ONA 10. TBD Not Focused On Profit?

Been watching the live video stream and Twitter feeds of ONA10, The Online News Association conference in Washington, DC  this week. Totally loving that I can follow from my office in Philly… but I’m bummed at the lack of any coherent sales plan coming from my hyper-local heroes at TBD.com.

The ONA keynote this morning featured top execs of Allbritton’s TBD, the DC based online news effort steered by Jim Brady and Steve Buttry. These guys are some of the smartest in the business….when they’re discussing editorial and online news gathering procedures.

But when it comes to sales and revenue strategy, the discussion disappoints. Badly.

Journos are screaming at me now: ‘so what, it’s all about gaining audience for now’. Well, if the moderator thought it was important to ask questions about revenue, one would assume it’s a key part of keeping TBD, and others like it, sustainable? Or was she just filling time trying to sound ‘entrepreneurial’? I doubt that parent company; Allbritton Communications (Politico, WJLA) is willing to burn through millions to see what might emerge. Maybe they have too much confidence in their mature TV sales force as well?

The New York Times made content and traffic a top priority with THE LOCAL, and we know how that flamed out with little advertising support. Not even the top flight professors at CUNY could save that one. Like the NYT and their hyper-local plan, TBD.com might be committing the same fatal mistake of  NOT adding seasoned sales expertise to the mix, early in the process. Foundation support, angels, tip jars and the HOPE of future profit… is no way to run a  business.

I could sense from watching Mr. Brady answer questions about money, that the topic of sales is not his strong suit. And God bless Steve Buttry for trying to help Jim out with some tired, local-revenue factoids. Still, why are we asking two brilliant journalists about sales? I get the same nauseous feeling when I watch NYU’s Jay Rosen or Jan Schaffer from J-lab talking about those so-called ‘elusive revenue models’.

The folks at Reach Local and Patch are snickering right about now. These new local competitors are hell bent on revenue. They’re likely amazed and thankful that Allbritton put newsroom and old-school TV execs in charge of TBD revenue generation. They also love to hear college professors ask: “is patch evil?”

Some things mentioned from this keynote, that kinda made me cringe…..(para-phrasing)

  • Our ad network is not gonna make the blogger rich, but it’s more than what they’re used to
  • No magic bullet to revenue…only shrapnel
  • Maybe 5 different revenue streams we could tap
  • Quality staff & news coverage is long-term strategy, profit will follow later

5 thoughts on “ONA 10. TBD Not Focused On Profit?”

  1. Thanks for asking some tough questions, Mel. The ONA panel discussion addressed revenue issues briefly and perhaps we didn’t explain our plans as well as we should have (and some things we may not explain in much detail before we are ready to implement them. However, I’ll address some issues you raised:
    1. We have added digital sales staff.
    2. Jim is exactly correct that digital success rests in developing multiple revenue sources, rather than looking for a silver bullet.
    3. The projections I cited for growth in local mobile advertising are from Borrell Associates. They are current and the most reliable source of advertising analysis I know of. You lose credibility by dismissing those projections without citing projections you regard as more reliable. Borrell projects local mobile advertising to increase from $1B this year to $11B by 2014. Huge opportunity. (Link below.)
    4. I have spent much of the past 4 years studying, criticizing and proposing new business models for news. See my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection (http://bit.ly/qzsKx) and mobile-first strategy (

  2. Sorry, iPhone wouldn’t let me paste second link. Here’s mobile-first strategy: http://bit.ly/qzsKx

    As Jim said, we expect to be profitable and are confident in our approach. We’re pleased that Allbritton Communications has a strong track record of entrepreneurial success and understands what it takes to become profitable, both on terms of strategy and patience.

  3. Hi Steve,

    Thx for feedback. I have followed your great work for quite some time. (blueprint, etc)

    I know ONA is more news & editorial focused, but I think it helps to have someone play devil’s advocate in regards to revenue discussion. Especially in this environment.

    After many lonnnggggg years of expectation, projecting, research, punditry, etc…..local news orgs have slowly lost advertising ground to outside pure-plays like ReachLocal, Google, Pandora, Groupon, Patch, etc.

    These pure-plays are going straight for the jugular. Local advertising dollars. They want to cut off the supply of these dollars to TBD, and every other traditional & independent local news org. The local smb’s are the life blood, that allows you to do what you do. Just wanna help with a little tough love. I truly support your efforts.

    Folks like Tracy Record at West Seattle Blog, and others, are not falling for the “hey, let’s be partners” routine from Patch, etc.

    When push comes to shove, and it’s a showdown for dollars between TBD and Patch, I just wanna make sure you speak softly, while carrying a big freekin’ stick.

    That’s why I don’t mince words in my posts.

    As to the research… yes…it’s prestigious and nice to quote. But it’s worthless without smart execution.That execution has to start now….with as many rev streams as possible. 5 is not enough, since most will sputter. That’s why you should have at least 10 or more streams. Some online, some offline.

    I’m always open to help you and Jim.
    Thx Steve.


  4. I appreciate the kind words (and the tough ones), Mel. I absolutely agree that we’ll need 10 or more revenue streams. I also know that you can’t afford to wait until you develop all 10-plus to launch. More to come. TBD is not just our name, it’s our business model.

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