight Digital Media Center gave some lessons from the incredible Twitter journalism of NPR’s Andy Carvin.

— The Daily is coming to Android tablets this spring, and its free trial run has been extended beyond the initial two weeks.

— Matt DeRienzo of the Journal Register Co. wrote about an intriguing idea for a news org/j-school merger.

— Alan Mutter made the case for ending federal funding for public journalism.

— At 10,000 Words, Lauren Rabaino had some awesome things news organizations can learn from tech startups, including thinking of news as software and embracing transparency.

— And here at the Lab, Northwestern prof Pablo Boczkowski gave some quick thoughts on how we tend to associate online news with work, and what that means. He sheds some light about an under-considered aspect of news — the social environments in which we consume it.

August 13 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: TBD takes off, Demand Media’s profit-less past, and Google’s open-web backlash

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A high-profile entry into the local news scene: One of the most anticipated new news organizations in journalism’s recent history launched this week in the form of TBD, a site owned by Allbritton Communications (the folks behind Politico) covering local news in Washington, D.C. As The Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson wrote, TBD is “something of a canary in the coal mine” of the future of journalism, being the protoype of a locally focused, community-driven, online-only news model whose effectiveness everyone’s eager to gauge. For the basics of the project, here are two local profiles from DCist and the more skeptical Washington Post, a paidContent interview with Robert Allbritton, a Poynter chat with TBD’s Jim Brady and Steve Buttry, and an Online Journalism Review interview with Buttry.

After TBD gave its media preview last Friday, quite a few people listed plenty of reasons to keep an eye on the site: Ken Doctor liked the “out of the box” nature of TBD’s pro-am/social/mobile/multimedia efforts; Jeff Jarvis liked the collaborative, link-centric philosophy; the Lab’s Laura McGann called attention to TBD’s interactivity and collaboration through local blogs and social media; and Kevin Anderson was impressed by the project’s commitment to profitability.

Several TBD analyses focused particularly on TBD’s interactive and collaborative news efforts, with Journalism Lives, Mashable, and Poynter providing good area-by-area breakdowns. Mark Potts, who’s starting up a similar blog-network effort, Growthspur, wrote a thoughtful piece about the importance of TBD’s own network of local blogs: “TBD is without doubt the biggest, most ambitious effort yet to create a new paradigm for local news coverage of a major metropolitan area,” he wrote.

Poynter’s Steve Myers also touched on an distinct aspect of TBD’s operation — it also includes an Allbritton-owned all-news local cable channel that will be branded TBD TV. He examined how a web-TV converged newsroom operates, and Cory Bergman of Lost Remote (a local TV and hyperlocal news veteran himself) wondered if we might see more TV-local online news partnerships. Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor took a detailed look at the economics of TBD’s web-TV synergy, centering on its pioneering broadcast and online advertising hybrid. Meanwhile, David Rothman had some detailed advice for TBD’s competitors.

The site officially launched Monday, and the initial reviews were mostly positive. Rothman and Suzanne Yada had the most detailed ones; both were impressed by the site’s presentation and several of its features, though both were concerned about how much local news content the site would actually be able to produce. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer liked the smooth design, too, but wanted to see more out of the site’s locally personalized features. Jack Shafer of Slate loved the way the site was mobile, direct and useful, especially its focus on those local-TV staples of weather, traffic, and sports.

The New York Times’ David Carr (“extremely functional…kind of ugly”) and Mediaite’s Michael Triplett (“off to a good start,” despite “thin and D.C.-centric” content) also offered quicker reviews. The most thoughtful review belongs to Lost Remote’s Bergman, who noted that while many of the ideas are old, their implementation is new. “This is the first time that a local media group — especially in the TV space — has wrapped these ideas together and aggressively launched them with an investment to back it up,” he wrote.

Demand Media’s filings raise questionsDemand Media, the new-media lightning rod du jour, filed for an IPO last Friday, giving us the first detailed financial look inside the private company. Several sites took cracks at sifting through the numbers for significant bits, but two pieces stood out: One, Demand Media has yet to make a profit, losing $22 million this year; and two, 26 percent of its revenue comes from cost-per-click advertising deals with Yahoo.

That’s a pretty sizable chunk of Demand Media’s income, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram examined one of the company’s reported risk factors — that Google could use its own search expertise to create a search-driven content company to compete with Demand. Ingram pointed out that Google already has a patent for a process that identifies “underserved” search content. All Things Digital noted that Demand’s heavy reliance on Google “could torpedo the company” if Google changes its search formula or changes its contract with Demand, but it also countered that every web publisher is dependent on Google.

Then there’s the whole matter of profitability. The Wall Street Journal’s Scott Austin contrasted the numbers in Demand’s filing with its executives’ numerous past descriptions of the company as profitable, as a reminder that “no one outside the company can verify a start-up’s financial claims.” Slate’s James Ledbetter also noticed an inexplicably large and sudden drop in Quantcast traffic to Demand’s sites a few weeks ago and wondered what was behind it. Meanwhile, the Journal also profiled Demand Media’s efforts to court big-time advertisers on the web.

A proposal to carve up the open web: A week after reports emerged that Google and Verizon were near a deal that would more or less mark the end of net neutrality, the two companies came forward this week not with a deal, but with a policy proposal. As for whether that would mark the end of net neutrality, well, it depends on who you ask. Google and Verizon called their plan a “proposal for an open Internet,” and their CEOs co-authored a Washington Post op-ed arguing that their proposal “empowers an informed consumer, ensures the robust growth of the open Internet and provides incentives to strengthen the networks that carry Internet traffic.” The proposal has quite a few moving parts, but it essentially prohibits Internet service providers from discriminating against or prioritizing “lawful Internet content,” while excepting wireless networks and some unspecified future services from that regulation.

The tech blog Engadget broke down the proposal, noting that would set something close to the status quo into formal policy, rendering the U.S. Federal Communications Commission powerless to change policy as the Internet changes. Most of the web was quite a bit harsher in its  judgment, calling it an open attack on net neutrality by excluding its fastest growing part, wireless. CNET and The New York Times put together good summaries of the backlash, but here are some of the most to-the-point examples: Free Press’ Craig Aaron (“one massive loophole that sets the stage for the corporate takeover of the Internet”), the Electronic Freedom Foundation (it limits net neutrality to “lawful” content, leaving “lawful” to be defined) Siva Vaidhyanathan (it gives Verizon control of the most exciting parts of the web) Public Knowledge’s John Bergmayer (it divides the Internet into several public and non-public parts) Ars Technica (its rules “will become meaningless as 4G sweeps the country”) Salon’s Dan Gillmor (“a Trojan Horse for a modern age”) Susan Crawford (future services is “a giant, enormous, science-fiction-quality loophole”) and Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain (makes way for “an impenetrable web of contracts and fees”).

Noted Google watcher Jeff Jarvis had the most colorful response, illustrating the proposal’s potential danger to the open web by presenting a future scenario with two Internets, the old “Internet” with everything pre-2010 and the new “Schminternet,” with everything mobile and post-2010. “Mobile is the internet,” he wrote. “Mobile will very soon become a meaningless word when — well, if telcos allow it, that is — we are connected everywhere all the time.” Meanwhile, Wired gets credit for the most fun phrase — “carrier-humping, net neutrality surrender monkey” — in its explanation of how Google got to that point.

Google issued a response to the criticism on Thursday, arguing that it’s not actually leaving wireless networks free from net neutrality oversight, though GigaOM’s Stacey Higginbotham picked apart that defense, too.

Reading Roundup: A few final items to send you off for the weekend:

— Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik has a smart overview of the shift toward personalized, socially driven news distribution, with a suggestion for a credibility and trust index to help sort through it all.

— Facebook has launched a media page and is pushing for more collaboration with media companies. PBS MediaShift’s Mark Glaser has an informative Q&A with Justin Osofsky, head of Facebook’s media partnership team.

— Google engineering intern Lyn Headley has written the first of a series of posts explaining the rationale behind his new Rapid News Awards. It’s a short, thoughtful take on aggregation, accountability and transparency.

— Finally, some (possibly) positive news: Spot.Us’ David Cohn takes a look at the data and notes that the wave of job cuts at America’s newspapers has largely subsided. Cohn wonders if it means newspapers are bouncing back, or if they’ve just cut down to the bone. I fear it’s more of the latter.

August 12 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of TBD

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Thirsting for good news, the welcome given TBD.com by news observers has been a bit overwhelming. In a desert of too-scarce good news about the news business, TBD represents one of the potential oases, like its smaller — and largely nonprofit — counterparts from San Diego to Austin to the Twin Cities to New York.

Most of the first appraisals have focused on the site’s product innovations. Let’s now take an early look at the size of this possible oasis and the unique business model under it, to gauge what kind of a test it may be. Let’s look at the Newsonomics of launching what is the nation’s first combined local online news startup/24-hour news channel.

That combination is the most basic to understanding the business of TBD, informing both TBD’s cost structure and revenue models. If TBD turns profitable within two to three years, it may become a prototype for digital/video/TV city-based news businesses.

While there may be two dozen or more metro news channels in the U.S, none has yet combined with a online news site to the extent that TBD is doing. The only parallel may be Cablevision’s News 12, its longstanding Long Island/Connecticut/New Jersey-oriented station that got a new cousin when the parent company bought Newsday from Tribune in 2008. In a post on that acquisition, I noted the potential synergies in the deal:

  1. Joint ad sales.
  2. Synergistic news-gathering and production.
  3. Monetizing cable-produced news video through Newsday’s site.

Since then, we haven’t seen a lot of that synergy in New York, as the cable news site and Newsday.com remain separate, with those who don’t subscribe to either having to pay for direct access. A cursory look at the sites doesn’t betray much sharing, but there may be more under the hood.

It is those three principles, though, plus an all-important fourth one — promotion — that should define this next, and bigger, experiment, as TBD.com and TBD TV (which has been rebranded from the former NewsChannel 8) take flight.

Let’s look first at the costs of TBD. TBD has added 50 new positions, all additional to the approximately 50 jobs ported over from the former NewsChannel 8. Jim Brady, TBD’s general manager, outlined the 50 for me: “About 30 doing news, including 15 reporters, six editors, two senior editors, six community engagement people. Another 20 doing tech, sales, product, and design.”

That tells us that the nut for TBD is about $3.5-4 million, salaries and operating costs combined. It needs to find new revenue — exclusive of what the former NewsChannel 8’s sales staff of seven brought in — to get to profitability. Profitability is a key goal for this for-profit company, and one key to proving out the model for use in other metro areas. The cost side is one of the areas that distinguishes the TBD experiment; it’s two to four times bigger than most of the local online news startups we’ve seen.

Key to our understanding here is that TBD — the website and the cable news station — is one organization. Brady is in charge of the P&L of it, though he has a dotted-line relationship to the ad sales heads. While it adds costs to do 24-hour cable news as well as 24-hour digital news, it offers more revenue opportunities as well.

The key synergy: a kind of virtuous circle of promotion to stoke growth of audience and advertising dollars.

“They have the big megaphone [of promotion],” points out Phil Balboni, now CEO of startup GlobalPost, but also a veteran of New England Cable News, which he built and operated. “They can push TBD on every program. Within a short period of time, they will get great brand awareness.” So, yes, TBD TV pushes people to the website, but TBD.com also pushes people to the cable news channel. And WJLA, the ABC7 affiliate also owned by Allbritton, promotes both. JLA’s been the second-ranked station in the broadcast market.

The idea: Big promotion drives in samplers. Then the site must convert a good 20 percent of them to regular customers.

So what does TBD need to get to profitability — and make itself the model to match? Let’s quickly look at the two big qualifiers, audience and sales.

A big audience: Let’s remember that TBD starts with a significant audience, though one far smaller than WashingtonPost.com, just to drop a name. It gets traffic from both WJLA and the former NewsChannel 8; both of their former websites now point to TBD.com. According to Nielsen, WJLA pulled in about 327,000 unique visitors and 1,516,000 page views in July, while NewsChannel 8 appeared to attract a small fraction of that.

Make no mistake: Gaining attention in a crowded media marketplace won’t be simple — and is one of the reasons for the fast-out-of-the-chute TBD Community Network of 129 bloggers.

The Post is formidable competition. It is a premier regional website (built by Brady and others) and in a June Nielsen report, showed a 5.27-percent increase in unique visitors year over year, to 10,089,000 unique visitors and 106,387,000 pageviews. It zigged — up — while the news category zagged down 2.74 percent overall for the same period.

So figure that TBD.com needs a web audience of between 10 and 20 million page views a month at some point in the next 24-36 months to get to profitability. That’s a fifth to a tenth of the Post’s online audience, which, we should keep in mind comes more from outside D.C. than in within it.

Significant new revenue from both TBD.com and TBD TV: The revenue will be mainly advertising. As a for-profit, TBD.com is taking a different route than non-profits MinnPost and Texas Tribune, for instance, both of which are focusing strongly on membership and corporate/institutional sponsorships. The nonprofits are thinking that maybe a third — or less — of their revenue will come from traditional “advertising.” For TBD, though, it’s all about the sale of advertising. Just as TBD TV is critical to TBD.com site promotion, its own revenue growth will be key.

Figure that as much as 30 percent of new revenue generated out of the new enterprise could come from new TV revenue; to the extent it does, the site’s growth could trend more to the 10 million monthly page views, than 20 million, and still be profitable.

Brady says a new online-only sales staff of four will drive both online-only and bundled sales, working with the established sales force. “You start with a sales force that has relationships with an auto dealer, for instance, ” says Brady. “You don’t need a million uniques to get a meeting with them.”

The questions here are familiar ones for local broadcasters and for newspaper publishers: How do you a traditional ad sales staff — one mainly used to selling “time” — to sell the web effectively? How do you blend the online-only sales force with TV-oriented one? How much do you emphasize online-only sales, or continue a focus on bundling with TV time?

It’s a complex sell, combining sales of space, time, and pay-for-performance advertising. “They need to sell four or five different kinds of advertising,” says Arul Sundaram, an industry consultant who formerly was vice-president of strategy for Internet Broadcasting, which has powered dozens of local broadcast station websites. Beyond selling cost-per-thousand display advertising, Sundaram ticks off various pay-for-performance (largely search-based), video, and mobile ad products that the operation should learn to sell as well.

Pioneering models is a tough business. As the news business looks for new models, the man of the moment is man behind the TBD curtain, Robert Allbritton, CEO of his eponymous company. Allbritton’s gotten credit for seeing, and seeing through, Politico, his first web venture, to on-again, off-again profitablity. Importantly, he’s been credited with allocating sufficient resources, even in cash-negative startup times to create journalistic products that attract audiences.

As Phil Balboni sees it, Allbritton’s move, especially in this economic climate, is “a gutsy statement.” In 2010, especially, no guts, no glory.

August 06 2010

22:20

Six reasons to watch local news project TBD’s launch next week

I don’t know if it’s eavesdropping since I was invited, but this afternoon I listened in by phone on a preview of the much anticipated new local news project in Washington, D.C., TBD. They’re set to launch sometime next week that will integrate with a local television station, WJLA. In the past few months, parent company Allbritton Communications has hired about 50 people for the project’s editorial and sales teams. They joined another 50 people working on the project but already employed at existing Allbritton properties Politico and News Channel 8.

We’ve known the newsroom will pump out content for the web and television, but despite blogging much of its development some of the details of the project have been pretty hazy. Today I got a better sense of what TBD is going to look like and what it’s going to cover — look for lots of news-you-can-use, like weather and traffic, on multiple platforms. Editor Erik Wemple, formerly of the Washington City Paper, explained that a handful of reporters will work geographic beats, starting with densely-populated neighborhoods, while the rest will cover beats like the D.C. mayor’s race, plus sports and breaking news (thunderstorms!). There’ll also be a special emphasis on arts and entertainment.

Oh, and there will be lists. Lots of SEO-friendly lists. Everyday. One reporter will crank out about three of ‘em a day for a section called, you guessed it, The List. In honor of TBD’s adopted format, I’m going to stop here and give you six reasons why the project is worth watching for those who care about the future of local news.

1. Symbiotic ad sales

Most local news stations have a website, but in general they’re either just a home to stories aired on TV or a promotional tool for the broadcast. TBD’s newsroom will be platform-neutral, with content heading both online and on-air, side by side. From a business perspective, there’s potential to bring traditional television advertisers online. And, in the case of TBD, there’s already a strong sales team in place at News Channel 8 to go after local advertisers.

2. Coverage and revenue sharing

TBD admits it can’t cover everything. But what it can do is cover a few things well (weather, traffic, sports, entertainment) and rely on other outlets for the rest. This means aggressively linking out to other outlets. Four TBD staffers will be responsible for monitoring coverage in the region, particularly news coming from the 127 blogs now officially part of TBD’s blog network. Those sites will can participate in a revenue ad share. TBD’s sales team sells the ads and takes 65 percent of the gross. The minimum CPM is $8.

3. Mobile from the get go

TBD won’t just put its website on your phone. Android and iPhone apps are designed to give users the kind of information they might want from a local news site on-the-go, like weather or traffic reports (noticing lots of weather?), in a handy format.

4. Social media on the brain

TBD is obsessed with social media because they want to create an obsessive following online, with readers checking in multiple times a day. Months before launch, TBD was already active on Twitter, as were individual members of the editorial team. This spring I noted that their director of social media, Steve Buttry, would have a seven-person engagement team in place before reporters had even been hired.

5. Interactive strategy

Comment policies are a topic we’ve written about here plenty of times. Should they be unbridled free-for-all zones or curated? TBD plans to rank comments; users with the best reputations on the site will get to appear higher. The idea is to create an audience excited to participate in the site. They’re also trying a few new tricks, like a pre-written tweet for each article (something snappier and more Twitter-friendly than the headline) and an area that encourages users to help figure out unanswered questions the reporter couldn’t get.

6. TBD

Why else? Well, as they like to joke, that’s TBD.

April 14 2010

13:30

Politico parent’s new local news site prepares for launch with audience and conversation at the forefront

The new D.C. local news site from Politico parent Allbritton still doesn’t yet have a name, an official launch date (“June-ish,” I hear), or a solid staff of reporters in place. But by the end of the week, it’ll have the first five members of a seven-person “engagement” team hired.

The site — the subject of much speculation and hope among local-online types — is supposed to do for local news what Politico did for politics and pit the former owners of the old Washington Star against the incumbent Washington Post. It’s being launched by Jim Brady, a former web czar at the Post and consultant to the Guardian. Brady recently brought on Steve Buttry, the longtime journalist and social-media strategist, to put together a team of four “community hosts,” plus a social media producer and a mobile producer. Buttry has officially hired Jeff Sonderman of the Scranton Times Tribune, who blogs at News Futurist, and Lisa Rowan of Vocus, who blogs about vintage shops in the D.C. area, to fill two of the community host positions. He’s almost ready to announce the remaining two. The two producer jobs, staffed by people with smart ideas for social media and mobile (although most likely not developers themselves), will be filled before launch day, Buttry told me.

I asked Buttry what he hopes his “community hosts” will do. He says the title, which he readily admits pocketing from John Temple of Peer News, captures it: The hosts will create a place where users can have a lively experience. They’ll foster conversation and get readers involved and invested in the content. Their main focus will be on buildinging relationships with existing local bloggers, recruiting new ones, and building out a local audience around their work. They’ll also get readers involved in generating content — whether it’s livetweeting from a breaking-news event or cell-phone photos of a baseball game — as well as in-person events.

Buttry deflected my observation that the site might be moving more quickly on the engagement side than the more traditional reporting side. Buttry said it was just a matter of timing; he was hired before the site’s editor, Erik Wemple, the former editor of the alternative weekly Washington City Paper, who is in the process of hiring his team of journalists now. In all, the site will have a staff of 50, which includes reporters, editors, the engagement team, and the business side.

Even if reporter and editor hires are right around the corner, it’s still a reflection of the significance audience engagement is being given that their team is being assembled so early on. Buttry said that the site can’t be a success without engagement at the forefront, the business model is based on a dedicated readership that is checking in on the conversation throughout the day. “We want to have a strong start to that network at launch,” he told me.

The concept isn’t unique. Other newsroom positions are cropping up around the country hoping to help deepen engagement with a publication’s audience. Megan recently reported on the Voice of San Diego’s new “engagement editor” position, which was created to spark, frame, and guide discussions. The job is also part PR: Engagement jobs are about getting the word out, increasing traffic, and getting stories noticed, a job that might have once belonged to someone on the marketing side of the business.

Buttry differentiated his hosts from the work of the company’s communications department, saying that the hosts will be integrated into the newsroom. He can envision breaking-news stories that require a reporter at the scene and a host back in the newsroom, perhaps sifting through tweets to add directly to a story page, or acting as a social-media source for the reporter.

“The multitasking and specialization has always been part of newsrooms,” Buttry explained. “This is just what it looks like in 2010.”

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