TBD.com, a much-hyped local news website in Washington, D.C., launched to the public this morning. Poynter, Newsonomics and Nieman Lab wrote lists on why it’s the news company to watch this year, and PaidContent has a great interview with Robert Allbritton, the guy in charge of TBD’s parent company. Mashable even has a nice writeup this morning, too.
Any time there is this much hype surrounding a product launch, someone is going to end up disappointed.
This time, it’s not me. I’m impressed with TBD so far, and I’m not easily impressed with news sites nowadays.
That’s a testament to how many cool little things are packed in this site. And from all accounts, it still doesn’t have nearly as many cool things that were planned for it, either.
Perhaps I haven’t run into many of the bugs that Erik Wemple spoke of in his letter from the editor. I have run into a few, which I list at the bottom of this post. But I love the ideas, the layout, the concept, the conversations, and I can’t wait until even more features are unveiled.
What I love:
- The main news pages have the number of updates in the last 72 hours in the left-hand rail (see the picture above). In the right rail I find all the news in the area of my community. And you can refine that list by category? Be still my heart!
- The headlines-from-everywhere idea. That’s hardly new, but I love the way it’s implemented here. They’ve pulled in content from a slew of different sources, from mainstream media outlets to blogs, and they geotagged them into locations, so they’re searchable by zipcode or neighborhood. And I love how every headline on the main pages has the source of the story in clear sight.
- Complete This Story. On a story about D.C. mayoral hopeful Vince Gray, there is a box you can fill out if you have more information on his campaign. Two birds, one stone: TBD gets better opportunities for reporting, and users get better opportunities to interact.
- I love the upfront traffic delays, using data from BeatTheTraffic.com. Public transit delays take data straight from WMATA. It works brilliantly for a major metro area whose transit data is publicly available.
- The “Long Story Short” box on each TBD story. It’s a Twitter-friendly headline you can tweet with one click. (See it in action on the left here.)
- Love the Foursquare partnership. It reminds me of a simple request I’ve seen in several newsrooms — “Hey, let’s put all our restaurant reviews on an interactive map” — yet is difficult to pull off because all the previous reviews aren’t in a data-structured form. Because TBD is built from the ground up in a purely digital format, it doesn’t have that problem.
- Love The Facts Machine (on Twitter at @TBDFactsMachine). It’s in the same vein as PolitiFact and the San Diego Fact Check. Though all reporters need to be checking facts, I think every news organization should have at least one full-time employee doing nothing but fact-checking the crap out of politicians’ claims.
- When I am logged in (with my Facebook account even), I can bookmark articles from within the site. Why haven’t more sites done this? Or have they been doing it and I’ve been blind?
- They have a reporter dedicated to lists, says Erik Wemple. That’s kinda… a little bit… awesome. (If you read my blog, you know I’m a sucker for lists and bullet points. You’re reading ‘em right now!)
- Comments. I love that reporters are actually responding to comments. I also like that the default sort is by highest ranked, but you can choose to have them listed in chronological order.
- Each Metro station has its own page. For example, the Rosslyn station page has live boarding statuses, a trip planner, even a widget that shows when someone is tweeting about the station (this morning’s tweet from a random person is warning me there is no air conditioning on a Blue line car. THAT. IS. GOOD. TO KNOW.)
- There’s a live chat all day today to answer questions. That’s “community engagement” right there.
What I don’t love:
- The relatively few hard-news reporters. Of the dozen reporters on staff, only four are doing “news” news — one fact-checker and three community reporters, according to the letter from the editor. I understand that entertainment and sports rake in the dough, but more news news, please!
- It’s still not clear how much vetting there will be of outside blogs. What if a blog posts an unfounded rumor and it gets aggregated, even featured? I know I spoke to Steve Buttry before about this, but now that I can see the site, I’m still unclear. (UPDATE: Not two minutes from posting this, I see that some of my concerns are addressed here.)
- The name. Sorry. It just doesn’t quite sum up how cool the site is. I know if other domains were available, the TBD folks would have snatched it up. Also, there is no immediate explanation on the site on what the heck the name means and how it was chosen. That’s question numero uno for most visitors.
- The Incidents page would be much better as a map.
- This ad. Don’t know if there’s any way to block BP from an ad network, but SRSLY LOOK INTO IT.
- Bugs. Yup, there are a few. I know the site had to launch before it was fully cooked because some tech-savvy people guessed the testing URLs correctly, so bugs are to be expected. I’m willing to bet the staff already knows about these ones I encountered. But I’ll write about them anyway in hopes it helps squash them:
- Saved items. I could have sworn I saved more than two stories. Does it only register if it’s a TBD original? If so, what do the stars by the aggregated content do? And the star on the TBD story that IS in my queue is greyed out. Shouldn’t it be colored still?
- Setting up locations. I was surprised that when I typed in the name Rosslyn, Va., TBD’s own home base, the name didn’t pop up under the list of suggested locations. And when I tried typing in three locations at a time, it didn’t seem to save.
- If I mark a comment as a “Good point” on accident, I can’t undo.
- The Facebook social plugin on this page seems to link to example.com. Or does it?
- Minor quibble, but on my Chrome and Safari browsers, the “All Over Washington” tagline is hidden below the TBD logo on the home page. I think that’s just a CSS tweak.
- And the biggest thing I don’t like about TBD: That it’s not based in my community. Doesn’t do me much good to enter my real zip code, does it? :)
So that’s my official two cents (in a reference to their comments section). Overall I’m quite excited about the site and what it means for digital journalism as a whole, and I’m happy the site is finally out in the open for everyone to see.
And I bet you the staff is operating on about 15 minutes of sleep. I’ve experienced this when the SF Public Press launched its first print edition last month.
Note to friends at TBD: Do get some shut-eye. If the only flat, non-Red-Bulled surface in the newsroom is Jim Brady’s desk, well, I’m sure he’ll forgive you for your nap.
Oh, and congratulations.
ADDENDUM: Read the Knight Citizen News Network’s great post, “Lessons Every News Site Can Learn from TBD’s Launch.” And also catch up on the excellent live chat archive at Poynter with some of TBD’s top dogs.