Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2004/12/02/rect_glsr.html
“Man, it’s an exciting time to be in journalism.”
— John Robinson, blogger, newspaper editor, Dec. 1, 2004.
“Is this journalism? Not in any sort of traditional sense.”
— Mark Potts, co-founder, Backfence.com, Dec. 1, 2004
Companies without products. Markets without players. Resumes ready to be sent for in-boxes that do not exist. These and other signs of pre-maturity surfaced yesterday in the reactions to Mark Glaser’s plea: The Media Company I Want to Work For. It’s not here yet— the media company, I mean.
But something else surfaced— better in a way than the launch of another business. Substantial readiness to get going. Talent waiting for action. A mood of expectation. Mitch Ratcliffe: “I know, having built ON24 to run on the smallest editorial budget imaginable for a 24/7 video news network, a lot of the ins and outs. There are clearly a ton of smart folks willing to participate. Who wants to put the money behind it?”
Glaser didn’t try to provide the model for a media business of the Net age; just a list of demands. But he made an observation with which many people agree— including PressThink readers. “The movement by established media companies, or even by their online or digital divisions, is glacial.” (My italics.) And this is what sprang forward in the reactions to his post. We can move much faster; why don’t we?
To which some people said: we are! Spring 2005 in Dallas. And the reply came back:
“We are too: Early 2005 in DC.” (More on both of them in a moment.)
While others (like Lex Alexander) simply said: I like the sound of Mark’s company. Where do I apply?
Over at LiveJournal, it was twisted chick (who is one very smart blogger, make a great journalist): “Yes. I want to work there too, but I can’t seem to find the place. And, unfortunately, I’d like to be able to make a living at it.”
Here is some more of what I learned yesterday.
John Robinson, the blogging editor of the Greensboro News Record, wrote a reaction post to Glaser’s:
I know this: it’s precisely the sort of media company the News & Record intends to become. Creating new content. Serving the public and allowing the public to serve journalism. Building a new way of doing smart, citizen journalism. More transparency. News as a conversation. We’ve been having serious, detailed, how-to discussions about all of those things here. This blog is one result. All of the recent discussion about aggregated content — what Greensboro 101 is doing — is where we’re going, too. (See Ed Cone on the Greensboro 101 project. He has the links.)
Meanwhile, Adrian Holavaty wrote in with a reminder that some of Glaser’s future is now- in Kansas:
We’re doing something like this already at Lawrence.com — our hyperlocal entertainment site for Lawrence, Kan., with deep databases of local events, musicians, venues, drink specials, restaurants, dynamically-created radio stations and a ton more.
User-generated content has been growing and growing on Lawrence.com for the past year and a half: All (except one) of our blogs are written by members of the community. Our food weblog is written by a local chef, for instance.
Most of the site’s pages — articles, blog entries, songs, bands, album discographies, restaurants — have user-comment functionality, and we’ve recently been expanding (by popular demand) into friendster-esque territory by allowing people to post profiles, rank other people’s comments, create playlists, etc.
The funny thing is: We’re owned by a newspaper. But it’s a family-owned newspaper, which, I think, is key.
So among local news companies that reject “glacial,” there’s the News Record in Greensboro, NC, Lawrence.com in Kansas, the previously known examples of Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, CA and the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, which has gone blog wild. That reminds me of where public journalism was ten years ago, 1993-94. Then the towns I was naming were Wichita, Charlotte, Norfolk, Akron— places Big Journalism would never look for inspiration.
Today Big Journalism is itself one of those places.
After Glaser’s essay about a hypothetical company he’d want to work for; after my pointer to Pegasus News, Mark Potts—who is a PressThink reader and helped found WashingtonPost.com—e-mailed: “We’ve been in stealth mode as well for several months, but I guess it’s time to come out of the closet.” The venture is called Backfence.com. As with Peg, some elements of Glaser’s “dream” company were there: hyper local, content created by readers, use blogs, wikis, RSS.
Besides the Post site, Potts was part of the team that started @Home Network, among other ventures. He told me he was a “recovering journalist.” I spoke to Potts and partner Susan DeFife about their plans. DeFife was founder and CEO of WomenConnect.com, a site for professional women, and has been involved in other Net ventures.
They want to debut their service soon— initially in the target-rich advertising environment of Washington, DC. But it won’t be “Washington” or “metro” news in any known sense. Their site will be an aggregator of “tiny scale” sites where you can find news as small as the cast list for the school play, or “who knows a good plumber?” Content “written by the readers” means the drama teacher who knows the cast list for the school play will post it at Backfence because he also knows that’s what Backfence is for.
It’s also for hyper-local advertisers who are not served by weeklies or the metro daily. Plus they’re counting on local search that blows away the alternatives available now. Virtually all content is generated by users, who have an incentive to share with others. Some oversight by editors who understand community ownership of the mini-sites is key.
As far as I can tell there won’t be any reporters’ jobs at Backfence.com, just as there weren’t any pros doing that job when people exchanged news over an actual back fence or at the market in town. There is no question, then, that Backfence sees the de-professionalization of news as a key to its success. The pros gave away the “news of your neighbors” franchise— or never had it. “Local news is just not covered by the daily newspaper,” DeFife said. And it’s hard to argue with that.
Of course, there wouldn’t be any point in contacting a blogger but for argument. I wanted to know from Potts and DeFife: what’s the press think at Backfence? And I asked it that way. I also asked about “the journalism part of it,” and where public service comes in. I think I used the words “social mission,” too, but I would have used any words to convey the spirit of my question. I was asking them if they were in any sense a journalism company, or even wanted to be. And if so, where does the journalism part live?
Their answer on the phone was: this is a business, we claim only that. We want no part of journalism as a noble profession because we intend to be market-driven, user-based, advertiser-friendly, community-level and we know how that sits with “professionals” protecting their social mission, which after a while is just holding on to their turf.
At the end of our interview, I suggested they draft a few paragraphs about it. “I’ll run them,” I said. So this is the first public statement by Backfence. I asked two entrepreneurs about their press think and this is what they told me:
Backfence’s News Philosophy (So far)
by Mark Potts, Chairman, Chief Creative Officer
People care most about news and information about the places, people and things closest to them, but this desire for intensely local (neighborhood-level) information is all but unmet by traditional media. Backfence.com will fill that gap by using blogs, wikis, RSS and other technologies to allow citizens to share community news and information with each other, essentially unmediated by editors.
Is this journalism? Not in any sort of traditional sense. The kinds of things that people talk about in their communities—over the backfence, as it were—can seem mundane to an outsider. Local zoning disputes, youth soccer leagues or how to find a great plumber are topics are of critical importance to members of the community that aren’t being covered by traditional media.
Backfence.com will provide a platform for members of the community to post these items and discuss them. Some have called this “citizens media” or “open source journalism;” it’s definitely not Woodward and Bernstein stuff. But it’s interesting to people at the very local level, and that’s the audience—and content creators—that Backfence.com will serve.
At a time when news consumers are increasingly frustrated by what they perceive as the broad, hit-and-run, top-down nature of most journalism, Backfence.com is a local, grassroots approach to helping community members hare the news and information (and advertising) that they believe is most mportant to them.
Well, what do we think of this statement? Let me know in comments.
Meanwhile, Pegasus News received a flurry of action because I used it to highlight the immediacy of Glaser’s post. Unlike Backfence.com, Pegasus has a blog— the Daily Peg. Because it has a blog, Pegasus the company has had to explain what it thinks. (And also change its mind.) Because it has a blog, Pegasus has been drawing interested parties to it, at least some of whom might help.
Last month, at BloggerCon III in Palo Alto, this was time and again the reason I heard for why you blog— it’s a connection-builder, an extender of your network, it increases your collision rate with others of possibly like mind, or “it puts you out there” in conversational space. (Here’s my post on BloggerCon and “the people of Moore’s law.”) Peg’s founder and chief philosopher is anonymous because he has a day job. Yesterday he found himself explaining why he blogs and remains anonymous:
Of the dozen or so people currently on our virtual team, half found us via this blog. Discussion and pushback from readers— even just the reading enforced by daily blogging — have greatly improved our plan since this game began. Through it we’ve gotten hooked up with some of our closest and best advisors. Just today, contacts we made through this blog look to have helped us shave more than $1.5 million out of the launch expense budget.
Which is exactly what the people at BloggerCon meant by “puts you out there.” None of this means Pegasus has a winning idea in local news. (Likewise with Backfence.com.) It means the founder—who is still anonymous—was wise to start a blog. It’s already a dialogic company. You can have a conversation with it. In fact, it’s happening now. The Daily Peg gave a point by point comparison between what Glaser wants and what they’re planning to do. Companies without products aren’t so bad, really. They’re forced to have ideas.
A few reflections: My interest in all this was initially: what would Mark have to say? I mean if you asked him: what’s does your dream company look like? I was curious.
PressThink, I often tell people, is “my own personal magazine.” That’s how I run it. So as managing editor of my blog (inspiration by Robert Cox, who calls himself that) I’m thinking: ask Glaser. I mean, look at what the guy has done. He knows what’s out there. He’s talked to most everyone else who knows. He’s a journalist.
Behold the mysteries of magazine editing. Find smart person who knows subject, ask him what he thinks. Twelve hundred words, due in a week.
Now in this sense I am very much a traditionalist about journalism. I share with the newsroom mind a bias for the voice of the person who has “done the reporting,” itself a kind of magic phrase for generating internal authority in Big Journalism. “We have a right to say that,” someone might say in editing a big series, “we’ve done the reporting.”
To me its common sense: Glaser’s voice has more voices in it. He’s done the reporting. Of course I want his opinion. And his information. And any tips he has. An objective account of a hot dispute? Mark, if you’ve got it, send it. I rely on Glaser, like I rely on hundreds of other journalists whose work I consume, including bloggers like Dave Pell, beat reporters like Liz Halloran and big shots like Howard Kurtz. They’re all “my” journalists.
In all cases I want them to have done the reporting. In all cases, I want their opinion as well as their facts. I want ways to argue with them because I know there are always blind spots. I also want a way to say: could you check this out, please? When they come back from an assignment I want to de-brief them. I want them to alert me when something big is about to blow, or just did. I need their irony and humor, especially about big events and powerful figures in the news. They’re my journalists. They’re my people. They’re essential. I knew Mark Glaser would know something, he’s on the beat.
Between the informed and the informable there is a human connection. It is interactive, something “alive.” This is where many future possibilities in journalism lie. If you wanted it stated as a law, this would be the law. Your ability to inform people today is limited by the quality of your connection to them.
Howard Kurtz on Backfence.com in his Media Notes column, Dec. 13:
This Just In, From The Guy Next Door.
There are already some community sites practicing what’s been dubbed “open-source journalism,” and the potential appeal to people who feel little connection to metropolitan dailies is obvious. Backfence is generating some online buzz because of its national ambitions, its founders’ track record and the notion of stealing some turf in the shadow of the nation’s capital.
Kurtz doesn’t say the news first surfaced at PressThink because of the reaction to Mark Glasser’s piece. Should he?
Big news for readers of this blog: Tech columnist, blogger and We the Media author Dan Gillmore is leaving the San Jose Mercury News for a citizen journalism start-up! This is from Silicon Beat, which has more the announcement (Dec. 10):
Dan will be starting a grass-roots journalism venture, and says he has gotten seed funding. The plan is typical Gillmor. It reflects his appreciation of the need for news to bubble up from the masses. It also allows him to partake of the dream that he has written so much about: The entrepreneur starting something interesting. “I’m jumping off a cliff with the expectation of assembling a hang-glider before I get to the bottom,” he told us this evening, in a phone call from Boston, where he is attending a conference at Harvard. “I figured the worst risk is that I’d be out of work in six months.”
Gillmore also announced it at his weblog. “I hope to pull together something useful that helps enable — and demonstrates — the emerging grassroots journalism that I wrote about in my recent book. Something powerful is happening, it’s in the early stages and I have a chance to help figure this out.”
Steve Outing of Poynter thinks “the citizen journalism trend is inevitable,” and wonders if the lethargic Big Media can even play in that game.
Entrepreneurs, as first movers in this space, will establish the dominant brands in open-source journalism before mainstream media companies figure out that there’s real opportunity available (or get past their trepidation about diving in). If in citizen journalism there’s an enterprise that grows to be a clear market leader, it may expand so fast that mainstream media companies — by the time they get over their fear of the idea of normal people contributing to their news products — will have difficulty catching up.
Jeff Jarvis writes: Follow the money… if you can find it. “There’s a mesmerizing exchange going on among lots of smart people looking for where the money will be in this explosion of citizens’ media (which, in this case, I broadly define as media controlled by citizens). My quick answer: I don’t know. Wish I did. But I don’t.”
Simon Waldman, head of the Guardian’s online operation: Citizens media: when’s the right time? where’s the right place?
Steve Rubel at Micropersuasion says the competition is not old media— it’s e-bay, plus Craig’s List: “While Rosen points to a couple of stealth projects that will try hard to create a profitable business around hyper-local citizen journalism when they launch next year, I believe they will face massive competition from a successful company that’s already right under our noses - eBay.” Rubel sees “a new era where citizen journalism is directly funded by person-to-person commerce.” Read the rest to find out why he thinks that.
Blogger and ex-CNN’er Rebecca MacKinnon responds with: the The Global News Department I’d like to build. She calls it “participatory world news”— in contrast to “foreign coverage.” Check it out.
“Publishers think that they know best, but the truth is that the writers on the front line know best.” Blogging capitalist Jason Calacanis in the comments to Mark Glaser’s essay:
If you look at a 100 writers and ask them what they would most like to spend their time writing about only 10 would say they were actually doing that for a living. Most writers are writing to make a living, and the topic they really love is something they do on the side.
Our goal at weblogsinc.com is to have all 100 bloggers writing about the thing they are most passionate about… the thing that makes them want to investigate, share, research, and debate. The things that jazz them up.
… The model you propose is very hard on a business level. It takes someone willing to put the business in the hands of the “worker bees,” and most folks in publishing hate that idea.
Most CEOs/Publishers think that they know best, but the truth is that the writers on the front line know best. If you step back and just let the writers go nuts, writing whatever they want and then just sell the traffic you can actually get further then if you as the publisher try to take/push people somewhere.
Plus: he says he’s hiring, if you have the passion. Read the rest.
erik at niload appears to work for the Washington Post Company in some way. Noting the plans for Backfence.com, he says the Post “might want to start thinking about ways of tapping into this kind of mindset, without alienating the very people it would rely upon for content. Otherwise, they’re going to miss an opportunity — not just for boosting revenue, but also for boosting their presence.” (I am continually amazed at how many bloggers refuse to include a simple “about” link.)
Blogger Dan Michalski: WHO ARE THESE CRAZY PEGASUS NEWS GUYS?
Susan Mernit: “The funny thing about this moment in time is that many of the media barons, I venture, would agree with Mark—they just don’t know what to do to replace their ad base. Like dragons sitting on piles of treasure, publishers have built up client relationships and sub lists that fuel their businesses and keep margins high. Like the polar ice floes, that all seems to be melting away, and at a similarly alarming rate. Since I don’t believe new dragons are necessarily better than old dragons, I would invite everyone to change and rethink their business as well as start new one.”
Hmmmm. LeMonde is offering blogs to readers. (Via JD Lasica.)
John Robinson, editor of the New Record, continues the conversation. From his weblog:
OK, we’ve seen the future, but some of it is still unclear
I am excited about the possibilities presented by expanding the voice and reach and impact of journalism. Blogs are a vibrant addition to the more traditional formats of journalism. Blogs have scooped the newspaper. People talk to you and you talk back. Everyone who wants has a voice. It’s journalism at its core.
We’re trying to transform the newspaper, and blogging is changing the face of journalism. In my mind, it’s a nice fit. For weeks now, I’ve read about the need for traditional journalism to change or die….
I don’t know the right model. Our vision isn’t far enough along to answer many of your questions. We’re experimenting and learning like everyone else. But as I look ahead, I don’t think it is possible for us or any other media company to control/dominate/crush the citizen media. Really, we don’t want to….
Ed Cone: “blogs are the long tail” and the (Greensboro) News & Record “may be emerging as one of the players in the fat part of the curve.” Great Wired article on the long tail effect.
Mark Hamilton: “Glaser touched off something that’s still spreading. In that way, his essay is as clear an example as you’ll find of journalism as conversation.”
Phil Jones says in comments that even some “new” media companies don’t get it:
The problem is, despite the rhetoric about localization and decentralization, a company which wants to put itself in this space, still sees itself as a centre or hub. It’s where the local soccer teams and drama teachers and zoning complainers will go (together) to have their conversations with each other.
And it’s by aggregating this local variety, the media company hopes to keep itself in the value chain, with something to sell to advertisers.
But the evolution of the tools is against it. The whole point of this revolution is to put communication technology at the edge of the network, in the hands of the public. If they want aggregators they can put them on their own desktops. They’ll find like-minded people in the blogrolls of their friends. They’ll build social networks on Friendster, share photojournalism on Flicr, run their own wikis from SocialText…
The Daily Peg replies to this post and the discussion in comments: “I realized that there are actually two distinct schools in this new media cabal: there’s us; and there’s everybody else (Backfence, Baristanet, Ventura, etc.).” Read the rest.
Bubblegeneration (new to me) is a London-based blog about strategy, economics, innovation, and business models. Umair Haque writes:
Backfence and the future of journalism.
Like I’ve argued before, I think the market will fragment into two big spaces - for high-quality publishing markets, and relatively low-quality open-source bazaars. I don’t think there is room for a Backfence in the middle (unless it simply wants to be an ohmynews clone).
Newsroom refugee JennyD steps forward: Old Media is Dying.
Before I became an education wonk and statistician, I was the editor of a magazine, and a newspaper reporter. The whole time I worked in newspapers, I had the sense of being in a world of flat-earthers, where dullness and straightforwardness and plain vanilla was served up day in and day out…
Jenny links to this report on mainstream journalists at sea: “Served recently on a panel at the annual convention of the Association of Opinion Page Editors. (You see, there is a club for everyone.) Never have I spoken to so many sad-looking people. Maybe it was the tweeds, the frayed corduroys. Maybe it was what they ate. Or what they had to swallow at work.”