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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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