Allbritton Ups the Localism Ante Via Cross Platform

By Steve Passwaiter and Rick Ducey

For broadcasters, it is an article of faith that “localism” is a point of differentiation that adds value to their operations. Localism tends to mean local news, sports, weather, traffic, local events, coverage of local government, and other promotional and volunteer involvement in the community. There’s a lot of chatter about what it takes to succeed with true “localism.” This past year has seen some notable localism failures. Other efforts are in a nascent stage.

One case in point is Allbritton Communications, based in the Washington, D.C.-area. Its television stations are affiliated with ABC, with the largest property being WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate in the Washington, D.C., market.

Our primary interest was the fall 2009 announcement of Allbritton’s plans to launch a Washington, D.C.-focused news site that will combine with the WJLA and NewsChannel 8 television and Web operations. To launch this new local news site, Allbritton hired Jim Brady, the former executive editor of Washingtonpost.com. The site is set to launch in spring 2010 and will have about 50 more news staffers on hand.

We recently talked with Allbritton’s senior vice president of legal and strategic affairs, Jerry Fritz, who supports Robert Allbritton (the family-owned company’s chairman and visionary) and Fred Ryan. These three executives are the key architects of this strategy. Fritz has a long history with the company that spans more than 20 years.

While the timing seems very fortuitous, Fritz tells us it’s really the culmination of a plan that was devised back in the late 1980s, when Allbritton (who used to own The Washington Star) saw an opportunity to build a strong local franchise to compete with the news-gathering prowess of The Washington Post.

The first effort under the plan was the launch of NewsChannel 8 distributed over local cable systems. NewsChannel 8 was, at first, a separate operation from the local broadcast television station. A truly, locally focused news operation, NewsChannel 8 broke down its news for the area’s three separate and distinct geographies with a mix of local, lifestyle and political programs. It was a pioneer and in its early days it was a tough sell for audiences and advertisers. Its programming and appeal have grown as the product has matured and its mix of local news and lifestyle shows (political talk to local golf) now attract larger audiences plus a mix of larger and smaller advertisers. NewsChannel 8 also has benefited from the growth in the news product on WJLA. WJLA has completely rebuilt its local news operations following a downsizing many years ago.

From its base in local television, Allbritton leveraged its core assets across media platforms to exploit some of the unique attributes of the D.C. market.

That included developing an online newspaper to address the market opportunity of providing news, commentary and an advertising vehicle to government contractors, lobbyists, trade associations and others seeking to influence the nation’s seat of government.

Politico.com, designed to be the ESPN of politics, was Allbritton’s initial online effort under the new strategy. While Politico was designed around the Web, readers and advertisers clamored for a print counterpart. Allbritton responded with a three-times-a-week print product that was quickly ramped to five days.

Since then, Politico has created a national network of newspapers and Web sites that share Politico stories in exchange for Web ad avails, which Politico sells to national advertisers. It is a classic win-win.

In fact, Politico’s timing has been perfect. Many newspapers have closed their D.C. news bureaus, and local newspapers are struggling to fill the news gap. Recent filings with the SEC have detailed just how successful the operation of Politico has become in a relatively short time as revenues have topped the $20m mark and cash flows have reached seven figures.

Now, both WJLA-TV and NewsChannel 8 share facilities and some staff members as they gather, collect and present local news and information to the D.C. market. Adding Politico, the Allbritton operation finds itself as one of the country’s leaders in the gathering and dissemination of political news. That has positive rub-off effects on both WJLA and NewsChannel 8. Washington is still very much a company town.

So, it’s in the same vein that we look at this soon to be launched local news oriented Web site. Adding 50 journalists to an operation that already includes a prominent local television station and its cable news spinoff plus the acclaimed Politico gives Allbritton’s operation one of the largest news gathering operations in the market. As the company focuses on enabling its journalists to file news across any platform, it’s easy to see the combined Allbritton portfolio giving some heartache to The Washington Post (and few know that property better than Jim Brady). The company just recently brought a senior sales executive to lead the advertising sales effort for the new metro new site.

Allbritton already has a deal in place with the market’s leading news/talk radio station as well to share content and to provide weather reporting from its team of meteorologists. While it doesn’t seem that Allbritton wants to get itself embedded into the longer view stories that The Post covers, it does seem that there’s a probable audience for hurried Washington audience members who want to get the news in an easy, connected and time saving way.

The Allbritton mission is to produce and serve unique content which has appeal beyond the Washington market. The plan is to capitalize not only on local ad spend across broadcast, cable, print and online platforms but also to get access to content syndication and barter ad inventory nationwide. Allbritton understands that it can be profitable to serve not only local audiences and advertisers well with smart execution but that this entire operation can be leveraged to grow out of market revenues. Could this example serve as a possible model for other broadcasters looking for a digital strategy that actually makes money?

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