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.
The New York Press was the kind of thing that TBD could have been. TBD was a risk, they were walking into the unknown, and there was absolutely no reason on earth to not take major chances. Hire Dawn Eden, a successful blogger who went from being a rock and roll critic to being a devout Catholic studying theology in Washington. Bring on a Nation of Islam columnist. Call out the worst teachers in D.C.’s failed public school system. And please, God, retire Arch Campbell, the 107-year-old hack who has been a relentless barnacle in the Washington media scene for decades and who was given his own show on TBD. Find a young Bill O’Reilly to put on TV instead. Have a section on the website whose sole purpose is to rip the Washington Post every day. Make it fun, make it funny, make it intense. Bring the joy. Let a hundred thousand flowers bloom. That’s what the best magazines have always done. Say what you will about Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, but when in the early 1970s a writer walked into his office drinking a beer and babbling about politics, Wenner had the courage and the instinct to see that there was a charisma there, a lunatic talent. The office invader was a man named Hunter S. Thompson.
But sadly, most journalism is like the teachers’ unions — the same dull people can be moved from job to job to job, no matter how much they fail. TBD editor James Brady hired Erik Wemple, who had been the editor of a failing hipster weekly, the Washington City Paper. After a period where the editors at TBD claimed to be going through “hundreds” of resumes from all over the country, Wemple promptly brought his City Paper editors to TBD. This was the equivalent of American Idol announcing a new season, but with a twist — the winners will all be between 25 and 30 and must live in a five-mile radius of each other in Washington, D.C.
Last summer, before the launch, I frankly and flatly told Brady via email that the direction he had chosen was a mistake. A big one. I tried to relate to him that following the New York Press would be better. Great writers would always attract an audience, especially if they are eccentric and passionate. Washington is a city of politics, yes, but also of hundreds of churches. Jamming the site with liberals just was not a good business plan. That was the old, failed model. To be sure, he could have liberals on staff. But if he wanted a shot at all, he had to have conservatives as well.
A few months before TBD’s launch, Tucker Carlson launched The Daily Caller, which, like the old New York Press, is open to all kinds of voices but tends to lean libertarian and/or right. In its first year, The Daily Caller shattered all its traffic expectations.
In half that time, TBD died.
After I laid out my plan, I got an email from Brady: “After listening to you I can only appreciate my judgment and Erik Wemple’s even more. But thanks for telling me how to do my job.”
Hey, no charge. And good luck at The New York Times. That’s probably your next stop.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.