November 30, 2005
Guest Writer Liz George of Baristanet Reviews Backfence.com Seven Months After Launch
"In fact, clicking through Backfence's pages feels like frontier land-– remote, often lonely, zoned for people but not home to any. The next launch is supposed to be Arlington, VA. Without more settlers, Backfence may wind up creating more ghost towns."
Jay’s regular readers have probably heard of Backfence, the hyper-local user-as-producer start-up company that emerged from stealth mode right here at PressThink one year ago (Dec 2, 2004).
Now up and running in three suburban DC towns, Backfence is of wider interest for two reasons. First, it describes itself to users as: “A leader in a new phenomenon called ‘citizens’ journalism’— a sharing of information where the audience itself decides what’s important and writes about it.” Backfence is trying to be a commercial provider of news and information where journalists are not involved in the production at all. It’s a “leader” because it’s among the first to test the proposition that user-generated content at an online gathering place can entice people to actually gather there— and share information. When they do, money can be made, Backfence says.
Also of interest are the people involved: Backfence, Inc. is the creation of Mark Potts and Susan DeFife, partners who bring considerable Internet and media experience to the table. Potts was co-founder of Washington Post.com, and a member of the founding team of the @Home Network. DeFife was CEO and founder of womenCONNECT.com, a portal for women in business. It figured that they could attract money and conduct a good test.
Potts and DeFife built the site with about $100,000. They launched on May 3, 2005. (See Steve Outing’s review and Potts’s pre-launch e-mail to PressThink. Also this Q and A with Paul Mallasch.) In October, SAS Investors and Omidyar Network thought enough of the concept to pony up $3 million in funding.
It’s been a year since Backfence came out of stealth, so Jay asked me to visit the three sites that are open, observe them in action, talk to the founders— and write about my impressions. I was keen to do it because I’m simultaneously serving up my own slice of the hyperlocal online journalism pie, Baristanet, a site I co-own and edit with its founder, Debbie Galant. It’s not the Backfence model, although we are a commercial site and we do have local advertisers. Debbie and I are both journalists who do real reporting, and we operate (which means co-operate) with some very active users.
Recent case-in-point: Over the transom comes a tip from a reader who witnessed a brawl in front of the local movie theater. The tipster, who calls in the story, wants to remain anonymous. We post the item at 4:13 pm; by 5 pm, there were five comments including an answer from the mayor.
That’s the kind of quick response people have come to expect from our site (and the kind of involvement we’ve come to appreciate from our readers). There are other similar sites: WestportNow in Connecticut, or ibrattleboro in Vermont, and especially Bluffton Today in SC.
Things aren’t moving as fast at Backfence, not yet anyway. And maybe it’s the self-consciously small-town vibe, the folksy, golly-gee tone of the site (“I was a sportswriter today!”) that has people hesitating to jump in and start sharing information on a frequent basis. I know this: it’s hard to personalize something that already has a style sheet in place. The style at Backfence, which is to say the art of it, the look and feel, makes no reference to actual places where people live, but only to an imagined place in times past where villagers shared information over the back fence. (When was that exactly? My only recollection of backfence chat in action is on TV, specifically Gladys Kravitz from Bewitched, the nosy neighbor perpetually peering into Samantha’s yard.)
By the numbers
In a press release announcing the new funding in October, Potts said, “We’re ready to begin expanding Backfence to new communities and markets. This funding allows us to rapidly roll out Backfence to create vibrant local online communities like the three we’ve already launched in Washington, DC area.” The roll out began with McLean and Reston, VA. Two months ago, a third site for Bethesda, MD was added. The three towns have a combined population just shy of 200,000. The total combined users registered for all three Backfence sites is 600.
Yes, I did say 600. Not exactly the “vibrant local online communities” Potts talks about. Still, what seems like a small user base is in line with what Potts and DeFife say they expected (of that 600 about 60% are active users). Looking at page traffic rather than registered users, Potts says the picture is encouraging. “We’re ahead of where we thought we would be. The number of page views is far higher than projected and the time spent by users on the site is higher than we expected.” Overall Potts and DeFife seem satisfied and confident with how their creation is evolving. I’m curious to know what you think, so let’s visit…
Backfence “communities” now exist in Reston, in McLean, and in Bethesda. Backfence readers can use the platform to blog, edit a wiki and post photos, although any language sounding like webspeak is edited out. This is where Backfence reminds me of Gladys Kravitz. The site’s color-coded, file-folder design seems like a throwback. Nowhere is the word blog mentioned on the site; instead readers are encouraged to “write a story,” almost as if the site was a teacher coaxing pages from grade schoolers.
Visiting the main page makes clicking from one community to the next seamless, as if each town were actually the same as the next. There’s no local flavor, no imprint of personality, nothing to give these pre-planned communities a sense of place. But the sameness and predictability of each site is a feature, not a bug. It makes for easy extension— “Backfence in a box” as Potts has called it. Backfence could touch down and be created anywhere, like the various craigslists have been. (Go here and look to your right.)
As easily as going from McLean to Bethesda, Backfence could soon be in a community near you. Yet, it’s hard to imagine the people near you clamoring for it. How do you generate excitement about a Backfence arrival, when one community doesn’t look (or feel) much different than the next, since they all look like Backfence.com?
The “always-on appliance.”
What would be a huge local story on Baristanet—or any other thriving local website —and what should be the bread and butter for Backfence recently happened in McLean when the Mclean Little League girls softball team won the girls softball World Series. Backfence did have some coverage, but all from one user and barely anyone (six comments) bothered to talk about it. With all the parents of children involved in the games (and everyone they talked to as the team kept winning) the site should have been inundated with photos, post-game analysis, anecdotes and congratulations. That’s what Backfence is built for.
Wondering what’s happening “Right Now” around McLean? Well there’s an estate sale from way back in June. Not sure why the outdated posts don’t drop off the site, unless there’s a conscious move to preserve content even if it’s ancient. Comments trickle in over time, like the post dubbed “the hottest debate” concerning whether Reston should be an incorporated town. This thread has 41 comments, a huge amount for Backfence; however, it took four months to generate them, dating back when the item was first posted in July.
When interviewed by Howard Kurtz a year ago (Dec. 13, 2004) Potts and DeFife were “convinced that thousands of people in places like McLean and Reston can become bloggers, or post responses to other bloggers’ columns, or contribute photos and information about their particular subcultures.” Prior to the launch, DeFife saw Backfence becoming “an always-on appliance… something that you’re looking at, hopefully, more than once a day. This is 24/7. This is constantly being updated.”
Updated with what? “A housewife or hardware store owner can have something to contribute, that’s important to them, that would be way under the radar of what we as journalists think is important,” Potts said to Kurtz. “It’s the kind of thing you talk about at cocktail parties and barbecues.”
The Backfence communities of Reston, McLean and Bethesda are not yet on board with 24/7. Visit the site and you’ll find content virtually unchanged from day to day, often with more solicitations for content from Backfence staff than items users produce. This too is by design: the users are the sole authors. When I ask Potts and DeFife about the dearth of content and reader comments, they truly don’t seem concerned. “We’re still new to the community, they’re still finding us. I’m not surprised we still have to reach a critical mass,” says Potts. “When that happens, [the sites] will take off like wildfire.”
He and DeFife have an admirable sense of calm about the project. Potts, who describes himself often as a “recovering journalist,” put it this way to American Journalism Review: “We lived through the ’90s. We’ve lost companies. We both had companies die out from under us. We’ve lost jobs because companies were dying out from under us. Things just happened, and we watched it happen to friends.”
Anyone know a good plumber?
It’s encouraging to see people who are using Backfence. And it does happen. They’re posting their requests for plumbers (as envisioned), bemoaning the fact that Bethesda has no live music, questioning things they see on the street and providing photos to go with their story. What isn’t exciting is watching the posts sit on the site without any response, or waiting days or weeks for someone to reply or add a comment.
So how will Backfence drum up more users to produce the content if there’s so little there to draw users? DeFife says they may seek out “columnists,” tapping people in the community and encouraging them to contribute on a regular basis. What about all those unanswered posts? Will readers who don’t get any response at Backfence return? “We won’t intervene in terms of content, but we will try and find someone in the community who can respond to these people, so they won’t be left hanging,” says DeFife. “We’ll try and help make connections.”
That sounds reasonable. But if staffers are making the connections you suddenly have the expense of hiring a good staff, which isn’t the Backfence model at all.
This made me wonder why Potts and DeFife didn’t roll out Backfence in a community where they knew they’d have “live wires”, (i.e. bloggers, active citizen forums and other online user groups) to entice over to their site. Wouldn’t it have been easier to make the debut in a town with a core group of savvy users ready and willing to put the Backfence platform through all its paces? Although they don’t say it outright, my impression is that Potts and DeFife are avoiding places where there is strong online competition. An existing hyperlocal site with active users and organic growth makes the tipping point for Backfence harder to reach— or unreachable entirely. Best bet is a town where no locally grown site has a home court advantage.
Commenting on Judy’s Book, a site with a similar premise, Jeff Jarvis said today “local ain’t easy.” Why? Because without paying them “it is otherwise difficult or impossible to get people to contribute content.” He’s for giving users the controls and letting them create stuff connected with their own identities. But he doubts it’s going to happen at a pre-planned and centralized site, and in another post he says the premise—“come to us and give us your good stuff”-—is all wrong.
Backfence is happy to give local users the ability to create content for Backfence, but identity—that sense of a person talking to you, of a particular place coming alive—gets lost in the uniform, inorganic look and feel of “folders.” The users don’t really have control because the fill-in-the-blank format dictates how the content appears to other users. Jarvis warns against being “just a centralized waystation on the path to a distributed future.” He also equates good local with being “edgey,” another thing Backfence is not by design. The sites tend to smooth things out; they categorize life for you.
Does capacity create activity?
Backfence offers users an easy-to-operate platform to try things they might not have ever done on the web-– post local events, share photos from a school play, ask their neighbors a question. But is providing the ability enough to generate the activity? People who want to share photos can go to photo sharing sites, people who want to be read can experiment with blogging. And almost every community has some kind of online bulletin board already in place. How Backfence for Reston is going to become something that users in Reston really need and want is not entirely clear to me.
For now, Potts and DeFife have no plans to change the formula. However they say they plan to do more outreach and that they know Backfence isn’t a “build it and they will come” proposition. (In other words, it may take creative intervention to bring users in.) Citizen journalism is something Backfence is happy to be associated with. “We’re not replacing local newspapers,” Potts told me. Investigative journalism, he says, is “not what we’re here for.”
But after talking with Potts and DeFife and visiting the sites over and over again, I’m still not sure why Backfence is here. Something feels very incomplete about the experience of using it: I have to believe there’s more to Reston, McLean and Bethesda than what the sites suggest is there to be filled in. If Potts and DeFife have their own press think, it’s “hands off the people’s printing presses,” and “we’re not The Press.” They’ve stayed consistent with their early message: “This is business. We want no part of journalism as a noble profession because we intend to be market-driven, user-based, advertiser-friendly.”
Potts and DeFife say it’s a matter of reaching their “tipping point.” In their press release, one of their SAS Investors, partner Josh Grotstein, says “Broadband penetration has finally reached a tipping point, enabling hyperlocal community creation to become the next great frontier in digital content.” In fact, clicking through Backfence’s pages feels like frontier land-– remote, often lonely, zoned for people but not settled by any. The next launch is Arlington, VA. Without more settlers, Backfence may wind up creating more ghost towns.
When Jay asked me for my site review, he meant of Backfence “so far”— at the seven-month mark, which is pre-tipping point, according to the founders. At Baristanet, we’re past the tipping point (though it’s easy to look back and see baby pictures of the site at six and seven months).
The Saturday Night fight is a perfect example of Baristanet when it works. A user calls in a tip (we have their trust) because she knows we’ve become the place where local news breaks first. The information gets posted quickly. The discussion commences and additional facts emerge. Key people respond, including the mayor, who follows the site. The news is spread and opinions are exchanged before word hits the local paper (we’re a lot faster). The comments grow steadily from five to 30 and counting and a dialogue begins to take place. (“They should have all been brought down to the station and released into their parents care and the incident documented. Not allowed to walk away.”)
In this instance, “we” (meaning the editors) haven’t done much more than act as a facilitator— the community did it all. What was at first just an account of an event from one source becomes a pooling of information, a debate, which generates additional facts, and of course, opportunity for some to wisecrack (that’s always been part of our appeal). Baristanet doesn’t take itself too seriously, but our readers seriously use us to find out what’s going on, and to talk about it before it hits the local papers.
Now if we had the capability of Backfence, maybe the user would have posted that story on her own. But if Baristanet didn’t first create the local-person-to-local person voice and offer newsy content to attract her, then keep her active and involved in this online community in the first place… then why would she bother to post anything at all?
Baristanet’s core readers (roughly 1000 have signed up via actual e-mails, although many more post to the site anonymously) are active because they “get it.” They get the sense of urgency inherent in news, and that’s why we are inundated with tips. They get what we’re about and that’s why we get story suggestions daily. They know people read us, so we are constantly asked to get the word out for local events and thanked profusely when tons of readers show up because they “read about it on Baristanet.” More and more, advertisers are “getting it,” too.
Comparisons are inevitable, but Baristanet and Backfence are very different. We developed a product people love and feel passionately about while still developing a brand that is “ours.” At seven months old, there’s nothing passionate about Backfence and the lack of users reflects that. I’ve got to believe there are lots of vibrant local stories being shared in Reston, McLean and Bethesda, and people who want to talk, trade impressions and exchange information. They’re just not doing it on Backfence.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Liz George is co-editor, with Debbie Galant, of Baristanet.com. George, a NYU journalism grad, writes for shelter magazines, women’s magazines, and the New York Daily News. She spent the first five years of her journalism career as an editor at Weight Watchers Magazine before discovering freelance freedom. In addition to writing, George has conceived and edited cooking, decorating and bridal publications. Her book, “Your Dream Kitchen: Stylish Solutions for the Home” was published by Hearst in 2005.
Backfence founders Susan DeFife and Mark Potts respond in the comments:
“Like Baristanet, we believe you have to be deeply involved in the community. Rather than using editors to do that, we believe you empower the community members themselves to decide and contribute what is important.”
Additional Backfence background: a PBS interview with Potts and DeFife; Steve Outing’s “Can Citizen Journalists Really Produce Readable Content?”; The Local Onliner’s “Backfence Raises $3 Million”; Marketing Shift’s “Backfence Bringing Blogs To Local.”
On topic: at the CBS blog, Public Eye, PressThink’s Jay Rosen offers a cure for the common condescension infecting cosmopolitan media — a stint of hard time in small town journalism.
Steve Outing at Poynter Online points to Backfence and argues that a paycheck for citizen journalists might be what’s necessary to motivate quality content. (Nov. 14)
From Slashdot, a recipe for newspaper survival that translates well to hyperlocal online sites. One important ingredient (#2) Not all readers know what they are talking about. How true. While not malicious, false or inaccurate information that isn’t moderated results in a site with zero credibility.
A nod for this review from LockhartSteele who wants to see Daily Candy and Gothamist dissected next…
As someone who laments the amount of detailed, hands-on analysis being done about new-ish digital editorial properties—seriously, where is the detailed blog analysis that isn’t looking to mindlessly build up or break down? For any blog of note?—I think this PressThink piece is an absolute must read.
J-Log picks up on the Backfence discussion ; while you’re there, send some love over to Muncie Free Press.
If you missed it, Backfence is seeking to hire a jack of all trades. Rich Gordon writes…
The community manager position seems like a marketing job — this person is supposed to “lead its community outreach and grassroots marketing efforts” — but Backfence also expects him or her to “support” and “coordinate” with the content team to get people to post to the site. Meanwhile, the content manager is supposed to have “strong editorial skills” but also participate “in grassroots marketing efforts, including staffing community outreach events.”
Mike Orren of start-up Pegasus News (supposed to be coming to the Dallas area in 06) stirs the pot, via a post on the company’s blog, Daily Peg. It talks turkey about the “gravy and potatoes” of citizen journalism. (Dec. 4)
Our service should be open for anyone in the community to share content, BUT we can’t rely on readers to submit content with enough frequency to keep the service sticky on a daily basis. They are the gravy. We are the potatoes. True, potatoes without gravy are kind of bland. But nobody just drinks gravy.
Orren, also after VC money, said:
“If we have 600 subscribers seven months after launch, I’ll commit hari kari in front of the Belo building”
Which seemed to stir something in Backfence. Mark Potts added a “clarification” in the comments at Daily Peg…
There’s one misunderstanding in the Pressthink article that we should clear up: We require registration only for those who contribute content to the site. So our figure of 600 registered users represents the number of people who are actually writing, photographing and commenting for Backfence across our three communities.
This helps. Right now 600 registered users are responsible for all the content—potatoes and gravy—on the site. Even with the community outreach that Backfence has been doing, and the fact that Potts and DeFife actually live and have ties to these communities, 600 users—with 60% being active, that’s 360 regular users split over three towns and three sites—have not so far produced a steady stream of stuff. Even to leave a comment at Backfence you have to be registered. So… What will it take to convert the 12,000 unique visitors into “users” who will sign up and proceed to do the the business of creating content for Backfence? I’d like to see that debated.
Jeff Jarvis catches up with the conversation with Local ain’t easy (cont). He writes: (Dec. 5)
In Liz’s strong review of Backfence, we see a conflict of two models: centralized efforts to encourage hyperlocal citizens’ media (Backfence, Riffs, Judy’s Book) v. decentralized efforts that start up on their own (Baristanet, Gothamist, H2OTown). Decentralized is messier but I believe it is ultimately the way things will work because it is truly about local control: In the decentralized model, people start their efforts because they want to, not because somebody had to convince them to. On the other hand, I learned through Advance and GoSkokie that to make this work, hyperlocal needs TLC in some form: functionality, content, promotion, ad sales, something. What’s the right mix? Haven’t the faintest.
Also at BuzzMachine, “The Last Presses,” a must-read for its “wake up and get it” look at the future of newspapers and online media. Hard to choose one thought, but this directive seems to sum it up beautifully…
The first step is to change the way we think. We have to stop thinking of ourselves on paper. Stop thinking one-way and start thinking two-way. Stop thinking centralized and start thinking distributed. Stop thinking about holding trust and power and start thinking about earning and sharing both. Stop thinking we make money by creating friction and owning scarcity and start thinking about how we can make and share money by enabling people to do what they want to do. Stop thinking of what we produce as paper. We need to stop thinking of newspapers as things.
Steve Outing returns from an “Internet-free vacation” (color me jealous) and brings the Backfence discussion to Poynter Online:
George’s essay and many of the reader comments are critical of Backfence sites for being too bland, too identical (where’s the local-community personality?), and too sparsely used (especially in terms of number of user comments to content that has been published).
I tend to think that personality is important on local citJ sites like this. I’m skeptical that just setting up an infrastructure and hoping people will populate it with content will work. That’s not what Backfence is doing; its founders are clear that they’re spending much effort beating the local bushes to get people to contribute content. But Backfence doesn’t (yet, anyway) have people like George and Gallant driving each of its local sites. I think that may prove to be required.
Take note of Outing’s disclaimer at the end of his post. Seems everyone’s doing it.
Jay asked me about hyperlocal sites/blogs I follow. Besides Bluffton Today and the other sites above, I get a kick out of Northwest Voice, and their discussion of rap video Armpit of the State. I’m also ready to steal H20Town’s brilliant documentary answer to what goes bump in the night. Another fave, Brownstoner, for real estate porn. I’m keeping an eye on Pegasus News. And I can’t forget New Haven Independent.
PressThink regular Daniel Conover (of Xark!) in comments:
Now, what would Baristanet be without you and Debbie Galant? And the answer is, “something else,” which isn’t a flip reply in the context of your review of Backfence. You cannot franchise Baristanet until the two of you learn to clone yourselves — which is why your site has heart and soul and wit and credibility and Backfence has venture capital.
Yours is a community news site. Theirs is a business plan.
Posted by Liz George at November 30, 2005 6:50 PM
Funny you would post this tonight.
I had a photographer drop by my office to talk about blogs this afternoon, and after a few of her comments I realized that we each had radically different idea of what the word "blog" meant. For her, it meant ad hoc punditry and unreliable information. So rather than explain blog varieties, I sat her down beside me and started calling up all sorts of things, from Slashdot to PressThink.
But what really turned her on was when I showed her The New Haven Independent, H20Town and Baristanet. I like all three of these sites, and I like showing them to people one after the other, because they're all legit, functional sites with meaningful compare-and-contrast features for discussion. I can talk to newspaper people about this stuff all day to no avail, or I can show them these sites. And when I show them, they say, "Oh, that's cool."
Now, what would Baristanet be without you and Debbie Galant? And the answer is, "something else," which isn't a flip reply in the context of your review of Backfence. You cannot franchise Baristanet until the two of you learn to clone yourselves -- which is why your site has heart and soul and wit and credibility and Backfence has venture capital.
Yours is a community news site. Theirs is a business plan. It's exportable, modular, plug-and-play. It takes a generic, non-threatening tone, because that's what you must do to make something transportable and repeatable. Perfect that model, optimize it, make it a plug-and-play moneymaker and you can sell one in every town in America and retire early.
I said this last month and it kinda stuck, so I'm going to repeat myself: You cannot launch a community. You can tend a community, nourish it, encourage it, but it's an organic thing. Communities grow, or they don't. Businesses launch, so that's what business people want to do with online ventures. Huffington Post was launched. Pajamas Media was launched.
But how many of the blogs and writers that we actually read and trust were packaged and positioned before being launched upon "the market" with photo-ops and press releases? Web-oriented people grasp this instinctively. Others... not so much.
This is a big issue for corporate media, because these ideas don't fit into traditional business models, which emphasize total control over your product. In this new medium, investors can't unplug the original writers once the thing becomes profitable and just plug in some cheap kid fresh out of J-School. Tell them that the sign of a successful blog is that its readers shape the tone more than its writers do, and they'll start backing toward the exits.
There's a lot of money that wants to get into blogging (although, right now a bunch of it is chasing podcasting and vlogging), but I hope y'all just keep doing what you're doing. You couldn't franchise Baristanet like a McDonalds, but who's to say you couldn't bottle the lessons and insights you've gained along the way?
One of the brief humorous notes in George Orwell's 1984 comes in the workplace. The protagonist, Winston, and his flame Julia, work in 1984's version of a media company, MiniTrue. Winston "corrects" previously published versions of the news to correspond with the new official reality. Julia makes novels, by a process involving large machines with swinging booms that randomize the plot -- a job so dangerous, that when we first see her, she's got her arm in a cast as a result of a workplace accident.
1984 has come and gone and we still have no way to automate the production of content. We're still sitting down and knocking it out word by word (or ideogram by ideogram) the same way we have since we started writing.
The fact is there may simply be no way around actually doing the work of getting content, writing it in an interesting way, building and sustaining an audience, or the shoeleather work of visiting a potential advertiser's place of business and making a good argument about why advertising with your site is a good use of some of their marketing dollars.
The problem is that this is not terribly exciting to investors, whether they're investors in Knight-Ridder or some snazzy new Internet venture.
Tech VCs are generally looking for automation and scale, businesses that can grow customers/audience without a corresponding growth in paid employees. They also want a fast return, generally flipping an investment for big bucks in under three years. Investments in online content businesses by VCs are rarer for these reasons.
That's okay; there are certainly many companies I come into contact with every day that are profitable, stable, and that would never fly as publically traded companies or investment targets for Kleiner Perkins. I've worked for some of them. Jay works for one. I'm wearing some PolarFleece from Malden Mills, a very successful -- but not public -- company that makes PolarFleece and licenses the "recipe" to thousands of clothing companies around the world. Some of these companies are entirely privately held, others have investors without the "shoot the moon" expectations of internet-era tech VCs or NASDAQ investors.
This is not to say that someone won't come up with some fantastic idea to make the Magical Self Assembling News Source a reality. I'm really looking forward to the launch of the as-of-yet unnamed venture that Jeff Jarvis and Craig Newmark (of Craigslist) are working on.
In the meantime, the question is, how can a site like Baristanet be a better investment than putting money into a newspaper chain? And can they build enough barriers to fend off challenges from as of yet unlaunched ventures from Google and Craigslist? The answers to those two questions are the business plan. An investor looking at that business plan would also know that the business is already taking in money and (I'm guessing) is in the black, which makes the final segment of the business plan -- ops and finance -- a lot stronger than one that's just somebody's idea.
I love Barista. I am a former New Jerseyan, and an editor of the magazine about the state, and we covered Montclair and Glen Ridge extensively. Lots of readers there, lots of stories. I remember Debbie Galant when she wrote for the NY Times. I used to read her.
I don't know much about Backfence or the communities it serves.
Okay, now to veer a little off topic. Hang with me, people.
The difference between Barista and Backfence might be in the way they view the work of what they do. Backfence built a room and then sat back waiting for people to do something. Barista editors modeled what they were after. They posted, and reported, and sought out photos and stories. Then, when tips and comments rolled in, they made these front and center. They enacted their model, they were active participants in the creation of the thing that is Barista.
In education, this would be a classic example of wrongheaded constructionism versus real teaching and learning. There educators who think you simply put books and computers in a room, then sit back and let the kids learn. Which, as any parent would tell you, is probably bound to fail.
But there are other educators who say the best teachers model good learning. They show kids how to learn, and after they've set the stage, then they sit back and help shepherd the growth.
Citizens journalism isn't necessarily an obvious thing to do for citizens, especially those who've been raised on the "voice of god" style of news receiving.
Plus, I think the editors at Barista are just excellent at what they do. But I think their model could be replicated--but not as a hands-off, let-the-citizens-be-the-editors kind of model.
Hi Lisa, It's great to hear Google Ads are working out well for you. I will probably give them a shot next week and see where they take us.
"How do you approach your aggregator and what's in it?"
Delicately? :) Seriously though, we select who we feel are some of the most diverse and best voices in our community - and then let it fly. If we detect illegal or spam like material in someone's feed - we remove that feed from the site. Otherwise - there is no filtering. There is a degree of trust we give. This is a risky idea to be sure. But we make no claims of ownership - that - and establishing relationships with those publishing those sites - gives us a degree of safety and provides a value - I hope. If you search our site for Eagles or T.O. I think you get more interesting commentary than what you will find on Google.
Long term, establishing a real trust mechanism and revenue model like what Greensboro101 has done would be ideal. In fact they are neccessary if we intend to scale much larger.
We keep a list of sister sites and inspirations here that seriously needs to get updated.
But folks I read daily/regularly? Shelley Powers, Dan Gillmor, Dave Winer, Jay, Jeff Jarvis, Ed Cone, David Weinberger, all provide regular inspiration and food for thought. I follow PaidContent for relevant news. Jason Calacanis, Nick Denton, Craig Newmark, and Tim O'Reilly are also folks who I read regularly. I follow around a hundered blogs in my personal aggregator - FeedDemon everyday. Slashdot is my favorite practicing citizen journalism site. It's hard for me to follow citizen journalism sites focused on other towns since I have little frame of reference. There's an important point there I think.
Locally, I like Metroblogging, Phillyist, and Philebrity. I also love Young Philly Politics, Politcs Philly, MyDD, the All Spin Zone, Attytood, and Blinq (all these can be found on our blogroll and in our aggregator). But I also very much love the 300 or so other local blogs in our area that we highlight. Those mentioned are simply some of the most professional and focused.
It's rather frighting how much media I consume in a day.
Karl's Philly Future is more or less the model Jeff Jarvis says is needed. Let "content creation" stay at the edges, which means let it remain embedded in individual lives, self-driven, entreprenurial, quirky, with the personal authority Daniel Conover has been writing about on these boards.
This is "the 300 or so other local blogs in our area that we highlight," as Karl puts it. They're the creators-- the distributed gods of the universe. We use the shorthand "at the edges" in the sense that each toils in its own space (not your space), but the lines all connect. Philly Future, Karl's site, makes sure of that. It aggregates, motivates, highlights, and equips the little gods of content creation.
Jarvis says "it’s hard to convince people to contribute content to me when they can now control content on their own." Real innovation will never come by expecting people to make good stuff for your site. Jeff, in Local Ain't Easy.
If, instead, you can find ways to harness (aggregate, link to, make searchable, whatever) the content that people create under their own control and connected with their own identities (aka trust), then I think that will be superior.
Don't try to centralize (as with Backfence's "folders" into which life in Anytown can be put) because you are going "against" what users do. Jarvis, Riff raff.
The service I’ll pay attention to is the one that lets me find the riffs and reviews (and recipes and whatever else) that people put on their own blogs. That can be a search engine or an aggregator or both that gets people to swarm around tags so they know their stuff will be found.
Plus, there's what Billy says at his post about this post:
Backfence.com was the result of $100,000 in investor start-up capital. Only problem is: grassroots communities have to have rich soil, not rich investors to grow into something real, something tangible, something that feels like home, something like the Blogsboro community that hinges on Greensboro101.com.
The more I think about it, the more I realize what's bothering me about Backfence. It's not that the sites won't work; they may well work. It's all the talk of community, a word we Americans have just about tortured into meaninglessness. I don't think Backfence should be claiming anything about community. They're more like infrastructure awaiting human settlement. Which is not a bad thing to be. The sites can be active and useful public spaces, but even that's not community.
The warm and fuzzy "community" coating isn't helping them; it's hurting. That is not how Backfence can become a trusted provider because it's going to ring false.
I may be coming at this from a different direction. I work in the world of advertising and public relations, with a specialty in media companies (in general) and newspapers in particular. As you can imagine, I've been following the develompent of hyperlocal online journalism very closely.
Here are a few of the observations I have from both Liz's article, the resulting comments and my personal experience:
1) Successful media operations need to have a dual focus on two key customer groups - the people who consume their content and the people who advertise near that content in the hope that the first group of people will see and be interested in their proposition.
Effectively and agressively promoting the media enterprise in the market helps both areas of the business. Unfortunately, too many media companies (both traditional and online) focus on either producing content or selling ads, effectively ignoring the need for raising awareness and inviting customers to do business with them (either consume the media or buy ads).
If I were counselling a community-based, online media channel, I'd put a big emphasis on creating public visibility in the community. That doesn't mean going to Chamber meetings or sponsoring a Little League team. It means pushing content in front of people (in the real world as well as the virtual one) and actively encouraging editorial contributions by providing the resources, the standards, the system, the training and the "reward" for participation.
2) I don't think you can under-estimate the importance of Steve Otting's comments in his article: It's Almost Time To Pay Up For Citizen Journalists. Look, if more people wanted to write, they would have become writers. Writing for a newspaper or broadcast newscast isn't easy. Those people who do it well should be encouraged to continue doing it, even if that means you need to pay them.
Certainly with the technology available today, it's even possible to pay people based on the "stickiness" of their content. Popular writers (and the prolific) should earn more than those who contribute occassionally. I'm not even sure the "pay" has to be a full salary, but rather jsut significant enough that it makes the hassle of getting a story, making sure it's right and well-written worthwhile.
3) I'm afraid "Backfence" is a Web 1.0 solution in a Web 2.0 world. Generic and scalable will no longer trump relevant and personal. In fact, I disagree with the idea that "Backfence" is actually scaleable.
A scalable, citizen-journalist model would be Craig's List. It's a local site that expanded to an international scope of operation because the content modular and self-policed for quality (to a degree). Instead of paying these "journalists" up front, they received their compensation when someone acts on their post (e.g. they lease an apartment, go out for drinks, whatever). Content has to be accurate and relevant or the ad won't work and no compensation will be received.
The generic look to Craig's List works, too, because in that business, anonymity is a positive value. Not so with Backfence and a community-based, online source of news and information.
Backfence seems to be generic in the way it's put together so it will work in as many communities as possible. That's scalability feature number one.
The business model: using local citizens to write content and respond is also very similar to Craig's List. That's scalability feature number two.
But there's no obvious compensation for the writer. What's the incentive? And, more important, where's the editorial process to make sure this news content is fair (or at least accurate) and complete? That takes a live human - and that's not scalable.
4) Related to the point above is the need for any media entity to be focused on what they do and why they deserve to exist. Usually, when the upfront costs of starting the enterprise are akin to starting a new newspaper or changing formats on a radio station, there's some significant market research done to find out if the available/likely audience can sustain the enterprise.
In those cases, a lot more than $100,000 (or even $3,000,000) are at stake. You do the research to make sure people will support you - or to at least identify what needs to be done to get people to support you.
I suspect none of this was done with Backfence. I say that not because I don't have confidence in the company but because I know very few internet-based businesses that have either the cash or the interest to do the market research they really should.
Liz and her partner seem to have come across a successful formula that people are interested in. That may be due to the length of time they have lived and worked in their community - or any one of a dozen other factors. But the important thing to note is they know who they are and people are interested in them because of that.
For start-ups like Karl and others who have posted asking for advice, I think Barista and the other, more focused examples Liz has brought forward look like great examples to model.
Well, I stumbled on to this blog entry as I was working on my own blog (Much Ado About Marketing); I'm trying to write a post about the future of newspapers and will probably link this discussion to Friday's (12/2) postings.
Thanks for letting me look in on your discussion. Good luck everybody.
Brand Central Station
Mike Bawden makes a number of really good points, my favorite being:
1) Successful media operations need to have a dual focus on two key customer groups - the people who consume their content and the people who advertise near that content in the hope that the first group of people will see and be interested in their proposition.
There are a lot of problems with the local advertising market. One, not all communities have a lot of local mom & pop (or larger) businesses to approach. When I walk in my downtown, there are a lot more national chains than locally owned businesses. Those national chains can't be bothered to figure out how to advertise on small properties in each local area. (This, by the way, is a big driver for media consolidation -- papers are grouped together so that together they have the scale that makes it worth a national advertiser's time to negotiate a buy and tweak and submit ads, and then pay attention to how they do).
Google ads don't make up the slack -- when I look at the ads on my site, I sometimes wonder why anybody clicks on them -- they're very generic, mostly ads about real estate brokers that lead to big generic online listing sites.
In my opinion, the big missing piece is web geolocation -- that is, having a way to figure out where a particular website is produced in the old fashioned pin on a map way.
Maybe there would be more local advertisers in Google if Google could offer to advertisers the ability to have their ads show up only on sites "within 25 miles of X location." Right now, there's no way to do that. If there were, you could pull up a google map of your home, hit a button that says "blogs" and see a gazillion (or a few) points on the map representing bloggers that also happen to be geographic neighbors to you, and have consented to give some approximate information about their location. Then advertisers could have the choice of not advertising by keyword, but advertising by geography.
There's a lot to be done on local, but much of it is still being done manually. The eye-in-the-sky splendor that is Chicagocrime.org still requires a single programmer (in this case, Adrian Holovaty) to forcibly bring together two data sets -- a Google Map of chicago and crime data.
Remember the web before effective search? There were lots of pages put together manually with big lists of "web pages on XYZ subject." These essentially made the connection between a keyword and a set of web pages manually. And, of course, none of them were comprehensive (there is no USACrime.org, or WorldCrime.org) With bringing together the data set of pages on the web with geographical locations, we're still in that pre-automation state.
In the absence of effective ways for advertisers to reach local audiences via online advertisement services like Google ads, I suspect the business model for local sites (and, interestingly, podcasts) is going to look a lot more like public radio -- long term relationships with a somewhat smaller group of advertisers, and in some cases this will be supplemented by PayPal donations by readers taking the place of pledge drives.
There's a blog post waiting to be written about the rise, fall, and potential re-rise of GeoURL.
one other approach to linking buyer to seller geographically comes out of the idea of the municipal wi-fi cloud, because every node has a geographic location. on the dark side, this means a simple walk down the street could be turned into a spam assault by ad-bots that target my Blackberry. on the bright side, if i have my own intelligent agent representing my interests, the cloud would be reporting all sorts of useful information to me. On the paranoid side, well... let's just stipulate it.
but the thing is, I'm really starting to doubt that traditional advertising is the future of online journalism. most online ads are still broadcast model, just repurposed, Old School print-think. I'm not saying that we won't sell online advertising -- I'm just saying that the model may be bass-akward.
Newspapers and magazines make their money by serving the seller, which is why they are supposed to keep a "firewall" between their news and advertising departments, so that business interests don't affect news decisions (but of course they do). These days, a lot of print-people feel like their advertising clients have them by the short ones.
Not only that -- but this division leads to all sorts of strange contortions. Basic commerce -- buying, selling and trading -- constitutes one of the most essential functions of modern life. But we don't integrate it very well into news coverage because we're afraid of pissing off our advertisers. Consequently, we tend to treat these subjects as if they're only of interest to business executives.
My guess is that the successful model for networked media, including geographically local networked media, is going to serve the buyer instead of the seller. Amazon and eBay do this in the virtual world, but there are opportunities to do similar things that are based around geographic proximity. Build a marketplace so good that everyone goes to shop there and pretty soon everybody with something to sell will want to put their ads on it -- regardless of how their product got reviewed.
Plus, such a model unifies our mission as a medium. No more serving two masters and the accordant hidden agendas. We serve the reader, we serve the buyer, we serve the user. They're all the same person. In doing so, we're actually serving the seller, too... and enhancing our credibility all the way down to the foundation of our business.
The article by Liz and the great comments that have followed have made this posting a keeper and something I'll read over and over.
Based upon the stats listed above about Backfence, I think Backfence is doing fine after only seven months. It's still early for Backfence. Let's wait until their three-year anniversary and see where they are.
I started Toledo Talk in January 2003, and although it had some growth the first couple of years, it didn't really start to "take off" until this past February. Traffic has been on a steady increase throughout 2005. And "taking off" is relative, of course.
I believe local sites cannot be rushed. A site owner has to think long-term and give the site time, a least a couple of years before deciding whether or not it's worth continuing. The only advertising I did for Toledo Talk was back in the fall of 2003 when I took out a tiny ad for a few weeks in a weekly paper. The site has mainly relied on people finding it via their favorite search engine.
Anna Haynes asked, "what happens to the content, if they decide to shut it down? Actually, this would be a good question to ask any online community site provider."
Just last week, I brought up that very issue at Toledo Talk. I suggested that a group or a board be created to prevent me from shutting down the site on a whim.
Barry Parr said, "I've found my audience and I'm growing it organically, but I'm struggling with how to take Coastsider to the next level, getting more participation from the community, digging deeper into important issues, and covering neighboring communities with similar profiles."
I too have wrestled with similar issues. I had hoped Toledo Talk would be reporting and discussing news and events in southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio, but the focus is heavy on Toledo. Having the word "Toledo" in the site name may have been a mistake. I thought about that before launching the site. But since I felt most users would find the site via a result in a major search engine, I figured that having Toledo in the name might cause an area resident to click on the search result link.
One active poster at Toledo Talk is an area freelance writer who writes for one of our weeklies, and he also maintains a nice blog of citizen journalism-like postings. He uses his blog for additional info and updates to the stories he writes for the weekly paper the Toledo Free Press. I think we'll see more of this journalist/blogger crossover-type of writing. Site owners should reach out to journalists and try to get them involved in some way. The Toledo Free Press has gotten some story ideas from discussions at Toledo Talk.
At Toledo Talk, I'd like to see more people doing their own community reporting and posting the results at Toledo Talk. I try to lead by example by attending public meetings and posting what happened. The site has a long way to go before it grows into the citizen journalism site I'd like it to become. Too many discussions on national and international news stories occur at Toledo Talk. I prefer a local focus.
Right now, I sort of view Toledo Talk as MetaFilter.com at the local level, which is still good, in my opinion. The Nazis are planning a return visit to Toledo this Saturday, so that's a major discussion topic.
Anyway, the next thing I plan to start this week or next is a Wikipedia-like site also targeted at our local area. It will exist on the Toledo Talk server, so that those already with accounts at Toledo Talk will be able to log into the new site too. Over the past few months, I've developed my own blog/wiki combo app that I'll release as an open source project soon. I'll use this tool to build our Wikipedia-like knowledge base for the Lake Erie West region.
I found Holovaty's ChicagoCrime.org site back in August. After viewing it, I got inspired. Then a few weeks later, I added a couple Google maps mashups to Toledo Talk. One is based upon Lucas County registered sex offender data, and the other shows Toledo area WiFi hotspots. I have ideas for other Google maps utilities that could be useful to our area, but everything takes time.
Lots of patience and continually adding new services and features may help bring in more users to a local site. At times, the site takes up a lot of personal time. For me, it's a hobby, not a business. But it has grown into something I enjoy a lot. I make no money from Toledo Talk, and no plan exists to try to make money. I lose money with the site, but I consider it some kind of contribution to the community.
A community site owner has to have thick skin and a willingness to stick with the site. Early in the site's life, the owner should try to post nearly every day.
If you're not a computer programmer, make friends with one. If your're not a journalist, make friends with one.
Kilgore, I believe that's why people subscribe to a newspaper - the local news. We may read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. But that doesn't tell me what's going on in my town.
And as has been made abundantly clear in the 24/7 news world, anyone with access to an internet connection can find out what's going on in the world by tapping into any number of national and international news sources.
But who tells you what's going on in City Hall? Or down on the Courthouse Square? Or how the Baytown Ganders did Friday night?
There are something like 1,500 daily newspaper and 6,700 weeklies in the United States (according to the Newspaper Association of America) and most of those are small to medium-sized papers that concentrate on local news. The DC and world news is provided by wire services. The school boards, police news, local politics, etc. are local hires.
My question was just do local news blogs compete with the local press? The examples given here largely seem to provide short snippets of news with more emphasis on restaurant reviews, good shopping opportunities and personality featurettes. I don't mean this in a disparaging way. That serves a purpose and the information is concise and snappily written. I'm just now sure how much of it is news.
The Philly example given - a very nicely done one, much more informative than many I've seen - did provide more 'newsy' news. And most of it was by link to a newspaper website.
So again, I guess the question is: Do local blogs actually compete with local newspapers? Do they indeed bleed off readership? Which would tell us who's doing what to whom at City Hall?
And as Kilgore notes, there is another question out there: Just how much interest is there in local news among news consumers?
Recently, newspapers in Dallas and San Antonio both invested heavily in making the news more local - featuring outlying bureaus to focus on local politics and businesses and neighborhood features. They diverted staff and resources to beef up suburban reporting. It cost a lot of money and little came of it.
If I knew what it meant, I could retire and become a consultant.
Dave: Let me suggest one part of the explanation you seem to describe as missing. Did you ever hear TV news people say something like, "three minutes is an eternity in network television!" I've been listening to allegedly savvy statements like that one for years.
What does the word "eternity" mean in said context? It means when you have 22 minutes to sum up the world, and companies pay $70,000 for 30 seconds, a three minute report looms very large in the deliberations of those who are charged with producing the 22 minutes. We get that.
Meanwhile, suppose some television-watching Americans wanted to understand, such that they "got" it, why General Motors is in big trouble today. Would a three-minute explanation on Anderson Cooper's 360 really be an "eternity" for them, relative to what there is to know? Obviously not.
When newspapers have emphasized local news too often they have used "eternity" logic. If you double the Daily Beagle's education staff maybe it goes from three to six reporters. But there's 25 or more districts in the metro area. Even way more is not enough.
The Bugle, even with additional investment, cannot afford to provide mom and dad with news every day about their child's school district. No way. But what if the demand for "local" is a demand like that? Then it would be possible for the big city newspaper to accept "local-is-your-niche" logic, step up its efforts drastically, and still fall way short of what the demand is actually for.
I believe this happened to the Philadelphia Inquirer and its attempt to cover the suburbs. But Karl can perhaps tell us better.
The dim-witted but savvy tend to blame it on people's insincerity--they say they want local news, but do they really?--rather than go back and look at what the newsroom missed. The Jarvis warning is apt: local ain't easy. That means being dedicated to local news isn't easy either.
I don't claim this as the answer. But it is a factor involved. Three minutes is an eternity only for a few.
Picture two neighbors having beers out on the patio: Fred and Dan. Fred teaches English at the local high school, Dan works for GM.
Fred (settling into his lawn chair): Could you explain to me why GM is in such trouble?
Dan: Sure, but it will take an eternity.
Fred: Seriously, how long?
Dan: Three minutes.
It's a long way sometimes from the newsroom to the patio.
Now the first question: What is the news content of a local newsblog?
H2otown, the local newsblog/community site I run, has three components: the filter, the calendar, and the news.
If you looked on the site today, you'd find a bunch of items that pointed to local blogs, or articles in other publications (the filter) and event notices about upcoming performances, classes and the like (the calendar). If you looked at these and said, "But these aren't news," I'd agree with you.
If you scrolled a bit farther down, you'd see a story I did on our town's election recount, which happened last week. I went to the recount, watched, listened, talked to people, and wrote a story about it. The result looks and feels like a traditional newspaper story, and beat the local and regional dailies, who didn't publish until later.
I think there's an unasked question, which is, "Do you really expect a local or regional paper to cover the kind of minutiae you do?" and I think my answer is no. The filter, the calendar, and some of the offbeat items I do would never appear in a paper, but I think my readers value them because they capture a lot of what it feels like to live in Watertown today. It's this "local feel" that is sometimes (though thankfully not always) washed out of local papers that are increasingly not locally owned or even locally produced.
That said, The Boston Globe now has weekly columns rounding up items from local blogs. I'd love to know what the decision process was like -- were there people who said, "this is just fluff, we shouldn't be printing this, it should go for serious news?" There probably was. Were they right?
Newspapers have a limitation on space and money, and have to make decisions around that.
Jay Rosen asked: "In hyperlocal, do "community leaders" of the kind Yelvington describes have to be community members?"
I'd say yes to the leader needing to be a member of both the physical and virtual community. I think it helps build trust with other users if they know the web-based community leader lives in their community.
And being a web-based community manager or leader is more important than a programmer. Simple tools and interfaces help get people started, and that's obviously important. But dedicated users will work around a clunky web design or feature set. A good community leader creates dedicated users. Good software can be downloaded for free. It's probably a little harder to find a good community leader.
Maybe it's too much of a leap to have users do citizen journalism right away. Maybe it's better to start out as a discussion site that talks about the local news and events being reported on by the local media. Then over time, a few people get interested in posting their own stories, and that gets more people interested in going to a public meeting with a pen and notebook or carrying a camera to an event.
Many users at Toledo Talk have their own blog. Some started personal blogging after being a member at Toledo Talk. They got the bug. It's viral. I think it's only a matter of time before people start creating compelling, original content either on their own blog or on a community site. And some of that is already happening in Toledo, but it's still very small scale.
We learn from others. I don't think the process of citizen journalism can be forced upon people. It's organic. People will realize on their own that, "Hey, I can report on that issue myself." I say, give the concept and the users time.
Lisa Williams said: "jr, *tell me* you are going to go and take pictures."
I assume you're talking about this Saturday's Nazi love-fest in downtown Toledo. During their October visit, a riot broke out, so the law has set down some restrictions for this weekend's rally.
I'll be attending my step-daughter's swim meet, so I'll miss the glorious event. But local blogger/journalist historymike has been covering the NSM at Toledo Talk and on his blog for the past two months. And he's done it better than anyone else in the local media. In October, he had a photographer friend with him who took a bunch of pictures. He's my main source of info for the NSM in Toledo, and he'll be covering this Saturday's event. After the riot broke out in October, historymike managed to find a WiFi hotspot near the riot and blogged to say he was okay and to let us know what was happening.
As to local news, it's what I prefer most in our daily and weekly newspapers. I prefer to listen to our local radio talking heads than the national ones, and I like the local hosts' shows best when they are discussing local issues. I only watch the local TV news when there's a special local weather event going on. It's not that I don't care about the rest of the world. More options exists for national and international news. I can get the world news anywhere.
Local TV news is too inneficient for me. They pack five minutes of local news into a 30-minute time slot. And it seems they have way too many commercials. I wish a local TV news station would do nothing but local news. No sports, no weather, just coverage of local issues.
Great points made and issues raised above, y'all. But taking Lisa's "one subject at a time" approach:
" ...A good community leader creates dedicated users. ... harder to find a good community leader." and "...helps build trust with other users if they know the...leader lives in their community."
Steve Outing says:
"...I tend to think that personality is important on local citJ sites like this. I'm skeptical that just setting up an infrastructure and hoping people will populate it with content will work."
I think Steve's headed toward jr's position on this - it's not personality so much as character and willingness/aptitude for taking on the responsibilities of stewardship.
And a lot of it is about trust and integrity.
As a would-be cit-j contributor, all pajamaed(?) up with nowhere satisfactory to go, I have a certain perspective on all this: I think the cit-j-chain view of potential contributors as driven by a desire for self-expression and publicity is off the mark.
I don't want to write to be seen, I want to write to serve. I don't want to serve someone's business model, I want to serve my community. I don't want to 'feel' like I'm serving my community, I want the service to be real, and I don't want any significant part of its value to be wasted through poor organization/structure or shortsighted or incompetent management.
And I don't want to be used as window dressing by an organization that claims to be serving (and encourages transparency elsewhere) but doesn't walk the walk.
In short (and to overgeneralize wildly) -
For the practitioners, citizen journalism is primarily an investment, not an entertainment; if the investment's inherently ineffective or managed in a way that makes it so (or that makes it part of an ineffective or even harmful whole), they might as well just go on vacation instead.
As for what counts as "community service" -
You can rationalize that any 'participation-oriented' site is serving its community by giving people a place to talk. But that's not enough for me to want to contribute, since by that accounting the site is serving me, not vice versa (and to accrue 'service' points in both directions smells like feel-good thinking or shady accounting)
For me, a true "community service" site informs its users, and tries to maximize that, and can be trusted to continue with this goal. This entails having standards, and having able, known and trusted (and green-thumbed) gardeners, to grow (and maximize value of) the contributions and to protect the site from degenerating into a disinformation slagheap.
> "writing about products and businesses from the reader’s perspective is a great way to irritate advertisers."
Further reading, with examples: The Broken Wall: newspaper coverage of its advertisers (1999) and, on the PR 'iceberg' filling the news hole, Paul Graham's The Submarine (Apr 2005).
> "The language of the newsroom is terrible for hard headed analysis because it was made for another purpose: establishing the basic innocence of the inhabitants. Common practices that are not "always already upstanding" get misdescribed. When it's time to change them the old descriptions makes that impossible."
"misdescription" examples? (Sorry, I know if you've told us once you've told us a million times, but a few memory-jogging examples would make it more concrete)
> "Firewalls suck, but they're the best you can do when you serve two masters."
Yes. Like democracy: the worst form of government, except for all the others.
> "H2otown... has three components: the filter, the calendar, and the news."
Nice summary Lisa. Old-style thinking doesn't grasp the importance of the "filter"; thus its presence/absence is telling.
When the web was just coming into its own, Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox (web usability essays) site was invaluable because rather than try to explain to someone for the 87th time why design feature X was bad, you could just give them the link and say "go read Jakob Nielsen on this". Because he got it.
Wonder if there's a "here's how to do it right" locus like that for designing/running community sites... (in which case, "why provide the filter" should be on it)
(I'm interpreting Lisa's usage of 'filter' as "find and link to relevant stuff online" ('filter the web') rather than "sit back and pick and choose among those items that people submit to you" ('filter the submissions'); though I suppose both are needed)
> "Why so much talk among newstypes about blogs, then?
The main question in that discussion is, "What kind of relationship are you willing to have with your readers?" Blogs offer a different vision of community engagement than a traditional newspaper does.
...Limiting contributions to the paper to professional reporters and corralling readers in the Letters section requires the least amount of work."
What's the term for "that's it in a nutshell, well done"?
(I think on Metafilter it's "." but that's a bit cryptic)