Thursday, February 24, 2011

TBD may have failed because of cultural clashes

Versión en español aquí.

Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute has the best early take on why Washington’s hyperlocal failed. One of his points is that the operation started out too big, with 50 people.

This number troubled me from the first announcement of the launch. Why wouldn’t they start with a smaller staff and build up gradually? Innovative ventures are an exercise in exploration, and it is hard to know at the beginning where to focus most of the people and resources. It’s often better to start small and let the market tell you what it wants.

Selling digital ads not like selling TV

One of Edmonds’s other points was that the sales staff of television station WJLA that was a partner in this venture was supposed to sell digital advertising.

Without knowing the details here, I cannot imagine that a television salesperson accustomed to making big commissions would want to dedicate valuable time to selling digital without some significant financial incentives. Were they part of the deal?

Digital sales are tough for any salesperson in traditional media because all of the metrics are different. Advertising clients are going to focus on traffic numbers and cost-per-thousand impressions, and the automated buying systems of Google and Yahoo nearly always offer more exposure for a much lower price. A salesperson has to know how to sell branding power, image, environment, reputation, credibility. Were they trained for that?

Integrating the cultures

Finally, I think that Allbritton Communications, parent of TBD and WJLA, might have underestimated how long it would take to integrate the news and sales staffs of the two media.

On the surface, it looks easy: we have a TV station website, TV reporters and TV salespeople and we’ll capitalize on the synergy -- always a dangerous word -- with this new digital news operation. But people have to buy into synergy, and that takes time.

All of the values, habits and incentives of the two media were different, and to put them both in the same room and say, "Play nice," surely was not enough, at least not in such a short time period. There are newspapers that have struggled for years to integrate their own digital and print operations, and not always successfully. TBD and WJLA had only six months. It was not enough.

Closely watched experiment

The journalism community had been watching this project closely. The editor, Jim Brady, had earned a reputation as an innovator in digital media while running the Washington Post’s website. Allbritton had deep pockets and a track record in innovation with its highly successful site Brady had assembled a strong team and promised to take full advantage of the web’s possibilities of engaging the audience in two-way conversations. But Brady left three months into the project in a dispute with the owner and Allbritton pulled the plug three months after that.

PaidContent weighed in with an analysis that focused on TBD’s failure to crack the local advertising market.

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