Jim Brady should have listened to me.
It looks like TBD.com is going the way of Chris Matthews’s sanity. The website was launched with much hype last summer, but the Washington Post is now reporting that it has largely failed and is laying off most of its staff. Most of them will probably go on to other paid jobs. Aside from teaching, journalism is the best profession for failing upwards.
Jim Brady, one of the brains behind TBD, is a perfect example of this. Brady was brought to TBD as the general manager after nearly destroying the Washington Post’s website. (Think I’m exaggerating? Click this link and read the comments section.) Brady quit after three months at TBD, claiming that the television people were too reluctant to change. In fact, the problem is that Brady and his staff lacked imagination and guts. It’s that simple.
Owned by Allbritton, the company behind Politico, NewsChannel8 and ABC affiliate WJLA, TBD was going to do local news with a fierce comprehensiveness, aggregating stories from over 100 local bloggers and even news sites like the Washington Post. It lasted six months. A couple weeks ago, Allbritton announced that it was restoring the WJLA website, which TBD had supplanted, and retuning NewsChannel8, which had also changed its name to TBD. That was followed by this week’s announcement that Allbritton is firing two-thirds of TBD’s staff.
When I first heard about TBD last summer, I contacted Jim Brady to ask about a job. I was excited about the new site, but one thing above all had to be emphasized.
Things had to be different.
That is to say, Brady had to truly embrace the freedom that was at his disposal. Hyperlocal is fine, and news, weather and sports are wonderful — all staples of any news organization and good for hits. But the truly exciting thing was that the freedom of the Internet would allow him to expand and include some exciting and unusual voices. I was reminded of the greatest journalistic experience of my life, writing for the New York Press in the mid-1990s. Owner Russ Smith and editor John Strausbaugh had the intellectual integrity to welcome writers that they didn’t agree with. There was Amy Sohn, who wrote a funny and explicit sex column — one that was leavened by self-deprecating wit, unlike the one written by TBD’s hectoring and humorless sex columnist Amanda Hess. There was J.R. Taylor, a born again Christian who reviewed rock and roll records. There was Stalinist Alexander Cockburn and paleo-conservative Taki Theodoracopoulous. There was Jim Knipfel, who had a disease that made him slowly go blind. Knipfel once said the “Golden Age of the Press” was from 1996 to 1997, and that “between 1995 and 2000, there was nothing like [the Press] anyplace.” He describes the New York Press as “a ratty, underground version of those early years at Esquire.” When Russ Smith launched the New York Press in 1988, people laughed at him — after all, the Village Voice was the kind of weekly New Yorkers liked. In 1996, due to the popularity of the Press, the Village Voice stopped charging and became a free weekly.
My own writing career at the Press began in 1994. I wrote a right-wing defense of rock and roll, a lengthy piece that I considered unpalatable — not because it was weak, but because it was too long and not liberal enough. The Press ran it virtually unedited, and it got a huge response. I wrote for them for several years, until Smith sold the paper in 2002. My right-wing rock essay eventually became the book A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Ah, freedom. If only journalists really believed in it.