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Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

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Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

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Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

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Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

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Group Blogs

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Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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November 30, 2005

Guest Writer Liz George of Baristanet Reviews 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, and a member of the founding team of the @Home Network. DeFife was CEO and founder of, 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

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 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   Print


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?

Posted by: Daniel Conover at November 30, 2005 10:26 PM | Permalink

Woot! Hi Liz! Okay, now that I've responded to my excitement over having this piece appear, I'll read it and come back for more conversation.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at November 30, 2005 11:44 PM | Permalink

The Backfence experiment seems to show that it's important to have a voice in the community you cover -- a hook that can generate online momentum.

When you're starting from zero presence in your community, relying on that community to build its own momentum seems risky.

Posted by: Joe Murphy at December 1, 2005 12:01 AM | Permalink

It is true that the BackFence people are better than we are at writing business plans, but that doesn't mean their business model is better. Certainly their product isn't. And it's not true that a "generic, non-threatening tone" is a recipe for success, or what the media marketplace is waiting for. Generic, non-threatening is exactly what everybody gets in their boring, weekly local paper, and what everybody hates.

And we're not just a community website. We're a small but profitable business. Our site is bursting with advertisements; we are in the process of revamping our platform in order to accommodate all the new advertisers that want a space.

On a small budget, we've shown that small-town readers are ready for "heart and soul and wit and credibility." They're ready for a Jon Stewart sensibility in their own back yard. We think the concept has legs. Give us $3 million and we'll prove it.

Posted by: Debbie Galant at December 1, 2005 12:57 AM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 1, 2005 3:57 AM | Permalink

Great piece Liz. Lots to think about. Yahoo local itself is morphing to include many of Backfence's features. I think Lisa kinda nails a big question for me - since I don't as yet - have a business plan - just a service I provide - 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 think maybe the question isn't whether it should be a 'better investment' but 'still be an investment'. Advertisers typically go across publications and Baristanet differentiates itself with personality and a sense of community.

Speaking of which - Debbie and Liz - can you help me? I have no idea how to get from where I am at - to where you are at - which is the next step I think.

Posted by: Karl at December 1, 2005 7:14 AM | Permalink


I'm sorry I was unclear. I'm not saying that your business isn't profitable (the photographer's quote: "Omigawd, look at all the ADS!") or that generic and non-threatening would be an improvement. Not at all. I'm speculating on why Backfence got so much venture capital juice and musing on why investors seem to want online ventures that come pre-infected with corporate media-itis.

I think sites like yours will be successful, each one earning several people a nice, healthy living. I think you're an example of jobs that many of us will hold in the next decade.

But that's not how you get rich, and that's what most investors are looking to do. The big profits come when you can replicate a success via formula. And how can you package and replicate a plan that includes the instructions "find people like Debbie and Liz in every city, town and suburb; give them money; treat them well enough that they don't take their audience and start another site; wait"?

If I had to bet on it, I'd bet that the person who will get rich off of online community journalism is the person who creates the integrated "killer ap" for sites like yours -- a "Baristanet in a Box" for startup entrepreneurs in other towns. Maybe a content management system that integrates your business side and your ad/commerce side and your journalism side and your web side easily, effectively and affordably. Whoever does that makes her money upfront whether each individual startup succeeds or fails. And many won't make it, based on the community and the abilities of the people running it.

You need an investor who groks this new medium, who understands that 20 percent profit margins probably aren't automatic in media anymore. I would imagine that your business issue isn't quality or profitability, but scale. That said, I have no doubt you'll get there.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at December 1, 2005 8:52 AM | Permalink

Daniel, I think you've just described the Metroblogging and Gothamist business models.

Each of which have great sites in the Philadelphia area: and

These sites are, from an observer's point of view "Baristanet in a Box".

Question for - Debbie, Lisa, Liz - if one of these sites opened in your towns, Debbie, Lisa, Liz, how do you think you would compare?

Philly Future, in addition to focusing on new original content on the site, has the added distributed journalism dimension of its aggregator, so I don't feel as if they are a competitor, but add value to what we do (we include their feeds on our site - actually sending users their way).

Posted by: Karl at December 1, 2005 9:21 AM | Permalink

Boy that question sounded more like a challenge upon re-reading it. I don't mean it that way. But folks did ask us how we would respond with Phillyist launching in our area. We welcomed them. So did another terrific indie magazine/blog effort called Philebirty, they even placed an ad on Phillyist's site when it launched welcoming them! But from a distance, they are very much competitors for advertisers and participants.

I'm serious Debbie and Liz - I figure the next step in Philly Future's evolution is to evolve into a self-sustaining effort - and how you have done that with local advertising - I feel - is logical route to take. I would welcome your help.

Posted by: Karl at December 1, 2005 9:43 AM | Permalink

As the founders of Backfence, we are longtime fans of the work that Liz and Debbie have done with Baristanet. It is a pleasure and honor to be among the early group of pioneers trying to bring communities together through the local news and information that matters most to people. We have watched and cheered as Baristanet has gone from the kitchen table to a successful community voice.

While we differ in how we believe these hyperlocal communities will thrive, we very much appreciate the debate and know that we embrace the differences in our philosophies as we all have the same end goal -- to better the local communities in which we live.

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. We are in our communities every day doing that. This is reflected in the hundreds of people who have signed up and are contributing content to the sites. It also shows in the enthusiastic reaction we've gotten from the local community, as evidenced by the 12,000-plus unique visitors to the three Backfence sites in November. These users spent an average of 11 minutes on the site each visit reading about their communities.

Backfence is not a substitute for the well-established, reported, edited media. Rather, it is a gathering place for the community to share information that is not covered anywhere else.

Like the 18-month-old Baristanet, we know it takes time and patience to build these communities but we have been very pleased by the trends we have seen over the past seven months, trends that we know are similar to the other sites like Baristanet and WestportNow in the early going.

We will continue to cheer Liz and Debbie's efforts and those of our compatriots in this experiment.

Susan DeFife and Mark Potts

Posted by: Susan DeFife and Mark Potts at December 1, 2005 10:30 AM | Permalink

Susan and Mark, how do you feel about Yahoo! local's entry in all this? I realize they are still in the early stages at putting together something as comprehensive as yours.

We work in a similar manner as Backfence - participants in the site are who provide its content. Editors functions are to monitor, highlight, pull together, contribute where things need a push - and moderate when neccessary. We're probably going to integrate craigslist/slashdot style community moderation to remove editors from that duty - or at least diminish it.

Posted by: Karl at December 1, 2005 11:34 AM | Permalink

There is a huge gulf between the handcrafted sites like BaristaNet and H20town and top-down, corporate sites like Backfence. The first are doing "citizen journalism", the second seem to lack both citizenship and journalism. But I'm not convinced that the corporate sites won't find their audience.

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. The challenge is that the model doesn't scale very well, to put it in VC-speak. If Barry doesn't have time to do something, it doesn't get done. But that's the challenge facing any small business.

Top-down sites have some big advantages in resources and scalability, and they can nourish thriving online communities. Yahoo Groups does this very well. It's possible that the citizens will take over one of these sites and make it habitable.

But it hasn't happened yet.

Posted by: Barry Parr at December 1, 2005 1:54 PM | Permalink

Karl: we'd be happy to talk with you. You know where to find us. Mark & Susan: Thanks for your graciousness and kind words about Baristanet. Daniel: I understand what you meant the first time around, and you bring up some good points. Although the "Liz and Debbie" clone idea is both flattering and intriguing, it's not altogether necessary. More and more people want to write for us because Baristanet has become a place to be and a place to get read. By creating a vibe where people want to be read, we are able to motivate the citizen journalists to do a large part of the work themselves. Creating that sense of place, a hot spot if you will, is what has brought the users and kept them coming back for more. We provide something people want and that people want to be part of -- and that kind of excitement can translate from community to community. But enough about us. I think it's interesting to look at Judy's Book, who along with Backfence, recently came into funds. Although I don't know Judy, I'm intrigued by her. She sounds like fun. Whether the site will be successful is another story. But at least, she's got my attention.

Posted by: Liz George at December 1, 2005 1:59 PM | Permalink

I'll definately email :) Thanks :)

What of my questions about Metroblogging and Gothamist however? What do you think of those sites and what they are doing in their communities? Metroblogging, in particular, has launched over twenty efforts across the world. Their New Orleans site, in particular, distinguished itself during Katrina.

Posted by: Karl at December 1, 2005 2:38 PM | Permalink

Apologies if I asked some bad questions. I'm starting to feel like I'm a conversation killer.

I think I saw a tumbleweed blow by.

Posted by: Karl at December 1, 2005 5:36 PM | Permalink

I think Karl's question (and you can correct me if I 've erred) is about how you have gone about getting local advertisers. How did it work early on? Did a reader with a local business approach you? Did you approach people you knew in town? Do you have an actual rate card?

At H2otown, I have Google ads, which pay for the site's operations and my Starbucks tab. One of my options for the future is to work on developing relationships with local advertisers.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 1, 2005 6:02 PM | Permalink

Karl, I have a question for you about the local aggregator. I use a lot of search-driven feeds, and they're useful to me but they come with a lot of spam. Also, a few of the local bloggers post material that, frankly I enjoy reading but might really freak out some of my readers. How do you approach your aggregator and what's in it?

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 1, 2005 6:04 PM | Permalink

Oh, and what about audio and video? I know people have sent in photos, but a lot of those mini digicams take video now too -- has anyone sent any in? Or do you have any inkling that podcasting and web video are in the future for your own sites or others that you read?

And what general media sites and citizen journalism sites do you visit regularly?

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 1, 2005 6:08 PM | Permalink

As one who has compiled the largest list to date of Local Online Aggregators, I looked long and hard at Backfence and found it to be severly lacking in a couple of areas 1. Bloggers who post there are tied to the blogging platform provided by Backfence-- all others are excluded, and 2. Unlike Greensboro101, Backfence doesn't appear to have a way to share its revenue with those who provide it with content like Greensboro101 does through its Altmedia101">">Altmedia101 network from which I've already received several monthly checks.

Building community is fine. As a matter of fact, building community is what caused the Los Angeles Times to rename my hometown-- Blogsboro (Guess who quickly snapped-up the domain but I have to wonder about those who "build community" but never share the wealth. Somehow, that looks just like old journalism to me.

Posted by: Billy The Blogging Poet at December 1, 2005 6:56 PM | Permalink

From the new, quite in-depth, and mostly but not entirely dismissive profile of Craig Newmark and "citizen journalism" in SF Weekly: "Craig$," they call it. Here's how his site "happened." The contrast with Backfence is telling us something:

In 1993, after 17 years as an IBM programmer on the East Coast and in the Southeast and Midwest, Newmark decided it was time for a change. He fled to the Bay Area and began a job working on Charles Schwab's computer architecture. Two years later, he started an e-mail list to alert friends to local events. As subscriber numbers grew, people started sending in apartment and job listings, so Newmark created to display their posts. When Buckmaster joined the company in 2000, Craigslist was still based in Newmark's Cole Valley flat, but the site attracted hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors. In the meantime, to keep pace with costs, Craigslist began charging a small fee to businesses that posted job listings, and incorporated as a for-profit.

During the dot-com bubble, thousands of start-ups that originated as free sites (including Yahoo!, eBay, and Google) monetized their services on the way to multimillion-dollar public offerings. Newmark didn't. First implicitly, and later deliberately, with the help of community input, he made decisions that undoubtedly left millions of dollars on the table. He pledged to keep the site as free as possible for users and refused to accept advertising. Newmark was two decades older than most of the bubble-era wunderkinds; he knew that taking venture capital funding meant giving up control of the site, so he rejected investment offers.

...Newmark never expected any of this: millions of people typing his name into their Web browser, millions of dollars pouring into a site he launched on a whim, his creation having a significant effect on the media. "Everything about Craigslist," he says, "is an unintended consequence.

When you go out and "intend" consequences like community aren't you asking for trouble? Isn't the unintended pattern of growth--in which "the critical mass" comes first, and so people start sending in apartment listings--part of the reason there could be such growth?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 1, 2005 7:28 PM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: JennyD at December 1, 2005 9:12 PM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Karl at December 1, 2005 11:24 PM | Permalink

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: 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

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.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 2, 2005 12:34 AM | Permalink

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.

Mike Bawden
Brand Central Station

Posted by: Mike Bawden at December 2, 2005 1:11 AM | Permalink

OK Professor Rosen now that you brought someone in to take on Backfence are you going to have someone review Bayosphere? It was started at the same time.

Posted by: Boomer at December 2, 2005 1:15 AM | Permalink

Perhaps. Is there something interesting, different going down there?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 2, 2005 1:40 AM | Permalink

Unfortunately other than the extremely worthy Dan Gillmor, nothing much is going on at Bayosphere. Take a quick glance at the home page.

Since Dan wrote the book on citizen journalism I would like to know what he thinks is not working and what might be done. Is it as simple as paying citizen journalists as OhMyNews does in a minor way and as Steve Outing has recently suggested?


Posted by: Boomer at December 2, 2005 1:59 AM | Permalink

I follow the site. I haven't seen any roll out or extension lately. Dan's blog is, of course, on my list.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 2, 2005 2:18 AM | Permalink

hmmm. "infrastructure awaiting human settlement" also = and the original geocities project (pre-Yahoo). different approaches to community.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at December 2, 2005 9:54 AM | Permalink

It's good to have a long memory Daniel :) Also eGroups (pre-Yahoo).

Thanks for the feedback Mike. I think the folks in Greensboro might have a model with their ad network. It would be great to hear more about it. In fact - I'd love someone involved to be the next guest writer here. Financial models to support distributed journalism are cutting edge right now and their effort, along with Blogads, show a lot of promise.

And Jay, I wish I could write as well as you to describe what we do. Thank you. We do create original content on Philly Future, but it exists largely to help focus and bring together all the great voices in our area.

Pajamas Media, the more I look, appears to be something similar. Less bottom up and more structured. Will be interesting to watch.

Posted by: Karl at December 2, 2005 10:18 AM | Permalink

Very interesting discussion. I poked around Backfence yesterday after seeing their job posting. I agree 100% with folks who are comparing it unfavorably to the gothamist sites. My reaction was that here in DC, at least, DCist is already doing this kind of journalism, and doing it much better. I also agree with the sterility / corporate comments - it's WAY too AOL-ish for my taste.

Posted by: Maria at December 2, 2005 10:23 AM | Permalink

Just looked at Backfence again and the AOL comparison seems apt not only in the bland, corporate feel of the site, but also in how they're trying to make this a closed community. Why upload photos here instead of flickr, for example, where I retain control and already have an account? The 'Web 1.0 solution in a Web 2.0 world' comment above seems right on.

Posted by: Maria at December 2, 2005 10:41 AM | Permalink

> how they're trying to make this a closed community

amen. Another question to ask: what happens to the content, if they decide to shut it down?

(The local newspaper where I live deleted their first weblog along with the associated discussion/comments, which means that all the time & energy the citizen participants put into it has gone down the drain)

Actually, this would be a good question to ask any online community site provider.

Posted by: Anna Haynes at December 2, 2005 1:11 PM | Permalink

and an interesting conundrum -

I want to say "here's what strikes me as wrong about the Backfence site/approach" but then I think "If I point out specific examples, that'll just enable the designers to better mask their product to appear to be a genuine community site" - which would be an undesirable outcome.

Posted by: Anna Haynes at December 2, 2005 1:21 PM | Permalink

A friend just showed me the Laura Penny book (Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit), and it occurs to me that perhaps we're talking around the edges of an this is an under-appreciated aspect of blogging culture: That many of us simply start with the base assumption that anything published by one of our established institutions (MSM, government, corporations) is going to be bullshit, pure and simple.

A blog might be bullshit, but because it's a personal expression, we're willing to loan it a temporary benefit of the doubt. Experience teaches we'll be able to suss it out pretty quickly.

Which is why I'm thinking, in response to Anna's comment, that maybe it just doesn't matter if we give corporate types good ideas about how to build authenticity into their local media startups. Anybody who blogs reveals themselves over time, no matter what their subject. Our quirks and gifts and flaws become known to each other. In such a culture, maybe it's the lack of foible that hurts your credibility.

Editing removes these blemishes, but the result is an airbrushed centerfold girl. Superficially attractive, maybe, but it's obviously not real. So I'll just stipulate the amateur porn analogy and conclude: Fake authenticity may work in mass media, but maybe it's inheriently suspect in networked media.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at December 2, 2005 1:59 PM | Permalink

Uh huh....

We have to break down the tired formulas of television news and find a more authentic way of writing, speaking, and interacting with the people and subjects we report on. Artificial inflections and vocabulary (Pontiff instead of Pope, blaze instead of fire), predictable sound-bites, often-generic video, and stick-figure caricatures of human beings (victim, bureaucrat, cop, businessman, soccer mom) have turned the worst of television news into a kind of newzak— in one ear and out the other.

-- Andrew Heyward, ex-President of CBS News, at PressThink.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 2, 2005 2:18 PM | Permalink

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 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, or 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.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 3, 2005 2:55 AM | Permalink

For example, even if a local business in my town were to advertise on Google, they probably wouldn't use the keyword "Watertown," because there are tons of towns named Watertown in the US, and a number of them -- like Watertown NY, Watertown CT, and Watertown SD -- are a lot bigger than us. Even if they did keyword ads, it might not work.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 3, 2005 2:58 AM | Permalink

And Billy, what a cool list! Thanks for putting it together. Do talk more about the 101 sites.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 3, 2005 3:00 AM | Permalink

Lisa - wow. I've long thought GeoURL is special (we link our site to it), but I didn't quite visualize just how much. You are absolutely right. I wonder if the Blogads folks are working on this idea?

Posted by: Karl at December 3, 2005 3:39 PM | Permalink

I dunno -- I've met Henry Copeland who runs Blogads, he's a great guy -- but I haven't talked to him recently.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 3, 2005 5:19 PM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at December 3, 2005 6:54 PM | Permalink


Thanks for the hat tip for Pegasus News. Given that it's been a year since Jay wrote about us here, I'm pleasantly surprised that anyone remembers us.

I think we're doing something different from citizens/hyperlocal -- our new term is "panlocal" -- that requires staff that we're not able to build yet. We hope to solve that over the next few months.

So, in the meantime, later this month we'll be launching a local music site that incorporates a lot of the hybrid professional/citizens stuff we've been talking about all this time.

Like Backfence, we're starting from a business plan. And although I'm not inside Mark and Susan's heads, I can almost guarantee you that this is a labor of love for them, the same as it is for me and my (unpaid) team of twenty-five, the same as it is for the tiniest one-person neighborhood blog.

We're all trying bery different things, but with similar goals -- and doing it as a commercial enterprise certainly puts you under more scrutiny in your infancy.

Posted by: Mike Orren at December 4, 2005 1:30 PM | Permalink

Panlocal is a neat term.

What would be killer is if you created a way for site owners to self-identify by geography -- and leave those tags open on their site to anybody -- including you. Who knows what kind of services would emerge? And whatever happened, you'd be first.

Without some sort of tagging to let people say, "Hey, I'm over here!!" building a set of feeds around a particular geography is still a painstaking manual process. To use a bizphrase mentioned in this thread previously, "it doesn't scale." But it's a soluble problem, somebody just needs to commit to solving it.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 5, 2005 12:39 AM | Permalink

(Oh, and it was Liz that pointed to Pegasus, not me!)

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 5, 2005 12:41 AM | Permalink

Mike: I certainly agree with you that Backfence is a labor of love for the founders--who are dedicated, experienced and smart--in addition to a business. That's true of most start-ups, or at least seriously intended ones.

Labors of love need criticism too. By reviewing Backfence, we're assigning a certain importance to its efforts. I'm quite sure Mark and Susan understand that.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 5, 2005 2:03 AM | Permalink

1. Sorry Liz! I knew you wrote the piece. Sunday afternoon dyslexia.

2. Lisa: I agree that the tagging thing is cool. One small way we're trying that is by starting a flickr tag "pegasusnews" for folks who want to submit photos. Tagging is another whole conversation-- my take is that it's a great enhancement, but until someone conceives a standard, you can't really count on it to run a media service.

3. Jay: I'm sure Mark and Susan don't mind the criticism, as I won't when we finally launch. I was referring more to a vibe I was picking up from the comment thread here suggesting that business-plan-driven models are somehow less pure/valid/interesting than organic ones. They're different to be sure, but as an entrepreneur who leapt without a net, I'm a little hypersensitive on that particular issue.

Posted by: Mike Orren at December 5, 2005 6:40 AM | Permalink

Liz, I have a question: how do the local newspapers react or deal with your presence? I think Montclair/Glen Ridge has a weekly newspaper, and I know the Star-Ledger is the big paper. How do they react to you? Do they pick up your stories, ignore you, write about you? Do you think Baristanet is affecting their circulation or influence?



Posted by: JennyD at December 5, 2005 10:59 AM | Permalink

Re: staff that we're not able to build yet

I've been thinking about this lately a lot too. In the grand web 2.0 spirit of Mashups, why not mix Amazon's Mechanical Turk with Citizen J tasks (moderation, posting content, filling calendar dbases with events, etc.)

Amazon will have to add things so publishers could keep the 'turkers' local and genuine, but I think it could work. It might be a nice, easy way to pay for content on a small scale.

I'm trying to contact someone inside the vast corp known as Amazon to see if they might be interested in the idea. They're still in Beta, but I think it would be a good match maybe. As a publisher, for example, I could pay a penny or two for 5,000 or more 'moderations' on my site - people reading comments and rating them for noise/signal quality.

Things are getting even more interesting if that's possible. Pieces are starting to fall together.

Posted by: kpaul at December 5, 2005 11:11 AM | Permalink

Liz, I have a question: how do the local newspapers react or deal with your presence? I think Montclair/Glen Ridge has a weekly newspaper, and I know the Star-Ledger is the big paper. How do they react to you? Do they pick up your stories, ignore you, write about you? Do you think Baristanet is affecting their circulation or influence?

In at least two cases that come to mind, the Star Ledger has taken our post as a seed and then come out with a story. It's always flattering when they do. In the case of the Montclair Times, we see the stories we do often a few days later, but that's in most cases due to the time factor. I think the Ledger keeps closer tabs than the Montclair Times (and we have a more playful relationship with them), but neither paper mentions us or our coverage (and that may be by design). Where we have been mentioned is in the New York Times, who included quotes from our readers/commenters in an article they did about developers in our area. Can't say about circulation, but as far as advertising, we are attracting many of the same advertisers that would advertise in the Montclair Times and The Ledger-- people who can afford to pay newspaper ad rates.

Posted by: Liz George at December 5, 2005 2:57 PM | Permalink

... but neither paper mentions us or our coverage (and that may be by design).

Personally, I think it is. At least for my site. The thing is, I think by ignoring us now, they're actually doing long term harm to their 'online cred.' That is, I think it will work to our advantage in the end when the citizens find out about our sites and question why their 'old news source' didn't fill them in.

Competition is good for the citizens, good for the country.

Posted by: kpaul at December 5, 2005 3:24 PM | Permalink

Orren: I was referring more to a vibe I was picking up from the comment thread here suggesting that business-plan-driven models are somehow less pure/valid/interesting than organic ones.

To switch the vibe, we can call it the Han Solo approach. He was all about money, but he was still cool. ;)

Also, Gillmor's 'Grassroots' has been on my mind a lot lately too. Can you replicate a grassroots experience from place to place or does it just have to happen?

If there's one thing we want from old media, (and there are quite a few), it's the gatekeeper/editor role, imho. At least to an extent.

I guess it's going to come down to who finds the right mix first.

I truly hope we all succeed. ;)

Posted by: kpaul at December 5, 2005 7:08 PM | Permalink

I have to ask the question: What exactly competition do these blogs - Baristanet, etc. - offer to the local newspapers?

I don't mean this to be flippant, but I don't see a lot of news there. I see small, easily digestible chunks of text that, in the Dec. 5 edition of Baristanet, talk about Christmasy scenes, what's available in a handcrafted arts shop and such. And a couple of items refer to the websites of the local newspaper. But news? I learn nothing about what's going on politically, at the Courthouse, the schools, the police and the traditional sources of news and reporting.

I'm not suggesting the blogs should be the New York Times, nor have I seen the local newspapers. You may indeed be doing a better job of reporting the community than they do. I just don't see a lot of there there.

How am I wrong?

Posted by: Dave McLemore at December 5, 2005 7:35 PM | Permalink

> Labors of love need criticism too.

Nonetheless I'd like to apologize for my criticism above, which was excessively harsh - it carries the baggage of some historical frustration with "community" sites run by "business"-focused people.

> > but neither paper mentions us or our coverage (and that may be by design).

> What exactly competition do these blogs - Baristanet, etc. - offer to the local newspapers?

If you're running a business, you don't publicize the competition, no matter how small their market share.

And if your business is informing the public, you face some major cognitive dissonance as a result...

Posted by: Anna Haynes at December 5, 2005 10:58 PM | Permalink

p.s. the "credit the competition?" issue is being discussed in Greensboro.

Posted by: Anna Haynes at December 5, 2005 11:09 PM | Permalink

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 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 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.

Posted by: jr at December 6, 2005 3:11 AM | Permalink

"what's going on politically, at the Courthouse, the schools, the police and the traditional sources of news and reporting."

In Philly check out:

Posted by: Karl at December 6, 2005 6:56 AM | Permalink

The metanews site just announced it is branching out from tech focus into general news categories. Google News, Yahoo!News et al already offer broad selections of general news.

With general news, long the backfill of local newspapers, well covered online already, I've wondered for some time whether "local" alone is enough of a differentiator for a content site. Nowadays, is the news appetite locally focused enough to get an adequate audience, let alone a group that actively participates and shares?

Posted by: Jay Small at December 6, 2005 7:40 AM | Permalink

Wow-- great report about Toldeo Talk, jr. Thanks. "Early in the site's life, the owner should try to post nearly every day." This seems to be universal advice.

Steve Yelvington, creator of Bluffton Today, wrote in reaction to Liz's post:

Backfence is hiring a community manager. If you're thinking about launching a participative site, a community manager is more important than than a web designer, a coder, or a whole ad sales staff. It's a "your host" role with very high demands on leadership and social interaction skills, and it will determine your future.

I do have a dog in this hunt, of course, and a couple more dogs in the kennel ready to be let out, and I too am on the lookout for talented community leaders.

Q. In hyperlocal, do "community leaders" of the kind Yelvington describes have to be community members?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 6, 2005 8:28 AM | Permalink


I disagree that a smart business won't plug the competition. We believe that increasingly folks don't care who reported the news (beyond certain basic standards of accuracy), and that they shouldn't have to go all over hell and creation to find it.

Smart media outlets will link to their competitor's story, heave a sigh of relief that it's been covered (if it was done well), and then plot what un-reported story they can put their staffers onto.

Reporting and distribution are unquestionably being rended -- your view of the pace of that will dictate your strategy.

Posted by: Mike Orren at December 6, 2005 9:17 AM | Permalink

Jay - I think so. I also think that's why you're seeing so many *separate* attempts at launching hyperlocal sites - because to run one well - it requires intimate knowledge of the subject matter - your town.

Does anyone here remember Microsoft Sidewalk and its early attempt at attacking the newspaper biz? And why it failed?

Communities grounded in place require intimate knowledge and roots in that place. Lisa, Debbie, and Liz are so great at what they do because they know not only know their towns – they know the tone of them. Their feel.

I gotta say - this is another compliment to the Metroblogging, Gothamist folks. They seem to know this and work on this assumption.

Newspapers still have this moreso than anyone else. They just aren't translating it fast enough to the ethos of the web and we are filling a vacuum.

If (home of the Inquirer and Daily News) decided to do what I do – well I'm not sure I would exist for long, but Metroblogging, Gothamist, H2OTown, Barista, they would roll on.

Posted by: Karl at December 6, 2005 11:36 AM | Permalink

Agreed Mike :) We not only link to our competitors - but we bring in their RSS feeds and highlight their stories in our aggregator!

Pegasus News, btw, is fascinating. I'm sorry I don't think of it that much because I am so focussed on what's going on around here - but from afar - what you folks talk about and what we talk about in many ways seem along the same lines.

Posted by: Karl at December 6, 2005 11:41 AM | Permalink

All the local newsblogging stars meet at PressThink. I thought you knew that:)

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 6, 2005 12:39 PM | Permalink

I have a question for Jay Small(and anyone else with knowledge and/or opinions). His family owns my local newspaper, and Jay asks" the news appetite locally focused enough to get an adequate audience...?"

Contrast this with an article featured on yesterday's Romenesko in the Dallas Business Journal, which states: "Daily newspapers fail to focus on what they're good at---local news---".

Both JennyD and McLemore asked if Barista, Backfence, etc. were eroding the readership of newspapers. The implication seems to be that since local newspapers are lacking in local news, Barista, etal rush in to fill the void. Others say the "appetite" isn't there to begin with. My personal inclination is to go with the "local newspapers should focus on local news" crowd. But I'm just a news consumer, not an insider.

Here's the Dallas Business Journal article for those who haven't seen it.

Posted by: kilgore trout at December 6, 2005 2:04 PM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Dave McLemore at December 6, 2005 2:59 PM | Permalink

Oh, and Kilgore, I think the point made in the Dallas Business Journal piece is that print media are trying to capture younger readers snazzy, non-jump stories about Jennifer and Brad, instead of local news.

They're trying to be People Magazine. And People does it much better.

Posted by: Dave McLemore at December 6, 2005 3:03 PM | Permalink

Sure McLemore, that was part of the article, but this is the quote that grabbed me: "But too many of the (Dallas) Morning News' content---and that of other dailies---drives readers mocking community standards that most of it's customers hold dear." I believe the point is newspapers shouldn't try to be NYTimes wannabes if they are publishing in Orem, Utah. In other words, have sensitivity to community standards of your locale. It frankly astounds me that any business, craft, profession or enterprise in the capitalistic USA needs to be told not to mock, deride or marginalize its customers/clients.

Posted by: kilgore trout at December 6, 2005 3:28 PM | Permalink

I blame it on focus groups, Kilgore.

They tell publishers they want to see more glib and entertaining reporting. None of those long stories, thank you about war, pestilence and public corruption. Unfortunately, very few people can do that well.

I'm not sure exactly what constitutes mocking local values. Too much news about minorities or the poor? Too often that a translation for "I don't want to know about THAT."

Should you not report on liberals to a politically conservative community? Or different cultures and different beliefs. Should you not report on liberals to a politically conservative community? Or is it a question of a surfeit of the glib and the faux sophisticate?

Newspapers all too often to fail to take an interest in the readers' interest, rather than what someone tells them the reader wants.

As I said, if I understood it, I'd be rich.

Posted by: Dave McLemore at December 6, 2005 4:00 PM | Permalink

jr, *tell me* you are going to go and take pictures.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 6, 2005 4:01 PM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 7, 2005 12:53 AM | Permalink

Here's the information I'm attempting to reconcile:

1. Liz George: Backfence may wind up creating more ghost towns.

2. Jay Small on 12/06/05 @7:40a.m.: I've wondered for some time whether "local" alone is enough of a differentiator for a content site.

3. Dallas Business Journal: Daily newspapers fail to focus on what they're good at---local news...

My question is what drives Backfence type sites (I'm using Backfence generically here)? Do they fill a void in the local news coverage? Do they fail because no one cares about local news? Were they driven by some other purpose? Is there really a lack of interest in local news as Small claims?

Jay Rosen, I'm not sure what the point is in your comment of 12/07/05@12:53 a.m., please elucidate.

McLemore, I'm not advocating anything here, I'm just asking for information.

Posted by: kilgore trout at December 7, 2005 2:04 PM | Permalink

Pardon my heresy, but the standard "local-local-local" consultant's prescription for Metro newspaper success is bullshit.

I don't say this because I dislike local news -- I came up through community news and I spent more than a decade assigning and directing local news here -- I say it because the claim doesn't understand what a metro newspaper is. And the problem is scale.

I've got a theory that the largest unit of hyperlocal coverage that works is the size of a public high school district. Once you get much larger than that, you're now balancing the interests of different communities -- too much news about Summerville High School and the people in the Fort Dorchester district feel slighted. And vice versa. Hyperlocal, by definition, must be hyperfocused.

But a metro daily is a comglomeration of dozens of these communities, and there isn't enough newsprint to do hyperlocal reports for each. Not only that, but hyperlocal reporting generally has zero value outside that community. Not only are readers in other places bored by it, but it becomes an issue for advertisers, too. The economics are self-consuming (you spend more to get news that is less valuable to more of your readers) -- and yet every year, somebody comes out and says, "You should do more local coverage."

Local news means one thing to a 200,000-circulation daily and another to a 5,000-circulation rural weekly. Personally, I think the future of hyperlocal URBAN coverage is going to be almost exclusively online, with no print edition, and with very low overhead costs.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at December 7, 2005 2:48 PM | Permalink

Am I missing something here? I looked at the Backfence sites and saw little citizen journalism, mainly just publicity blurbs, some of them from commercial venues. This is what folks are clamoring to see? Judging by the number of views I'd say no.

Local is hard work, this kind of proves that. People will share their opinions in a heartbeat, but when it comes to actually pinning down, organizing and presenting information, is the online community just now discovering that those most likely to provide it are those who have a vested interest in it? (A vested interest doesn't have to be an evil thing or invalidate the information, but it sure limits the appeal.)

Another factor: Cyber space is great for allowing those with mutual interests to find each other across vast geographic distances, and create communities around those shared interests. It might not be the place to organize new sites around the assumption that mere geography is enough any more to create a community of interests strong enough to be self-sustaining, at least not without a guiding hand making sure that the things that exist to make it a physical community are covered. The websites don't offer any kind of coverage of a shared experience, only disjointed fragments, each from an individual experience. Kind of like a jigsaw puzzle dumped out of the box. Taking this analogy further, what's needed is a journalism paradigm that helps people see the picture the individual pieces make up. That doesn't have to be the traditional journalism model, but it doesn't seem like the Backfence model is advancing things in a useful direction.

Bill Watson
Managing Editor
Pocono Record
Stroudsburg, Pa.

Posted by: billwatson at December 7, 2005 2:49 PM | Permalink

I think we're looking for pretty much the same thing, Kilgore. A little clarity about what local news online sites actually mean in the great scheme of things.

Daniel Conover may be exactly right that local news in urban areas may be a purely online event in the future, for the reasons he and Jay point out: There's just too many constituencies in a metro area to adequately satisfy the need for local news. But it will surely have to be something more than cafe reviews, shopping tips and links to print sites.

Posted by: Dave McLemore at December 7, 2005 3:35 PM | Permalink

I was hired by the Hartford Courant in the late 1980s when it expanded its local news coverage in a push called "Town News." The Courant had something of about 300,000 readers daily, as I recall.

The city of Hartford, was ringed by smallish papers covering the smaller towns and suburbs. Connecticut's government was odd because there was no county government except courts. It was all local, or all state.

Anyway, the Courant identified its key areas, and then hired reporters into them. We were given quotas. One story or one brief from each town we covered every day. I had two towns, so that was my quote. Those with larger towns had to write at least one story every day out of their town.

All the news was zoned inside the "Connecticut" section. The Courant hired about 25 new reporters to do this, and we covered these towns like a blanket, even stockpiling stories for the days we didn't work.

Circulation rose overall by about 10 percent, and we were kept aware of the circulation in each of the zones. AS far as I know, none of the papers we attempted to put out of business folded.

Since then, the Courant has abandoned town news the way we did it. Circulation is down to 250,000.

I know Philadelphia did something similar and had part-time, non-salaried "correspondents" but I recall that the correspondents sued citing labor issues and had to be hired on as full-time reporters.

Posted by: JennyD at December 7, 2005 5:48 PM | Permalink

Yep. It's not that it can't be done. It's that the circulation you add isn't really profitable.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at December 7, 2005 6:14 PM | Permalink

> The Courant hired about 25 new reporters to do this...

Jenny, how many reporters did they already have? (what % increase in reporters to get the 10% increase in circulation?)

Posted by: Anna Haynes at December 7, 2005 8:58 PM | Permalink

Of course the "solution" to the industry's woes now is to reduce the reporting staff. That's why so many observers are pessimistic. They see surrender and profit taking. See Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die.

Bill: thanks for those observations, especially: "The websites don't offer any kind of coverage of a shared experience, only disjointed fragments, each from an individual experience." I agree with you: to build an online service around a terrestial address requires more imagination than is commonly thought.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 7, 2005 9:25 PM | Permalink

That's why so many reporters are pessimistic as well, Jay. Of all the reasons to be in journalism, keeping the investors happy was not why I signed on.

Posted by: Dave McLemore at December 7, 2005 9:37 PM | Permalink

I'm not suggesting the blogs should be the New York Times, nor have I seen the local newspapers. You may indeed be doing a better job of reporting the community than they do. I just don't see a lot of there there.

How am I wrong?

I'll give you a couple examples. We broke a story last week about a teenage hip-hop group in town spouting hate and threatening to kill the local police (its name is actually Porno Hate Train).

Just tonight, we broke news of a homicide in town (the first in 10 years).

Now go look at the local newspaper's website and see what they have.

Since we publish seven days a week, and they publish just one, some of our content is lighter. But then people talk about all kinds of things, not just what goes on at school board meetings and council meetings. And news comes in different ways. E-mail tips for instance.

Posted by: Debbie Galant at December 7, 2005 9:37 PM | Permalink

Of all the reasons to be in journalism, keeping the investors happy was not why I signed on.

Agreed. But then keeping the customers happy never factored in much, either. That would be bowing to pressure.

Are you at the point in your disillusionment where you're willing to say, Dave, that your crowd, the people in it for the journalism, which is why I'm "in" it too, made a mistake when, in the name of protecting news values from encroachment by business pressures, they allowed "the business side" (as it is still called) to have soulful custody of the business problem, including the data, the research, the advertiser strategy, the market definition, the value proposition? I ask you: was "the wall" between editorial and the economy of the newspaper good for the guys and gals who were behind that wall, doing their journalism? Did it work? Or did it hurt them in the long run by isolating them from... the economy of their newspaper, and the decisions that are now ruining their livelihood?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 7, 2005 9:56 PM | Permalink

From Dave McLemore: I don't mean this to be flippant, but I don't see a lot of news there. I see small, easily digestible chunks of text that, in the Dec. 5 edition of Baristanet, talk about Christmasy scenes, what's available in a handcrafted arts shop and such. And a couple of items refer to the websites of the local newspaper. But news? I learn nothing about what's going on politically, at the Courthouse, the schools, the police and the traditional sources of news and reporting.

Actually you're not entirely wrong. The local newspaper in our town comes out once a week. We come out seven days and average 5 posts a day. The news varies -- we have original reporting and have broken stories that the papers don't have and/or pick up later. (One recent example was a teen drinking problem in one of our towns that became a story in the Star Ledger). Today, we broke news of a suspicious murder in one of our towns. Dig deeper (click on headings like Controversy) and you may find more of the hard news you're looking for. Having said that, we strive to offer more than just what the local newspaper offers -- hence the restaurant reviews (something our paper doesn't do at all) real estate developments, and stuff that falls under the "fluff" and "service" categories that our readers respond to and more importantly comment on again and again. We're also able to stir the pot and allow readers to talk about news and add their own facts or opinions to stories we report or stories that are reported in the local and regional papers.

Posted by: Liz George at December 7, 2005 10:57 PM | Permalink

Oops -- I see that Deb responded, too. We're on the same page and for those that visit the site often (and we hope you do!), it's easy to get a sense of what we're all about.

Posted by: Liz George at December 7, 2005 10:59 PM | Permalink

Are you at the point in your disillusionment where you're willing to say, Dave, that your crowd, the people in it for the journalism, which is why I'm "in" it too, made a mistake when, in the name of protecting news values from encroachment by business pressures, they allowed "the business side" (as it is still called) to have soulful custody of the business problem, including the data, the research, the advertiser strategy, the market definition, the value proposition?

Good question. I'd still want to protect the reporting from the pressures of advertisers or the publisher's business pals. (Sometimes it actually worked.) But we certainly should have paid more attention to management's business decisions and a more aggressive stance or participating in the business end of the newspaper.

Then, again, maybe the conglomeration and corporatization was inevitable. And with them, the layoffs and buy-outs. Profit margins of 20 to 30 percent are just too attractive.

Posted by: Dave In Texas at December 7, 2005 11:56 PM | Permalink

To the folks of Baristanet. I was quite sincere is saying I thought your product was a good one and fit the niche it serves.

My comments were directed more at clarity, trying to just exactly where this brave new world is leading news reporting. In many ways it's like the old wire service days, when news came off the wire in increments, with details as they developed.

How do you see what you do impacting on the old-school press? How would things change for you against a daily?

Tips through comments is a variation on the late-night call to the newsroom. How is such information vetted?

Posted by: Dave McLemore at December 8, 2005 12:09 AM | Permalink

It's interesting: most newspaper journalists to whom I have put this question pick the "wouldn't have made a difference" option.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 8, 2005 7:39 AM | Permalink

i really think this "protect journalism from the business side" stuff is pointing nowhere... and that this new medium offers us a chance to organize ourselves around serving the local reader/user/buyer in Amazon-ish ways. we have firewalls because we have a divided soul. but what if we could unify that soul at the business-plan level?

from an extended piece I've been writing for the past couple of days:

The print-newspaper business model is contradictory and a little confusing: We attract readers by covering news, which they pay to read, but the heart of our business lies with sellers, for whom we deliver the attention of buyers via advertising. For our brand to be valuable, it must be seen as independent and objective, which means that we must erect “firewalls” between our news and advertising and editorial departments.

But we have a secret: Those firewalls come with built-in doors and windows. For all our talk about independence, no newspaper wants its editorial department to go around casually angering advertisers. Sure, we do it, but we don’t do it lightly. Not for long. And when we do, we hear about it.

There’s another flaw in this model: Because the firewall isn’t really what we say it is, we’ve developed this odd tradition about covering commerce. Instead of acknowledging that buying and selling and consuming are among the most important activities in our readers’ lives, we pretend that these topics are really of interest only to businessmen. Why? Because writing about products and businesses from the reader’s perspective is a great way to irritate advertisers. This absurd-but-inevitable position creates the market for Consumer Reports, a relatively expensive magazine that actually covers these subjects with authority. Consumer Reports, of course, accepts no advertising, which means it costs the reader more.

So why buy it? Because Consumer Reports saves people money. It is, in the purest sense, what all news media aspire to be: Something so valuable that a subscription is considered an investment. Consumer Reports has no firewalls, because everybody at Consumer Reports is working for the same person: The reader. The user. The buyer.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at December 8, 2005 8:22 AM | Permalink

Exactly. Sounds like your piece should be in PressThink.

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. The professional newsroom thinks it serves readers. It thinks someone may order it to serve advertisers, and that would be bad.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 8, 2005 11:29 AM | Permalink

Well, Jay, experience shows that it often is bad when that happens -- and even if it isn't, it stands in contradiction to what we tell readers about newspapers. Firewalls suck, but they're the best you can do when you serve two masters.

But you're right: Until we can find ways to talk about alternatives, nothing can change.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at December 8, 2005 11:52 AM | Permalink

Hi, Daniel --

You asked two questions. One, what is the "news" content of a local news blog and two, what impact do local news blogs have on newspapers.

I'll answer the second one first: I don't think they have a big impact on newspapers. I think the future of newspapers is going to be determined almost entirely by decisions made within the newspaper that have very little to do with blogs or blogging. 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. But the tone of the conversation is influenced by the fact that (many? some? a few?) people who are in the newspaper biz face the prospect of putting a comment section under every story with dread.

To be completely fair, community management does bring up thorny problems, and isn't easy. How do you figure out how to make sure the threads don't become a food fight? What about accuracy? There's no way to automate community management, and it requires lots of judgement calls. And sometimes the person making those judgement calls will get it wrong -- overreacting to some comments, failing to nip others in the bud. The issue of letting readers go beyond commenting to submitting their own standalone content is just the same issue, squared.

Limiting contributions to the paper to professional reporters and corralling readers in the Letters section requires the least amount of work.

But some newspapers think that greater community engagement might create a more committed and growing community of readers. In that case, starting small with a blog or two is a good way to get experience with community management and sharpen those blog-fu skills.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 8, 2005 1:20 PM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 8, 2005 1:33 PM | Permalink

Because I don't have a local newsblog, I have been having difficulty digesting what has been discussed here----I don't know what I don't know. Your comments Lisa(also others here), have helped me bring some form to my thinking.

Something I read today in Romenesko letters leads me to believe that the local newsblog way of thinking is finally coming to MSM, in this case the Boston Herald.

Jules Crittenden describes what happened 6 months ago when the Herald experienced massive layoffs. Instead of hand-wringing, playing the blame game and shrieking Doom!Doom!, Crittenden says key editors asked reporters to think "about what our readers might be interested in, not what we might think they ought to be interested in." Isn't that really what Baristanet. is all about?

According to Crittenden (who has an obvious bias), the Herald has been having modest growth, while the rival Boston Globe is in freefall (along with other NYTimes Co. properties.)

I don't want to say that I am happy about anyone losing their job, but if the result is better journalism, at least the unemployed are unemployed for a noble cause(or some such).

Here's Crittenden's letter, read it, it's very interesting:

Posted by: kilgore trout at December 8, 2005 2:03 PM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: jr at December 8, 2005 2:56 PM | Permalink

Great points made and issues raised above, y'all. But taking Lisa's "one subject at a time" approach:

jr says:
" ...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.

Posted by: Anna Haynes at December 8, 2005 3:39 PM | Permalink

> "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)

Posted by: Anna Haynes at December 8, 2005 4:46 PM | Permalink

Jay asked: "I ask you: was "the wall" between editorial and the economy of the newspaper good for the guys and gals who were behind that wall, doing their journalism? Did it work? Or did it hurt them in the long run by isolating them from... the economy of their newspaper, and the decisions that are now ruining their livelihood?"

Obviously we should have been giving this more thought, and obviously the paradigm of "newsroom nuns" was flawed. But most of us now in some kind of decision-making roles were mere grunts back in the 1980s when this profit-making machine was getting noticed and the whole transition to shareholders took off. It's possible to argue that what really would have prevented the existing situation would have been for tightwad family-owned newspapers to pour more resources on their inkstained wretches and avoid the kinds of profits that attracted rapacious ownership. Greed got us into this mess, and generally speaking greed is not something journalists indulge in or even have much grasp of. At our best, we tend to be folks with an itch to find things out and a commensurate itch to gain respect and fulfillment by being the people who tell others about these cool, neat, significant or important things. That's a socially redeeming set of traits, isn't it? Even though few of us got rich just doing that?

By the way, some of us, deemed heretics until recently, have always advocated more responsiveness to the readership, one way or another, and less speaking down to them as priests condescending to tell them "what they need to know."

I'm eagerly awaiting the launch of our new website later this month. It promises to give us the firepower to do all the things we just can't do in a small daily. While we do not have the problems that a metro has in trying to find room for material from hundreds of communities, we do have space limitations and we do have interactivity issues. We already let readers talk to an editor about any story on the website that they find either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and going through those emails and responding to them is the best part of my day. I end up knowing not only what folks are interested in, but also what they didn't "get." We've never done a good job explaining ourselves to readers, and we're doing more of that now. Some of us, even those of us old enough to remember when being given your own glue pot marked your arrival as a real reporter, embrace this new world and look forward to all the fun we can have.

Bill Watson
Managing Editor
Pocono Record
Stroudsburg, Pa.

Posted by: Bill Watson at December 8, 2005 4:49 PM | Permalink


I completely agree with your point about local needing someone with a vested interest to take responsibility for "pinning down and organizing" the barrage of stuff into a comprehensive whole. (Maybe one reason people don't want to participate is because if they're going to go to the trouble of writing up articles, why not put it on their own blog?) You also make a good point about the fact that different papers draw the line on reader participation in different places. I think the current split between reader contributions and staff contributions has a lot more to do with lack of time than with any attitude people who work at the newspaper have towards their readers.

I think answering those emails is only one step removed from blogging. Doc Searls says that "blogging is answering my email in public." That way, the person gets their answer, but the answer has a "second life" providing value to his readers and random people typing queries into Google.

It sounds to me like your new site is going to be a success. You're right, it is fun, and I think many people miss that aspect. If they don't get the fun, it's probably not going to work. It don't mean a thing/if it ain't got that swing...

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 8, 2005 11:42 PM | Permalink

From the Intro