By Steve Outing
I’ve been away from my personal blog for quite a while, but the demise of Backfence.com provides a good excuse to start up again…
Condolences to CEO Mark Potts (who had been trying valiantly to keep things going after the management shake-up that had co-founder and ex-CEO Susan DeFife depart the company) and the rest of the Backfence crew.
Because my own career has a big stake in grassroots media, I’m sad to see Backfence go. My company’s websites (YourClimbing.com, YourMTB.com, et al) share some similarities with Backfence — though where its communities were geographically focused but topic-broad, ours are geographically diverse and topic-narrow.
Lots of folks have been blogging about Backfence since the announcement, and at least with just a few exceptions, it’s not being painted as the “end of citizen journalism.” I don’t believe it is. Rather, it’s one of those inevitable setbacks on the way toward wherever our media future is headed.
One thing I think about a lot in my own business — and in thinking about Backfence — is passion. Our sites are all about bringing together people who are passionate about something specific. I think that for any grassroots media site, the only way it’s going to get significant, quality content submissions from an audience is if those people are truly passionate about … something. And on the other side, the audience needs to be passionate about what those passionate contributors are submitting.
To my view, that’s the problem with Backfence and other community “citJ” sites. They’re asking people in a community to write about things in their community that they’re passionate about. (Why else would anyone post something to a local citJ site — unless it’s just posting a press release for self-serving reasons.) But on the audience side, Backfence didn’t have a bunch of people who shared the poster’s passion.
Physical communities, obviously, are made up of people with wildly divergent interests and passions.
So with many community citJ sites, you have stuff like a flower enthusiast posting photos and a passionate report about a flower show — but the majority of site’s audience couldn’t give a hoot about the topic. So the reader experience is one of a bunch of dull content — except for the rare thing that crosses your personal passions.
I’m not sure what the answer is, though I do think that there’s a future for citizen community journalism. Perhaps (as I’ve seen some other bloggers suggest) it will fall to newspapers to carry the ball. My most recent Editor & Publisher Online column — written before the announcement about Backfence — suggests a big role for newspapers in just this.
The short version: Newspapers are cutting back editorial staffs (no end in site), and thus they can’t hope to ever cover news down to the hyper-local level. So newspapers should think about recruiting a new wave of “citizen stringers” to do that for them, by figuring out effective incentives.
A newspaper website doing this eliminates the “dullness” issue of pure community citJ sites. The grassroots hyper-local content augments and supplements high quality content from the professional journalists on staff. The newspaper online reader comes to the site looking for interesting stuff (including hyper-local content about his/her neighborhood, kid’s school, etc.) and finds a broad range of it. Compare that to the Backfence-like community citJ site that’s full of mostly less-compelling content.
Another idea that folks have been blogging about is the notion that no one website or news organization can possibly do it all when it comes to recruiting and publishing hyper-local content. Some hyper-local stuff comes from local bloggers and “placebloggers” operating independently. So, the argument goes, sites like Outside.in which attempt to aggregate all this diverse stuff from multiple sources on the web and then feed it out based on a user’s location stand a good chance of figuring out this hyper-local news thing.
I think that newspapers can play this game too. Why leave it to Outside.in to bring together all the local bloggers and other hyper-local content that’s being created about your community? Newspapers can do that within their coverage area, plus create incentive programs to get original hyper-local citizen coverage coming in. (The first part of this equation also could mean partnering with Outside.in to let them bring you all the stuff revolving around your community that’s online.)
The most compelling reason to me why citizen journalism is not dead is that there’s a need for hyper-local news and information — and newspapers’ cutbacks make it unlikely that they’ll figure out how to offer hyper-local without going to the grassroots.