A back fence around a ghost town

I wish I could say I was surprised that all is not well at Backfence, the local “citizen journalism” site, where the second of the co-founders, CEO Susan DeFife, just left (the first, Mark Potts, left a few months ago) and about a dozen employees — out of a total of 18 — are being let go, according to a post by Peter Krasilovsky.

Potts is to act as interim CEO while the company tries to restructure itself, according to the post at Local Onliner. DeFife says that “Ultimately, we did not share the same strategic vision for the company as the board of directors.” The company got $3-million in financing in 2005 from a group of venture capital funds, including the Omidyar Network. Apparently, Backfence’s backers didn’t think things were going well, and pulled the trigger.

I don’t live in the areas covered by Backfence, which has 13 sites in three metropolitan areas (Washington, Chicago and the Bay Area), but I have taken a look at it from time to time because I’m interested in local citizen journalism efforts — and spent a bit of time looking at Backfence after it absorbed Dan Gillmor’s failed local CitJ experiment, Bayosphere, which I wrote about here. And it certainly never seemed like a thriving entity to me.

back fence.jpg

Like Frank Barnako, who has written about it here and who also wrote skeptically about it about a year ago, it just seemed stale and unappealing to me, not to mention a little bit like a ghost-town. I would agree with Frank that in order to draw people in, a local site has to live and breathe the area it covers, and have lively personalities and content. And maybe giving citizen journalists some financial incentive might help too.

How all that happens exactly, I don’t know, but it is possible to do local journalism — SunValleyOnline.com seems to be doing well, and so does Baristanet.com. And the Fresno Bee, owned by McClatchy, just finished acquiring a couple of local sites that seemed quite successful: ModestoFamous and FresnoFamous. Did the founders sell because it wasn’t a viable business, or did McClatchy want them because they had something the chain needed? Perhaps a combination of both.

In any case, I will leave it to others to decide whether Backfence failed because it took the wrong approach, or because local online journalism doesn’t work. My bet is on the former rather than the latter. Howard Owens has also written about the recent news, as have the gang over at PaidContent. Greg Sterling at Screenwerk says that winning with a locally-focused website is “like climbing Mount Everest.”

Update:

Tish Grier, who comments below, has written a post about local content and monetization here, and Fred “A VC” Wilson has written one as well talking about how he believes it isn’t about trying to attract a community but about aggregating posts from a community that already effectively exists — and I believe he is right. Someone is going to do that, either the local paper or a startup (or both put together, as the FresnoFamous case illustrates).

Update 2:

More on the saga here at Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment, and at Citizen Media Watch, where blogger Lotta Holmstrom got an email from Mark Potts about the restructuring of the site, and later did a short email interview with him. Greg Sterling also talked with Potts about the restructuring and some of the strategic changes he wants to make, and wrote about it here. And Robert Niles has a great look at building communities online at the Online Journalism Review, entitled “Fake grassroots don’t grow.”

Update 3:

The New York Times had a piece about a network of local “citizen journalism” sites called American Towns, but not everyone was impressed. Tish Grier, for example, said that American Towns is more like “citizen shovelware.” Good one, Tish. And according to a story in the Washington Post, Backfence appears to be headed down the tubes: One angel investor said that arguments between backers and founders has “destroyed the company” and that it has “downsized to a modest team of people and they’re out of money.” Someone who has spent some time on the sites posts their thoughts here.

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24 thoughts on “A back fence around a ghost town

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  10. Thanks, Sameer. Interesting looking site. Do you get a lot of contributions from readers?

  11. Hey Matthew. Hoboken411 is not my site but ZapTXT (our service) powers the notifications for new posts and new comments. Yes, there’s a lot of commenting that happens given that local news, events, accidents, incidents are covered blow by blow.

  12. From what I’ve seen, while there are local successes (as have been mentioned here) no one has been able to create a succesful collective of sites that focus on various locales. Maybe it’s because ldesire for local-oriented content has not yet reached critical mass online? Or perhaps it’s because no one can get the advertising model quite right. I wouldn’t be surprised if the first model to find success will have a basis in social networking with some value-added content.

  13. Hi Matt…

    thing is, the community could be vibrant and the citizen reporting could be great, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that many cit j sites are looking to create revenu *only* from advertising. At first blush it looks like there’s less overhead for online, and the ads can be less costly than for print. But the thing is, most ads generate only pennies per click (that is, unless you find a great way to commit click fraud).

    Many free small-town print pubs have other revenue streams from other services to support their ad revenue. This makes complete sense for any small, independent venture (most freelance writers, too, are encouraged to have more than one revenue stream.)

    I hate to see Backfence fold, but I think its problems only highlight basic problems of trying to create sufficient sustainable revenue from a free, hyperlocal product with only one revenue source.

  14. That’s a good point, Tish. And it seems to me that with a thriving community and great content, there should be all sorts of ways in which a local site can bring in revenue without having it all be banner ads or search keywords — why not co-brand local events or run contests, etc.?

    Some communities might even be able to get away with tiers of service, with some subscription content. But I still think having a strong community is the most important thing, and that everything else flows from that. Thanks for the comment.

  15. Matt…

    One of the local newspapers out here in Western Mass, the Daily Hampshire Gazette has put all its content behind a pay wall. I’m not sure how its effecting their bottom line, but I do know that some friends have converted print subscriptions to online.

    So, that can work–but right now is working only for converting a print product to online…

    But I think that hyperlocal c.j. sites have to be thought of in the same way that many “personal” blogs are thought. They will have readership, but because they’re very niche, the readership will be limited. Not every hyperlocal site can be TechCrunch the way every “personal” blogger can’t be Dooce. 🙂

    (btw, I just posted on the issue at my blog)

  16. Thanks, Tish — I have to say I’m not a big fan of pay walls (and I say that as someone who works for a newspaper that has one). I think that’s a short-term solution that ultimately pushes people away and makes a site less relevant rather than more so. I think there are lots of better ways to monetize things.

  17. If revenue, much less profit, remains elusive in local online efforts like Backfence.com, let’s not give up on the idea of connecting people online based on local geography.

    At E-Democracy.Org, we’ve been hosting very active online local Issues Forums for over a decade with extremely limited resources. We are now in seven communities in Minnesota and England. Our model starts with the low low cost “forum” at the center including a local volunteer forum manager and steering committee (think Rotary) and builds out from there. See: http://e-democracy.org/if

    I think the starting point for local citizen media should be what can you do online for almost nothing that is sustainable and engaging. Then build up from there as your grow your participatory audience. Starting first with “news” the generates ad revenue might be the wrong starting point.

    Steven Clift
    E-Democracy.Org

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