It is against my nature to hold my tongue. Or my keyboard.
I have refrained from saying much publicly about the recent cutbacks at TBD because … well, because. The reasons are complicated and I still work here. I am reluctant to make much noise that might make life difficult for colleagues trying to find new jobs or for colleagues trying to continue working here. I aggregated various analyses of the business issues without comment, because I thought they were important to share.
But I do need to respond to Bill Reader’s assertion that the people here “never really did get a grasp on what community (or communities) TBD.com would be serving.” Reader, a journalism professor at Ohio University, is entitled to his opinions. But journalists who don’t bother to check their facts should be called out and Reader didn’t check his facts. I did check my facts. I asked him whether he had communicated with anyone at TBD in doing his research. His response:
To answer your question, I used standard editorial-writing procedures — reviewing reports in credible media (such as the many reports on Poynter.org, looking especially for comments attributed to TBD.com personnel such as yourself) and, of course, reviewing TBD.com itself. I do link to some of those sources; if there any factual errors in them or in my post, I of course will correct them.
Disagreements over the opinions is a different matter. We currently don’t have a means to post responses on our website, but if you send me your response I will gladly post it to the blog so long as it is not too long and adheres to basic “letter to the editor” rules — no libel, no errors fact, no personal attacks, etc.
I will give Reader some factual errors to correct from his blog post. But let’s start with the factual error in his suggestion that “standard editorial-writing procedures” don’t include checking facts with people who have first-hand knowledge. Certainly some editorial writers snipe from ivory towers, basing their opinions (and the facts they use to back them up) solely on the impressions they get from reading. But most editorial writers I have known regard thorough reporting as the basis for good opinion writing. They call or email or visit or somehow communicate with people who can verify or refute facts. Reader didn’t do this, so his opinions are based on assumptions. And assuming is never good journalism. Case in point: I didn’t assume that Reader hadn’t checked his facts; I asked him (and before I heard back from him, I asked my colleagues if he had contacted any of them).
Before I get to what Reader actually said, I should be clear about two things: I am speaking for myself here, not TBD or our company. I don’t claim that we mastered all aspects of community coverage. The company changed directions just over six months after we launched, while we were still working on improvements to our community coverage.
Now let’s examine the factual error in Reader’s premise:
One of the fatal flaws of the TBD.com model was the suggestion that “D.C.” is a community — it’s actually, of course, a sprawling city with even more sprawling suburbs, and spans two different states and “the District.” Large cities are not single communities; they are aggregates of many different communities — communities of place (e.g., “neighborhoods”), communities of identity (e.g., “ethnic groups”), and communities of shared interests (local environmentalists, local business owners, amateur-league athletes, etc. and so on). “D.C.” is a region; Columbia Heights is a community.
I am not aware that anyone involved with TBD ever suggested “that ‘D.C.’ is a community.” Yes, D.C. is a region. And we always described the metro area as a region made of multiple communities and we described TBD as a regional site with hyperlocal elements. (Even without emailing or calling someone directly involved with the site, Reader could have found that by reading CJR’s Q&A with Jim Brady or Jonathan Weber’s observations on the TBD cutback. And, if those observations conflicted with something else Reader read, that should have been a red flag to do some original reporting and ask someone working here (or Brady, whose vision Reader was faulting and who has not been bashful about answering questions).
Yes, Reader is welcome to his opinions. But he is committing the common sin (documented by Jay Rosen) of stating opinion as fact, with no links to back up your assertion that it’s fact. That’s easier than research, and even opinion writing should be based on research.
We developed “geotags” to apply to every piece of content we created or aggregated that came from a specific community, so we could provide that content just to the people interested in that community. To be featured on the home page, content needed to be of interest to the entire region, or to be heavily newsy to a substantial part of the region (D.C., Maryland or Virginia, for instance).
I actually wonder how thoroughly Reader did review our site. Because if he did, he would see on the home page a module allowing the user to choose which of the many communities in the region matters most to him or her (in the illustration below, I have chosen Herndon, where I live).
Our community engagement team (which I head, explaining why these errors in fact matter so much to me) recruited neighborhood blogs from throughout the region to fill those community feeds exactly because we understood that each community was distinct and unique. And, I should add, New Columbia Heights is one of those community blogs in the network. We heard regularly from members of our community network about how much traffic we sent their way, so people from the various communities were finding the site useful.
As our Arlington reporter, Rebecca A. Cooper, said, “As the only representative of the Neighborhoods team still hanging around here, let me speak up for our Neighborhoods coverage as evidence that we were actually doing “community journalism.”
Was our approach effective in engaging those communities? That’s a matter of opinion. I know of mistakes we made and welcome criticism of things we did that I think were smart. Did we cover all the communities effectively? No. The community engagement team was in one of the undercovered communities the day before the staff cuts, meeting with people in the community to gather their suggestions on how to cover the community better.
If you have your facts right, go ahead and criticize TBD. I won’t fire back even if I disagree. We got a lot of praise we didn’t deserve (yet) when we launched. So I’m OK with some misdirected criticism when we redirect and cut back.
But a lot of my colleagues and friends are looking for work. And I want the world to know that they did and do understand their community(ies), and that this person who says otherwise didn’t bother to check his facts. When someone is condescendingly claiming we didn’t understand our community, and making false statements in the process, it’s time for me to speak up.
Andrew Beaujon, our arts and entertainment editor, also wanted to speak up, responding to Reader’s statement that TBD would be diminished to “little more than A&E and gossip”:
I take great exception to him (and he’s not the only one) talking about arts journalism being an example of our diminished state. We’ve covered D.C.’s local arts scene very thoroughly, from a low-to-the-ground perspective that I believe is the essence of community journalism. A couple examples:
We broke the story about the National Portrait Gallery censoring an exhibition after a Christian news website criticized it. We reported the heck out of a weird deal that a local county here did with LiveNation while building a venue with taxpayer money. And we cover D.C.’s rap and go-go scenes, which go mostly unreported by local media. …
And we’ve never done gossip and won’t as long as I’m here.
Reader made other errors we could have helped him prevent (making assumptions about various head-count figures that have been reported and incorrectly saying the changes announced last week have already taken place). But those are relatively small errors (one of them repeating an error from another media report). Update: Reader has corrected these errors, for which I thank him.
The assumptions about our view of community are the whole premise of Reader’s post and since the premise is based on a faulty assumption that he didn’t bother to check out, I won’t bother to address Reader’s opinions.