Thursday, November 1, 2007

Citizen journalism works best when it has a good story to tel

Way back in 2005, when the Web 2.0 boom was just beginning, a number of new ventures were launched under the rubric of "citizen journalism" and "hyperlocal publishing”. While the details differed greatly, all these companies aimed to build new types of publications by encouraging citizen participation and providing online information and services that were not readily available on the local level. My company, NewWest.Net, was among that generation of start-ups. So was a company called, which announced last week that it was shutting down.

Backfence attracted a fair amount of attention in its brief life, mainly because it raised $3 million in venture capital and counted a well-regarded Washington Post editor as one of its founders. Now that it's failed, it's also attracting a lot of attention from people who are trying to figure out what's working and what's not in this new area of media. Some say Backfence was a good idea that was badly executed; others say it's proof that there's no money in local online media, or that the sector isn't appropriate for venture capital funding structures; still others suggest it's proof that citizen journalism doesn't work.

But I don't think any of these are exactly the right lessons. I think the problem with Backfence, and with a number of the other early experiments in online community journalism, is that they aren't quite "about" anything. They have no editorial angle on the world, no story they are trying to tell, and thus they become a boring hodge-podge of information titbits. In the rush to reinvent local journalism, the journalism piece is getting lost.

To back up for a minute: aimed to build local sites in mostly suburban towns around the country, beginning with two in Virginia. Local citizens would be invited to submit stories about the happenings in their town – things too small to command the attention of professional journalists, perhaps, but important enough if you live in the town. Local businesses would have an easy, low-cost way to advertise, both via Yellow Page-style listings and traditional web banner ads. Local residents could find the Little League scores, or share their photos of a family wedding, or gossip about the city council, or opine about which businesses served them best. The problem was that Backfence put up the sites – and nobody came. As it turned out, it's hard to get people to write stories or even share gossip on a local website. They certainly won't do it if there is no audience, creating the classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. Plus, people who are already active participants in online conversations already have their own communities – be it on Facebook or MySpace or Yahoo! Groups or the local biking club's list serve. People who are not active online take a lot of convincing.

The "if you build it they will come" approach most definitely does not work when it comes to local online media and citizen journalism.

Furthermore, Backfence and others were oddly positioned in that they were trying to do several very different things from the outset. They were trying to compete with Google, the Yellow Pages, and scads of other directory, classified and search services in helping people to find an apartment or a pizza joint or a plumber. They were trying to compete with the Facebook and MySpace and a flood of specialised social networking sites and blog communities in helping people to connect with one another. And they were trying to compete with newspapers and local TV and radio in reporting news in their communities.

It is possible to do several of these things at once – but only if one of those things is initially drawing the audience that might then be interested in the other things. The reason newspapers became the source for classified advertising is because they had the distribution to get the ads in front of people; they had the distribution because people wanted to read the news.

Virtually every successful web media business, even ones that are now very broad, got to where they are because they had a strong editorial proposition that drove readership and created a community. Craigslist was originally about finding apartments in San Francisco. Facebook was about learning more about your college classmates (in case you wanted to date one of them.) Daily Kos was about Democratic electoral politics. Gawker was about Manhattan media gossip. And so on.

Journalists are often the first to forget that creating community via publishing is not something that came with the internet era, or something that requires cutting edge Web 2.0 tools. It's something that great magazines and newspapers have been doing for 100 years – by having an appealing and unique editorial proposition.

NewWest.Net is about growth and change in the Rocky Mountain West in all of its dimensions: political, cultural, social and economic. We have hyper-local sites in seven towns, and while they offer many different things they are all informed by our over-riding interest. That editorial proposition – which we pursue via a hybrid of professional and citizen journalism – is what motivates people to be a part of NewWest.Net. And once you've got people involved, there are lots of ways to "monetise" (hint: it's not all about advertising).

I always appreciate people taking a swing at things and I think Backfence was a brave pioneer. But let's not learn the wrong lessons from its demise. It's not enough to give people a place to talk. There has to be something to talk about.


Jonathan Weber is the founder and editor in chief of NewWest.Net, a regional news service focused on the Rocky Mountain West in the United States. He was previously the co-founder and editor in chief of the Industry Standard

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