For the same reason theater critics don’t review new musicals during their pre-Broadway tryouts at the La Jolla Playhouse, I refrain from assessing new magazines—or Web sites—at first launch. There’s just too much debugging going on to make a review fair, let alone coherent. I know all about the creative confusion of a Web launch, having been at Slate when it went live in the summer of 1996. (Here’s Salon’s review of our debut.) And twice I have tried to remake a weekly newspaper against the high expectations that my first issues would raise the dead, solve de Polignac’s Conjecture, and fix readers’ leaky toilets.
So if you’re looking for somebody to rip TBD.com—the much-anticipated local Washington Web site owned by the same fat Allbritton wallet that operates local ABC affiliate WJLA-TV, Politico, and Newschannel 8—look elsewhere. For a four-day-old site, TBD shows such great promise that I can no longer hear the running water echoing from my bathrooms.
Before I continue, disclosure. Friends of mine work at TBD, my wife applied for and didn’t get a job there, and in a column published a year ago, I described the site’s general manager, Jim Brady, as adorable. All that said, I’d spit bile on TBD if it deserved it. I’ve ruined friendships before by writing negatively about my chums’ work, and I’m sure to do it again. So, caveat emptor.
What I like most about TBD is its tabloidy goodness. By “tabloidy” I don’t mean the sensationalism one associates with tabloid newspapers, although if TBD starts dispensing large helpings of crime, sex, drugs, gossip, political exposés, opinion, and other basic tabloid units as its reporters ramp up, count me as a loyal customer. By “tabloidy” I mean useful, portable, direct, devoid of unnecessary adornment, entertaining, immediate, and … useful!
Various publishers have talked about breaking into the Washington newspaper market with such a daily tabloid over the past 30 years. But nobody got around to it until 2003, when the Washington Post Co. (which also owns Slate) started its free tab, the Express, designed in part to pre-empt a free-daily tabloid competitor from entering the market. Although the Express was up and running, Philip Anschutz still bought into the market to launch his Washington Examiner in 2005. Although both newspapers are popular with Metro riders, neither has realized tabloid destiny.
Could TBD be the one?
Its site design is airy, comfortable, loads quickly, and doesn’t look awful on a mobile device thanks to its big, sans serif headline typefaces. I suspect all this elegance will disappear as the site starts to incorporate advertising, but I hope not.
I expected TBD to launch with a wireless access protocol site especially designed for mobile devices, but instead its team concentrated on building iPhone and Droid apps first. “App before WAP,” Brady told TBD arts editor Andrew Beaujon, who informs me that a WAP version is forthcoming. The iPhone app has yet to be approved by the Apple fascists, but the Droid app can be downloaded for free and it works great.
In its opening incarnation, TBD is wisely running the three fundamental plays that have earned local television a trillion dollars over the past four decades: weather, traffic, and sports.
Weather: Weather rises to such a level of importance at the site that the temperature and forecast share billing with TBD’s logo at the top of every page. This morning, I was awoken by a flash-flooding, tree-toppling, power-line-felling Washington summer deluge. By the time I clicked onto the site, it had already posted mini-disaster pictures from the storm and a good Flickr feed of damage pix soon followed. The usual array of weather tools that can be localized are laid out in usable fashion. So long, WeatherUnderground; TBD is my new weather site.
Traffic: During heavy commuting hours, a clickable, iconized roster of the area’s main thoroughfares—I-495, I-95, I-66, and Metro—rides on the home page’s midriff, where you can quickly retrieve traffic information. I used TBD’s traffic info on my wife’s iPhone this week to navigate my way into and out of Washington, and it reduced my travel anxiety greatly. TBD served me so well I might buy my own smartphone. I hope a Chesapeake Bay Bridge traffic status icon is in the works and that TBD pairs it with its “ShoreCast” weather reports for the Delmarva peninsula beaches.
Sports: TBD’s sports section seems to be a work in progress. I’d love a sports dashboard that brought me up to speed on my favorite teams the way the weather and traffic pages do. David Aldridge, who has a column in today’s TBD, ain’t my idea of a sportswriter, tabloid or not. Can’t the site afford to hire Dave McKenna from Washington City Paper? And for my tastes, there’s too much emphasis on football. I’m assuming that General Manager Brady—the bastard son of Weeb Ewbank—thinks everybody else lives for NFL summer camp just because he worships the sweaty armpits of the New York Jets. * They don’t! Get hip, Brady, or get lost!
The rest of the site—news, entertainment, blogs, et al.—strikes me as vestigial as its sports pages. Allbritton’s WJLA and 24-hour cable news station Newschannel 8—rechristened TBD TV—are already contributing a slew of repurposed news to the site, but TV coverage never interests me no matter what depressant or stimulant I’m taking. I know nobody who watches local TV for news anymore—do you? For those who still tune into their local stations for sports and weather, I’ve got two words and a question mark for you: cable television?
Also on the news side, TBD has made much of how integral its “community network” of bloggers, local news providers, and interaction with readers will be to its success. According to Paul Farhi’s TBD overview in the Washington Post earlier this week, 127 blogs are contributing to the site, and there will be massive linking to other local news competitors, such as washingtonpost.com and WTOP.com. I won’t judge those aggregation efforts, nor will I assess the output of TBD’s editorial staff, which the Post piece puts at 35, until the whole machine is humming. That said, much is missing. A gossip column has to be in the works, right? But I don’t see a placeholder for it yet. A two-fisted political columnist? Crusading reporting? Great human interest stories?
I’m hoping TBD will use its easy-to-navigate superstructure to deliver all that and more. If I’m reading its inaugural pages correctly, it’s in fine position to become a 21st-century tabloid, as good for strap-hanging during a subway commute as it is for a deep reading at home and work. Here’s hoping that you break a leg, TBD!
A note on e-mail hygiene: Never, ever, ever accidentally e-mail your half-completed column to an employee of the news organization you’re writing about as I did this afternoon. I thought I was sending my rough copy to an editor, but nope, I sent it to a TBD editor! If you have perpetrated a larger e-mail catastrophe, I want to hear about it. Send your account to firstname.lastname@example.org for possible publication. For Twitter atrocities, see my feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Weeb in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to email@example.com.
Correction, Aug. 13, 2010: The original version of this story misspelled the last name of Weeb Ewbank. (Return to the corrected sentence.)