Four key things TBD did right

There’s been all kinds of stories, analyses and blog posts written by journalism thinkers about “why TBD failed” or “things that went wrong at TBD”. While these have made some valuable notes for those who want to launch or work for startups in the future, they ignore a few critical points, the biggest of which is that TBD didn’t fail, per se.

Despite how it all ended, there are positive lessons to be gleaned from TBD’s build, launch and brief initial life. Here’s a few things TBD did that I hope other news orgs won’t shy away from trying in the future.

Threw out the org chart

It’s not to say TBD didn’t have an organizational chart of who reported to who, but it had very little bearing on our actual jobs. Being in a small shop of any kind means a lot more multitasking and a lot less adherence to job descriptions. Everyone edited someone else’s work at some point, everyone wrote headlines, took photos, sent tweets, assigned stories and had a hand in developing new products. While some took on one role more than another most of the time, you never, ever heard “that’s not my job” from a TBD staffer when something had to get done.

 

Wasn’t afraid to promote itself

While we caught flak from time to time about talking too much about ourselves or our policies as an organization, nobody can say it didn’t help.TBD had no formal advertising or marketing in the D.C. area (outside of our own properties) throughout its entire existence. Anything people knew about it, every story read, every site visit, every Twitter follower, came to us by word-of-mouth of one kind or another.

At the time of last week’s layoffs, TBD’s web traffic was growing, Twitter followers were at nearly 10,000 and (anecdotally) I’d actually have someone recognize the name of my employer more often. Baby steps, I know, but if we hadn’t talked up our work on-site and off, been transparent with our build-out process, held meetups, aggressively followed and interacted with local people on social media and appeared at meetings of all kinds – we’d never have even had that.

 

Let others in

With only a handful of reporters available to handle breaking news most days (not counting those who covered arts, entertainment and sports), TBD had to reach beyond the newsroom for information on a daily basis. Be it from social media or aggregation, the world outside our walls had a huge impact on what news we could provide.

Sometimes it woud mean highlighting the work of our blog network, who are routinely miles ahead of larger media. Other times, we’d have to (at least initially) link to the work of our competitors. On social media, we’d regularly ask for help when we needed info from a scene we couldn’t reach. We’d regularly (multiple times a day) receive news tips and photos of interest via email or Twitter that would serve as the basis for a breaking news post (pending verification, of course). We could utilize Twitter searches to find out info and eyewitnesses from fires, shootings and events – before ever sending a reporter.

 

Hired for mindset over pedigree

Despite what’s been said about the pedigree at the top, TBD had some of the most unconventional hiring practices that seemed to be more qualitative than what I’ve seen at most journalism organizations. TBD’s hiring editors evaluated recruits based on their personalities and approach to news as opposed to journalism’s typically myopic ideals of merit and value.

I’m sure even Erik Wemple, Jim Brady and Julie Westfall couldn’t really put into words what they were looking for, but they knew it when they saw it. And they saw a LOT of people. I’d estimate about 20 percent of the hundreds who applied to TBD were interviewed in house.

This meant an exhausting cavalcade of interviews with editors and a 30 minute writing test for every position (not just reporters) in which the applicant could write anything they wanted. What people chose to do during this time, I’m sure, revealed a lot about them. Some froze without direction and wrote next to nothing. Some wrote personal essays. Others picked up the phone and reported stories. Somewhere in all of that they revealed something that made them right for TBD.

I didn’t see it when I first started, but as the staff was hired and gelled over time, it was easy to see we all had something in common in our views of the world and how we do our work. We came from a wide variety of places, academic backgrounds and work histories – but we all had something in common that I could never put my finger on. Whatever it was, it made it very easy to collaborate on stories and share ideas.

Nobody was hired because of where they’d worked or gone to school and nobody was automatically shut out for being from out of market. From a lot of past hiring experiences (on both sides of the table), I know that happens at a lot of news outlets – and it pops up in newsroom divisions and ridiculous office politics all over the industry.

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