Paint peeling, weeds growing at Backfence

by Mathew on July 5, 2007 · 4 comments

The local “citizen journalism” entity Backfence is closing the doors on its network of 13 sites, according to a post at PaidContent. Backfence CEO Mark Potts told PaidContent’s Rafat Ali in an e-mail that the investors are “continuing to talk to potential buyers or new investors, but have decided for business and operational reasons to shut down the sites rather than operate them without sufficient support.”

backfencePaidContent also links to a long piece in the American Journalism Review about local online journalism and Backfence, which has a troubled history. I last wrote about it in this post entitled “Backfence around a ghost town.” Peter Krasilovsky at The Kelsey Group has some thoughts about the closure, and so does my pal Kent Newsome. And Ashkan at HipMojo wonders whether it wouldn’t be better if newspapers took a stab at some citizen journalism themselves — but admits that would be a difficult mix of cultures (and I would have a tendency to agree).

Pete Cashmore says Backfence marks the death of citizen journalism, but gets taken to task in the comments section of his post. And one of those commenters — a former employee at Backfence — puts forward an interesting idea: what if Craigslist.org started adding some aspects of “citizen journalism” to its local sites? A very interesting idea indeed. Any comment on that, Mr. Newmark? And Jeff Jarvis makes some good points in this post.

  • http://freerangelibrarian.com K.G. Schneider

    From Krasilovsky’s post: “Ultimately, Backfence’s real legacy may be that it was a laboratory that helped pave the way for newspapers to seriously pursue hyper-local solutions that, notably, are not centered around local news (which it turns out, is not always very compelling).”

    A bazillion years ago, while the Earth was still cooling, Steve Cisler made the observation that those of us touting community networks were ignoring actual user behavior. We thought providing community information would be key. Instead, users used the access provided by the CNs to hop onto the global ‘net and find their affinity groups… which were unrelated to local issues.

    Good for Backfence to try something new, anyway.

  • Mathew

    That’s a good point, K.G. — and it’s one that I keep making over and over: a person’s “community” can be anyone, from anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with physical location.

  • http://www.sunvalleyonline.com Dave Chase

    It’s easy to focus on the failures/mistakes especially when significant money has been lost but there’s a growing set of sites under the radar that will show it’s possible to succeed. I’ve been in and around the local online arena since running several Microsoft Sidewalk cities in the ‘96-98 timeframe and saw how it’s easy to hemorrhage money. Now owning a hyperlocal site (www.sunvalleyonline.com), I’ve also seen it’s possible to build a profitable business if you keep the burn rate low and build a compelling site and story for your advertisers. We all learn from each others mistakes and I’m convinced this hyperlocal space will ultimately be very, very viable. I’ve thought that it might make sense to setup some kind of association or affinity group of local, independent sites to share ideas, lessons learned, etc. so we don’t reinvent the wheel.

  • http://spap-oop.blogspot.com tish grier

    Askan is *so* wrong about newspapers taking a stab at citizen journalism–that’s what Masslive.com did out here in W. Mass, with hand-picked, low-paid “citizen” bloggers. Masslive. com is a product of Advance.net, which is part of the Newhouse newspaper chain (its software division)….while I can’t say Masslive’s been a dismal failure, it does very little to get the community involved in what it’s doing–other than thru its forums and its blogroll. Community memebers can’t sign up to blog *for* it…no matter what one’s level of commitment to community or blogger status…

    Now, some journalists who follow hyperlocal have been rather happy-happy-joy-joy over the YourHub.com model. But I’ve also heard some not-so-cool stuff about that too….

    Mostly in the combined newspaper/citizen deals there is the *possibility* that the citizens will be used as underpaid or non-paid stringers for the paper. This isn’t good for the people and isn’t good for the paper. Sure, these sites stay up and running, even if they don’t have the pageviews, but are they really doing anything for the community? are they doing anything for the people involved? Will the people writing the newspaper hosted citizen sites have to conform to the editorial policies of the newspaper, thus creating meet-the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss?

    oh, and I think Craig’s said a number of places that he doesn’t want to get into the citizen journalism thing. I think that’s why he’s contributing to some projects (like Assignment Zero…)

    Backfence never had the je ne sais quois that many of the fairly successful cit j sites have–namely, an emotional investment from the community. if that’s not there, any community’s bound to fail, no matter how much v.c. captial it may have.

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