Thursday, February 24, 2011

so, that tbd thing? well...

***UPDATE F*CKING FOUR: This is the blog that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friends. Some people started writing it not knowing what it was, and they'll continue writing it forever just because...

***UPDATE TRES: The second Wemple Wesponse is now up for your eyes to gravitate toward. Read, scroll, whatever. You know the drill.

I responded to Wemple's Wesponse. If you've read this whole thing, then scroll down and I trust your literacy will be able to tell you when. If you haven't read any of this, then I suggest you just keep reading and forget the scroll. You'll get there...eventually. Good luck.

TBD Editor Erik Wemple wrote me a long email in response to my original essay on the current happenings at TBD. He said it wasn't off the record, so I cut and paste the whole thing below because it's pretty interesting, at least if you're following this topic. I also labeled it "Wemple Wesponse" because I cannot resist any opportunity to alliterate. But first, here's my original essay:

News broke yesterday, or rather, was squeezed out on Twitter like a kid who has yet to learn how to use the toothpaste tube properly (SO MUCH TWEETING!) that local media start-up was re-appropriating itself into a "niche site on arts and entertainment." Oh, fantastic. And because we're talking about TBD, I might as well do what they do/did best and use Twitter as a primary news source:

Lovely butt joke, Marcus of awesome local music blog True Genius Requires Insanity! Although, sorry, I doubt they're hiring...

See, unfortunately, one of the main components of this change is widespread layoffs, meaning only about eight of the original maybe two dozen-plus employees will probably remain. (Sidenote: that totally sucks.) And judging from the rapidity of the site's devolution from supposed leader of the new media to, um, let's be honest, poorly designed blog (I'm sorry, the epilepsy-inducing Belfort furniture ads they've had up the last few weeks killed me), my prediction is that probably within the next eight weeks, TBD will be gone entirely. #realist

But, really, as much as I hate to say it because I have friends over there, can we really say we're shocked? Disappointed, sure. But shocked? I don't know. My suspicions that this would end rather unhappily began even before the project launched last August. Why? Allow me to explain...

After speaking last summer with former TBD exec Jim Brady, who left the operation in November over creative differences, I was seriously pumped up about this experiment. I believed in his vision of an interactive local news source that understood the way a lot of people get their news these days (via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). I was so excited about this new idea that I even applied for a job there. Brady emphasized they were looking for writers with "voices" who could bring something unique and new to the project. Perfect, I thought. I'd been blogging everyday at that time, my readership was at a high, no one else really does what I do in DC. Well, save for Terry the Tourette's Turtle. He does what I do the best, which is why he's The Anti DC's creative director. But the point is, it seemed natural that finally someone would want to pay me (and ergo Terry) for being the asshole editorialist everyone loves to hate to love (I hope it ends there) on the Web.

However, as soon as I sat down in front of TBD editor Erik Wemple and several members of the staff, I learned quickly that that may not have actually been what it was all about.

"What do you see yourself doing here at TBD?" one of them asked. (Forgive me for not remembering who or exact words here.)

"I'd like to do here what I have proven to do best on a daily basis -- really funny features and editorials. Probably some longer form stories, as well."

"Hmm. We're not focusing on features or long-form. We're looking for a transportation reporter. Do you see yourself covering the Metro? "


And that's when my personal expectations for TBD dropped dramatically. What I thought Brady had relayed to me at one of TBD's pre-launch blogger happy hours wasn't matching what I was actually hearing from what seemed like half the editorial staff. Brady wanted innovation, something different; TBD wanted what sounded to me like a standard beat reporter. I was confused and, despite that I got along with everyone (Wemple is hilarious and the other people seemed nice), I left that interview wondering a little bit why I had been called in. I don't want to be a beat reporter. And not to toot my own horn (TOOOOOOOT! Don't worry, that was just Terry's butt.), but knowing what I can do -- the voice and ideas that Terry I could, or at least, I thought I could bring to this brand new proverbial table -- the revelation that they brought me in to interview for a standard beat reporting position seemed silly.

Which is maybe why they didn't hire me. I'm sure I came across as less than enthusiastic. And I'm pretty sure my salary requirements were also probably hilarious to them. And while I admit it stung because, well, who likes rejection? By the time they called back, I had already decided I wasn't going to take it even if it was offered. I mean, honestly, reporting about Metro issues sounds like a Guantanamo form of torture to me.

But they found someone to do it. In fact, they scooped up a lot of talented local reporters, a few of whom I know for a fact were getting paid maybe only half of what they're worth. Later, when a member of TBD's staff pitched their community network to me, I even signed on, joining the likes of other good blogs like WeLoveDC and Borderstan. Despite my doubts, I still had some hope. Maybe I had just gotten a weird impression and Brady's view of things was actually how it would be done. Also, what kind of idiot turns down an offer for free links to Terry's my work? And, indeed, the Web traffic on this masterpiece before you went up. But then...

Well, I don't know what happened. Judging from just the sheer size of the staff, TBD definitely had a lot to work with, but it seems TBD always lacked one very important thing -- a clear, unified vision that would make it truly new, different, innovative. But it just...wasn't.

Obviously, I'm sure naming their brand after an uncertain term didn't really help, but I'm also sure parties outside of TBD, like WJLA and Allbritton, had something to do with the confusion, as well. But no matter the specific reasons, the fact remained that TBD always came off as a sort of dumpster baby love child of DCist and PostLocal. I didn't get it. Actually, no one I knew -- both journalism friends and others -- really got it. It was like a tabloid, wrapped in weather reporting, draped with film reviews, dunked in sports stories, sprinkled with random lists and topped with Amanda Hess. And from what I understand, it seems this confusing (lack of?) identity wasn't just sensed by those of us on the outside...

And so maybe it will be good for TBD (the venture, that is, and clearly not the newly unemployed reporters, for whom I sincerely feel) to narrow it down. Maybe now, with a clearer vision, TBD can finally dump that horribly uncertain name and choose what it wants to be -- a pretty standard A & E outlet. I just hope for the remaining eight it's not just another hole in DC's ass, *ahem*, as it were. I guess time will tell...

And speaking of time, don't you believe it's high time you "like" this blog, The Anti DC, upon which your eyes have fallen? YES! To do so, please, go to this Facebook page and just push the "like" button, hell, even share it with your other e-friends!. Along with updates about posts, you'll also find an array of inappropriate but hilarious links to things I find on the Internet that have yet to weave their way into the prose here. As a sneak peak, here's one I posted just last night, in honor of Paula Deen's appearance on Top Chef. Enjoy!

***Wemple Wesponse, sent via email on 2/24/2011***

Hey Marissa: Read your evaluation of TBD last night. Have no idea why you might think that your take was unpopular [NOTE: When I Tweeted my essay last night, I described my view as one that would likely be unpopular -- M]; it already has many fans here at the offices of TBD.

What I particularly enjoyed was your critique of our mission, our purpose. It probably wouldn't surprise you that this very topic was the source of much soul-searching in these offices. Consider that we started out as a local news operation with a robust staffing level and a TV news operation with a wide reach. So it made sense that would seek to cover the entire region. As the Washington Post and other outlets have discovered, that's a really hard thing to do with any degree of granularity across such a wide expanse of jurisdictions and people.

That's why we had to make choices---choices about which beats our approximately 12 reporters would cover, choices about how they would cover them, and choices about which areas we'd ignore. Based on your excellent post, you've concluded that we chose poorly. Fair enough. No one here would say that all of the choices were smart, forward-looking, whatever. What I will say is that we worked really hard to survey the local newscape in search of soft spots, places where we could make an impact. The results were varied, but what I will defend till the end is the work we put in toward refining the mission. We tried everything we could in the time we had.

Now to your point about transportation coverage. I don't quite know why you have such an aversion to this topic, but it just happens to be a place where we had considerable success. Don't know if you'd ever read our OnFoot blog, but it has been a big success both in terms of traffic but also in terms of positive feedback from others who cover this area. You also seem to look down on transportation coverage as some lame and boring beat, a take that makes me wonder what news universe you've been living in. Metro, pedestrian issues, buses, commutageddon---all of this stuff is huge these days and will get only huger as the region grows and our infrastructure struggles to get funded. Drama hovers in these corridors, too; we're talking about failing escalators that throw people around, fights on Metro platforms, shouting matches between motorists and pedestrians, and a lot more.

It's just so important. I mean, there's a reason that Greater Greater Washington is moving from a cult forum for smart growth people to something that everyone is catching on to. Even if you sit at home and blog all day, you eventually have to go somewhere. And as environmental consciousness grows, your mode of transportation increasingly becomes an element of your identity. Transportation is about as sexy as it gets in terms of local beats these days. Those are just a few of the reasons why the smaller TBD will stick with this beat.

Anyhow, thanks for coming in and talking to us and thanks very much for taking the time to read TBD. That you wrote such a thoughtful critique of the site can mean only that you read it on occasion, and as editor, I appreciate that.

Feel free to print any or all of this.


For those of you who are still interested in this topic (and if you just took the time to read all of this, then I suspect you are), stay tuned. I will have a full response to the wesponse up later. Right now, however, I have things to do that I get paid for. And no, I don't mean prostitution. It's not nightfall yet.

*five hours later*

Why, hello. I'm back to push this blog post to just about 3,000 words. Good Lord. Anyway, here's the thing about transportation reporting. I generally don't give a sh*t. Why? My commute to basically anywhere I need to get in any given day is a 20 minute walk/10 minute bike ride. I'm lucky. That said, I understand many people do give a sh*t, perhaps even two sh*ts. Hell, if you live out in Falls Church, maybe you give infinity sh*ts. Ergo, I understand the importance of day-to-day transportation reporting or "the transpo beat," as it were (although, is it? I just heard that...). It's necessary in a city with a subway, highways, downtown traffic, etc. And let's not forget cycling. If there's a sector of this beat that is the recipient of my sh*ts, cycling is it. Congratulations, cycling.

Now, on to the specific criticism that I somehow derided not just transportation reporting as a general occupation, but on TBD specifically. I did not. I noted that TBD scooped up a talented bunch of reporters, your transportation guy is included. The OnFoot blog (which I do read on occasion, as I do with the rest of TBD) is good. And I know that if I cared to know, I could always turn to TBD to find out which roads were flooded, where all the goriest accidents occurred, how many people Metro's escalator's killed yesterday, all the "sexy" transportation stories.

But those transportation stories will still more or less be simple inverted pyramid daily journalism stories, which are divine for relaying information, but not so glorious if you're a writer looking for a job doing long-form features, opinion columns and humor essays. Hence, my griping. It wasn't about the job of transportation reporter itself, it was about me unknowingly interviewing for said job. I don't believe I would be professionally fulfilled doing that. Likewise, I also wouldn't be professionally fulfilled as an aerospace engineer, which doesn't mean I think it's stupid -- SPACESHIPS ARE AWESOME! -- but that it's not my rum-spiked cup of tea. So, if in my aforementioned essay, I was unclear and I inadvertently offended any transportation reporters, aspiring transportation reporters, or simple transportation reporter lovers (Erik), I apologize.

Also, I get what you mean about making choices. For instance, there are a lot more things I'd like to complain about in DC than what you simply see on this blog, but alas, I'm only one idiot savant. I can't write a diatribe about every crooked politician or douche in Georgetown, especially now that I have a cat. He's precious and if I'm to learn anything from the Internet it's that people love a good cat video...

But getting back to the point: Since I seem to quite surprisingly have your ear, I'd like to talk about some of TBD's choices. I understand that your resources were not unlimited. What I don't get was why TBD didn't have more meaty, exclusive stories. Certainly, I assume, your reporters could've handled that. I know they could've. So why this inexplicable dearth? I have a theory -- and this will probably be unpopular for real...

There's been a lot of talk around your organization about the "future of journalism." From what I've observed, to the people who like to talk about it the most, one of the main components of this meme is trying to figure out how to use Twitter as a primary source and convincing others they should accept it, you know, because it's the inevitable future or whatever. I don't buy it.

As I'm sure you know, especially since your career has been far more illustrious than mine thus far, what makes good journalism hasn't really changed since the days of storytelling. You need good sources, context, relevant details. Journalists are paid to find out things the average citizen shouldn't be able to just log on to Twitter and follow. That's why I really didn't get things like TBDNight or why one of the main duties of what seemed like half the staff (and, yikes, I think I mean that literally) was making sure everyone knew TBD was on Twitter. And Foursquare. And Facebook. And whatever else is brand new and totally futuristic these days. Maybe I'm oversimplifying things here, perhaps underlying TBD's efforts to ring in journalism's mysterious future was some big master plan that hadn't yet had time to roll out. But I gotta say, to many (and believe me, it's not just me), it just looked like a waste of good resources -- resources that could've been used to give reporters more time to develop their sources and stories or, um, make a more attractive site. I guess my opinion boils down to this: What makes good and readable journalism is more or less the same, it's just the medium that's changed. Hooray, you can publish on the Web now!

Which is exactly what brought us all here. And what I'm about to do so I can wrap this up and go get something to eat. But before I go, I want to say thank you, Erik, for your comments. I can't emphasize how surprised I was that you would choose to speak out on a blog whose mascot is a nonplussed muppet opposed to, say, a media source that people actually read. And to those few of you who have come over here and have stuck through these last one million words, please, feel free to add some of your own. I'm curious of what people think about this whole future of journalism thing. Is it bullsh*t or am I full of bullsh*t?


And then before I knew it, Wemple went berserk and sent me 8 million links to TBD features and scoops and meaty bits (ew), oh my!

Wow, more powerful and piercing criticism of TBD. How can I not reply in kind?

On transpo, I understand. My bad for making such an issue of that. De gustibus non disputandum est. So let's close that discussion.

On the social networking front, you seem annoyed that we worked hard on Twitter and 4SQ and other such platforms. Yeah, guilty. We wanted to have a site that wasn't just on the web, but of the web, in the words of former General Manager Jim Brady. To a great extent, I think, it worked, considering that we'd find people on Twitter frequently reaching out to us with questions. Like, "Hey, TBD, why are there 20 police cars in such and such a place right now?" But I'll leave a more complete answer to the social media gripe to Steve Buttry.

Now to the heart of your latest post: To quote you: "What I don't get was why TBD didn't have more meaty, exclusive stories."

Perhaps you weren't reading quite as closely as I thought you were. Let's call in the links.

*From the site's very early days, we did tons of meaty-exclusive stuff. Just sample this rural-crime classic by Molly Ball about a spasm of violence in Virginia.

*Or this heavily reported arts piece by Maura Judkis on how they make Mary Poppins fly. Talking about exclusives: Judkis, as you may know, also broke and then prosecuted like mad the National Portrait Gallery censorship story of late last year. Judkis also did a killer exclusive on a cell phone that went off in a theater, which forced a performer to flub her lines.
More exclusivity, this time on an opera lyricist.

*And while we're talking about reported and original arts coverage, take a look at this Ryan Kearney piece on how Gawker handled a gory photograph. Here's one of my favorites from Kearney, a big story on a Leesburg firm that polices film piracy.

*Think, too, about arts writer Sarah Godfrey. If this piece on the Gray Goose Mansion in Adams Morgan isn't exclusive, what is? Godfrey also did a number of interviews with the families of victims of the P.G. County homicide rash---I think they'd meet your criteria.

*Now we're on the topic of crime and death, so I turn to TBD reporter Sarah Larimer. To me, meaty and exclusive mean weeks of shoe-leather reporting, which is exactly what Larimer poured into this piece about how a Latino man lost his life working at a car wash. That wasn't our most-trafficked story ever; it just happens to be an example of a reporter who cared enough to find out about someone that the rest of the media did a few short sentences on and then moved onto other stories. Let's do some more Larimer here, like this story, in which she managed to get in the apartment of the man who held up a Takoma Park bank and was shot dead by police.

*More on crime, this time with a transpo twist: Will you ever find a meatier, more exclusive take on life, crime, and public transportation than Dave Jamieson's enormous investigation on iPhone robberies? Here. And speaking of following up and developing sources, feast your narrative-starved brain on this more recent piece on the cops nabbing said robbers.

*Sorry, gotta keep going here. If you care about College Park, you probably knew of Turtle, which TBDer Kevin Robillard captured in one (very exclusive) retrospective. For more awesome local biz coverage, try this one by Jennifer Rogers, on a Safeway in Southwest that started checking customers' receipts upon exit. And then there was the TBD investigation of a farm in Virginia that got cited by state authorities for animal cruelty violations (namely, starving its animals). The farm was supplying D.C.-area businesses.

*Care about the intersection of biz and arts? Ally Schweitzer, who does our listings, did an investigative story on how Busboys & Poets compensates its affiliated namesakes (poets, that is).

*On a roll now, I gotta hype Daniel Victor's amazing story on pickup artists [Note: I actually used this story as a jumping off point for my own essay, "Every douche can be undone" -- TheAntiDC] plus Nathasha Lim's great one on why restaurant websites are so often terrible, Sommer Mathis did killer coverage of every little tick and tock of the DC9 story, Rebecca Cooper nailed the definitive, FOIA-assisted series on towing in Arlington, and Elahe Izadi did the exclusive on a raid on the home of a former National Archives employee.

When we weren't producing these exclusives, we were often banging away at breaking news. That's the turf of a fabulous ABC7 assignment desk, headed by dyed-in-the-wool newsies like Dan Patrick and Markham Evans, and TBD news editor Julie Westfall, who kept the fast-moving stories readable and up to date. Those folks worked closely with ace ABC7 reporters---Brad Bell, Sam Ford, Julie Parker, Suzanne Kennedy, just to name a few---to produce all manner of exclusives on local sports figures, the Fenty-Gray race, and on and on.

The recounting here may read as an exhaustive inventory, but it's not. There are many more, even though we've been around only six months.

But here's the thing: Your criticism that we didn't do enough exclusive, original content is by no means yours alone. I see it all the time in comments threads---people hammering us for taking, aggregating, the content of other outlets and not producing our own. Paul Farhi of the Washington Post wrote the same thing---that we do "some" original reporting but our big thing is aggregation.

Maddening, all of it. I am not blaming you of Farhi or all those commenters for somehow failing to notice how much original stuff we did. At some point you can't blame the people. Yet it's still confounding, because TBD stories were widely consumed. Judkis' big piece on the National Portrait Gallery has more than 700 Facebook shares; Victor's dating piece had hundreds; a piece by Jamieson on a Metro fight had nearly 6,000.

Maybe we should have fiddled with our homepage design to give our exclusives longer resting places; maybe we should have pushed stuff on Twitter more, though you suggest we did too much social networking; maybe we should have launched with a companion print edition that would have carried our exclusives to the street---given them more staying power, a la City Paper.

Maybe we just waded into a local news scene that was already saturated to the point that people couldn't really digest any more news, no matter how compelling or original it may have been. Another possibility is that people just like to dump on us because we got all that over-the-top media attention when we launched.

Whatever the case, I just want to point out to you that we did all this stuff and it's there for you, always. Today's enterprise story is right here.


This is the blog that never ends yes it goes on and on my friends....

Being a savant of the idiotic variety, I've had to get good at admitting when I've made an error. This is and isn't that case. Why? Because sure, Erik, you proved with your bajillion links that there's hefty content there, but do I want to read it?

Sadly, the answer is no. And while the answer to why that is may be partly because I don't really care about what happens in College Park, as you introduced one of your above links, that's not the biggest reason. If Malcolm Gladwell can make an article about ketchup interesting, anything can be interesting. The thing about Gladwell, though, is that he always approaches subjects with a cool angle. Unfortunately for me, TBD's longer articles often didn't. To be more specific, I'm a sucker for the sociological, human angle. I want to be able to picture the people, the settings, the soul. I want to feel something when I invest in a longer piece. While that happened with some longer TBD pieces (Daniel Victor's pick-up artist article, Ryan Kearney's Gawker piece), it didn't with many others...

I'm not going to pick out individual stories to pick on, especially since many TBDers are looking for jobs now and Google lasts forever, but more than one lacked not only that angle I love. Even more so, several also lacked a certain flow I look for in long-form features. That, I think, is what I was implying when I noted TBD's lack of "meat." Of course, comparing the New Yorker to TBD is pretty unfair of me.

For one, TBD is primarily a daily news organization (I think, although we'll get to that in a moment). The New Yorker is not. Also, having known a New Yorker writer, I know each article is tweaked and edited for months before it sees the light of day or ether. Assuming first that the reporters at TBD have the goods for feature writing, they certainly do not have the luxury of time. From what I'm told, they're responsible for churning out roughly six stories a day. In my opinion, just getting anything out that goes deeper than a dateline and a couple of facts is commendable and if any of those reporters happen to be reading this right now, allow me to pause, allude to impresario of life Charlie Sheen, and say, you're all winners.

But content aside (which, by the way, is totally subjective), there's probably a bigger issue all the links you've brought up present. The bizarre design of TBD's Web site. Not only is it fugly, but judging from the fact that so many of the links you listed were new to me, a daily reader of TBD, I must conclude something was wrong with it. (Either that or I'm stupider than I thought, which believe me, I still have not discounted.) Were all these stories buried past the scroll? Did I need to click through 10 pages to find what I didn't even know I was looking for? I don't know. All I know is that more often than not, the lead story on TBD's front page would scream tabloid and I'd leave. Really, there's only so many days in a row a person can read about someone's horrific death. (Today's occurred in a tunnel.) It's numbing.

Worse than that, after clicking on some of the above stories, I've noticed that no matter how interesting the actual story, the headline is usually not. It's usually an SEO-heavy mess. (Although I imagine most people who are reading this know what SEO means, in case you're lucky and you don't, it stands for Search Engine Optimized, meaning you write inane, uninteresting headlines so people can easily find you via Google. Gene Weingarten, who's grown on my like an awesome cocaine pinky nail, has a pretty funny take on SEO headlines.) So, maybe these stories weren't buried after all, but they were just disguised with the most ugly SEO masks around.

Now, as far as the social networking ideas at TBD go, it's not that you're working hard on Twitter, but it seems like you're working hard chasing it, as if it's a viable source for stories other than revolution. (I've mentioned this before.) This article about the Oscars, well, I don't mean to be rude, but it was totally worthless. If I cared what strangers tweeted about the Oscars, I would've read my own Twitter feed. Also, although I'm sure the reporter has a good excuse (like having to write 18 gazillion stories in a 12-hour block), not watching the very thing she was charged to write about was probably not the best idea... And, no, this assessment doesn't mean I think Maura Judkis is a bad writer. Quite the contrary, actually, her flying Mary Poppins article that you linked to by her was fantastic, but this Oscars piece? Perhaps it's suitable for a random personal blog, but TBD? This is where I get confused about the vision of the entire operation. Is TBD a news organization (in which case, shouldn't you make sure every one of your articles includes some actual reporting -- cutting and pasting tweets doesn't count) or are you a supersized blog? Like, are you competing with the Post or me?


Celia said...

I never did get into TBD. I didn't like the way it was set up on the actual blog. I do, however, fear for the fate of Amanda Hess, who I've read since she was on The Sexist at Washington City Paper.

Also, did your other blog get hacked? I got a bunch of weird posts from it today:

Marissa said...


Considering that following, I'm assuming Amanda would be able to move her blog wherever. Maybe back to City Paper?

As far as my other blog goes, I decided not to renew the url this year since I don't really use it. Looks like it's been snatched up by someone. I assure you, it's not me! That other blog still does exist, however, at Hmm...if I'd have known as soon as I didn't want to renew that other url, it'd be hacked, I'd never have opted for it in the first place. Ugh.

Patrick said...

OK so I read this post in 2 sittings. The first sitting, I read your take on TBD, which I thought was interesting and well-articulated.

The second sitting, I watched the Paula Deen clip. LMAO - the internet is full of geniuses.

Anonymous said...

Loved this whole post. Thank you for your assessment and your followup, Marissa.

Marissa said...


Paula Deen on 'ludes ain't nothin' to f*ck with.


Thanks. It's nice to get some feedback after doing about $2,000 worth of consulting for free :/

Good thing I like to write!