Changes at TBD show Godzilla just keeps winning

I don’t envy the folks at TBD.com, especially those in leadership positions.

I’ve been in that awkward position of trying to balance my journalistic obligation to truth-telling with my fiduciary responsibilities as a company manager. Even when you hew strictly to the facts in those situations, the nuance comes out as a painful parsing. You feel like Bill Clinton, clinging to the definition of “is’’ as your last line of defense.

I see a lot of that clinging in the public statements as Allbritton Communications announced that it was reorganizing its Washington, D.C., local news experiment. The innovation of TBD, a local news site focused as much on aggregation and partnering with local bloggers as on creating original content, instead will be subsumed by the traditional television culture.

The proclamations from those inside TBD that everything is going to be OK, that coming under the direction of the television executives at WJLA will in fact bring them more resources, sound a lot like whistling past the graveyard.

Take it from those of us who’ve been on the front line of that culture war: Old media won. While TBD the Product may survive for a while, TBD the Culture is as dead as Julius Caesar.

A decade ago, when I was about the business of trying to integrate print and television newsrooms, I kept saying that the effort was a lot like trying to get Godzilla and Mothra to mate. These two beasts just weren’t destined to come together and form a common culture. The best you could hope for was cooperation.

The path, I said then, was through the Web. It was there that the strengths of both print and television could find completely new expression and create something altogether different. It was by being Web-first in our thinking that we had at least a shot at creating a new culture within old organizations – one that had interaction at its very heart.

Still, the insistence on seeing the Web as some new-fangled interloper that needed to be broken to conform to the old culture was strong. I still remember the shocked reaction to my statement as editor in Tampa that I saw the paper as an offshoot of the website, not the other way around. And this, folks, was in 2007.

I think we can claim some very limited success at shifting the culture in those hybrid print/television/online newsrooms in Sarasota and Tampa. But the truth is that every time we started to push the organization around the next turn, those powerful legacy media cultures fought back. Triggered like an immune system, the impulse to timidity would kick in. And usually, we’d actually lose a little ground in the process.

Newsroom culture was tough to change, but that was a children’s tea party compared to the business side. That’s where I fear for the TBD folks most. The desire to keep milking those old revenue models, even as they continue their inexorable slide into the sea, is all powerful.

So the green shoots get stepped on and ground out. And the leadership keeps clinging to models that creak and groan and show every sign of giving out.

What I admired most about the vision of Jim Brady, TBD’s founding general manager, was the desire to create something that was of the Web, not just on it. I think what we see instead is the latest exhibit in a long line of evidence that it is darn near impossible to change DNA.

Chalk another victory up to Godzilla.

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