The Solomon Scandals
The D.C. newspaper novel, the media,the Washington area, tech and other surrealism: David Rothman at large
TBD hyperlocal news experiment in D.C. area: Still iffy, with mixed numbers from Alexa Web measurement service

imageRight here in the Washington, D.C. area, TBD is one of the most-watched rolls of the dice in American journalism.

TBD stands for “To Be Determined,” a hyper-logical way to cover the news and run a site.

Here’s to follow-ups, of which the American press does far too few, especially on grubby local stories! I’m TBDing now in a sense, having reported on some earlier Web traffic counts for the site.

imageimageOverseen by Jim Brady, ex-Washingtonpost.com editor, TBD doesn’t just serve up just local news on TV and the Web.

It also offers some online goodies at the neighborhood level—“hyperlocal,” in news biz jargon (and the topic of my ongoing series).

So what’s the latest, since the site’s debut on August 9? If Alexa stats are right—a big if, especially given the difficulty of accurately measuring local sites’ traffic other than internally—Jim Brady and crew are not picking up more daily page views per visitor.

imageThe Alexa-measured number has actually fallen in a month from 2.5 (first day shown in upper graph) to around 2 (last).

More positively, the average daily traffic count is up for both the week (20 percent) and month (142 percent), aided perhaps by the local elections on Tuesday—not just Discovery Communications’ hostage crisis on September 1.

tbdlogoLet me add some additional major caveats. I’ve warned before of the perils of using the hardly scientific Alex tool for measuring media traffic (I’d love to be able to see and share TBD.com’s internal numbers; please see an update on the openness issue—at the bottom of this post).

Keep in mind, too, that TBD teems with links to news elsewhere. The hope is that you’ll return there again and again for smart pointers to other sites, and that TBD meanwhile can make money through revenue sharing from ads on interested blogs, not just on its own site. Also, remember that the hostage-related spike may or may not have helped views per visitor since so many were coming to the site for just one reason. There’s both good and bad news here, not just the latter.

Even so, wouldn’t it be better for  the page view count to be trending up right now? The crisis stories were great to boost mindshare, whatever the view stats; but TBD badly needs to beef up its routine coverage and especially pay more attention to the suburbs.

image Look, TBD, for the Nth time, hobbyist blogs are the cat’s meow in areas such as dining, sports and shopping. But not enough civic-oriented sites exist in and near D.C. to fill in the gap, at least not right now. TBD owner Allbritton Communications says it is in this for the long run, and, of course, I hope that many more people in the Washington area will go online with newsy local blogs. But unless or until news-blog nirvana arrives, Allbritton had better reconcile itself to a few more gallons of red ink and hire more staffers—or maybe crank up some joint activities with AOL’s Patch hyperlocal network, which could benefit from the verve that Jim Brady and his crew are showing in coverage of, say, sports or D.C. politics.

Can’t TBD share more of its style and sizzle with the ‘burbs, in particular, directly or through an alliance with Patch rather than just linking arrangements? I’ll tweet my friends at TBD and try to find out what the official take on Patch is right now. Any interesting news from a meeting with Patch folks, if it’s happened? If it hasn’t, when will it; and exactly what’s on the agenda, if you care to say?

Especially, I’m curious about TBD’s current policy toward suburban coverage—and education there in particular. If you go by the experiences of the Baristanet network in New Jersey, the one that beat out hyperlocal competition from the New York Times, female visitors count especially. And aren’t schools at or near the top of their lists, at least here in a education-fixated area like D.C.’s?

I have begged TBD to start caring in a serious way about the public schools in Fairfax County, with the largest school system in the state of Virginia. I’ve even pointed TBD in the direction of a test-score geek who is PTA mom in Reston and, I understand, even an ex-ABC producer. TBD would also do well to add an education reporter to its staff, especially considering all the attention that the schools got in the D.C. election.

TBD urgently needs to expand staff for other coverage, too, and develop bloggers on schools and other key topics, in key places, rather than just rely on existing talent. I would not keep beating up on TBD for this serious shortcoming if I weren’t hoping that Jim Brady and his people would succeed. Please be a little less news-radio-ish and big-storyish, Jim; and care more about the quotidian but important—you, Editor Erik Wemple and the others have the talent to make that readable, too. Believe me, it’ll help to be more thorough and more systematic about coverage, and if Allbritton won’t make the necessary investment and decides after all not to hang around for the long term, then I hope your resumes will be as snazzy as your site is on big news days in D.C.

Detail: Web tech can be a challenge even for Allbritton-sized companies, but I wish TBD would do a better job of remembering me, via cookies, so I didn’t have to keep constantly logging in to tell what my favorite ZIP codes are, etc. I also hope that the featured items from the Alexandria area will not be so dated. More than some, I think that timeliness counts for hyperlocal news,  particularly when it involves government-related matters on which citizens can act (especially if the media provide them with the right tools, such plain-English background on the issues and email addresses and other contact information for the relevant officials). (Update, September 20: The cookie problem seems to have been fixed, based on my most recent experiences. Anyone still having problems?)

Update, 6:49 p.m.: I added the quick observation, from the Columbia Journalism Review, on the difficulty of measuring local site traffic. One other point. In expressing concerns about TBD, I should have said I’m not just going by Alexa stats, but also by comment counts. Consider this compelling read, from The Facts Machine feature in TBD, headlined: Is Adrian Fenty a jerk?: An inquiry. I see just one comment even though the post was made on September 13. Some other Facts Machine posts have no comments. The writing and reporting impress me, but somehow TBD is not connecting with the D.C. area community to the extent it might with another, more systematic and thorough approach. If nothing else, I’d like to see more citizens-created content on the TBD site (with careful editing)—complete with an opportunity for regular contributors and others to question The Fact Machine in places other than the comments area.

Update  7:30 p.m.: I would strongly encourage TBD to question the Alexa information here if it feels it is wrong. What’s the lowdown on the page views? And is Alexa significantly undercounting TBD traffic? Is TBD working with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which says it will verify internally generated stats. Probably since TBD isn’t a newspaper or magazine, it isn’t eligible. If not, I hope that ABC can change the rules, and meanwhile there are other organizations.

Furthermore, the verified numbers should be public by TBD and competitors; hasn’t TBD always said it’s pro-openness?

You can go to Quantcast.com and see the stats for solomonscandals.com based on the Quantcast scripts that I myself have embedded. Traffic is hardly at a peak now, to be euphemistic; but then I suspect that will change if/when The Solomon Scandals novel gets noticed in a big way by the mainstream media. Meanwhile, within the limits of my time, I’m pleased to run this site as a public service, without fretting endlessly over the numbers. Pieces on hyperlocal journalism are hardly the ultimate audience-grabbers, but like the others in this informal series, the present one begged to be written.

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