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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