A hole in the backfence?

I am really not a “told you so” kind of person, but the news that Backfence is having difficulty comes as no surprise. For the unenlightened, Backfence is a series of 13 “citizen journalism” sites in three metropolitan areas: Washington, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay area. Funded by VC money, the model was touted by some observers as the way of the future.

Its downfall — if that’s what’s happening — should not be an indictment of hyperlocal citizens media, because there are plenty of other sites that are doing well (Baristanet, SunValleyOnline, Buffalo Rising, H2Otown, and one of my favorites, PegasusNews here in Dallas). It’s a tricky proposition, to say the least, but I think efforts that don’t do well have difficulty, because they’re trying too hard to build something that’s already there. Aggregation is the key, not content creation.

This is why we built Nashville is Talking for WRKN‐TV. It is an aggregator of the existing blogosphere and doesn’t try to be anything other than that. The community that has built up around it is pretty amazing, a little society that runs itself quite nicely and brings loads of benefits to the TV station along‐the‐way. WKRN’s plans go beyond what currently exists, and I think a lot of people are going to be surprised when all is said and done.

The existing blogosphere in any community has energy and life that can’t be duplicated by efforts from without. Bloggers write, because they have something to say. And people who have something to say will find a way to say it. What I don’t like about some citizen media sites is how hard they try to create a forum for people via their own model, reasoning that once the forum is in place, talented people will flock to it. People who have something to say already have their own forums, so efforts to duplicate this, I believe, come off as dry and lifeless.

Fred Wilson has a good summary of the “placeblogging” (this is the new term) phenomenon in his blog this week.

Like other observers, I’ve supported Backfence and the people who were trying to make it work. Nobody has a lock on where all this is going, and we’ve got to accept that some things will work and others won’t. Part of that, I think, is deciding what we mean by “works” and then building accordingly.

Media 2.0 is not Media 1.0, and the more we try to make it so, the quicker we’ll go down in flames.


  1. http://thedetroitchannel says

    i talked with the founders just before they launched and got the impression they had it all figured out and were not interested in any sort of partnerships or outside influence…afterall they came from the magazine industry, right?

    this is not an indictment of them rather just an observation akin to what you were saying about taking what’s already there.

    this might have to do with mega‐deals that we read about and upstarts swinging for the fences (backfences in this case)

    learned along time ago that a small slice of pie tastes a heck of alot better than none.

  2. Hi Terry,

    I’ve been looing at/following the Backfence thing pretty closely for the past couple of days…

    I agree that aggregation will become important. But creating the right content that resonates with a community will also be very important to the survival of any citizen journalism site.

    There’s a lot to be said about knowing both an online and IRL community’s quirks–and this is what the successful cit j folks I know have managed to accomplish. When Backfence was only in Metro D.C., it did pretty well (as I recall–I think that had something to do w/Susan deFife speaking at the first We Media con.) The model worked well for that area. However, that model didn’t work so well in the Bay Area–neither did Dan Gillmor’s model. The Bay Area is very different from Metro D.C., so, if we think about it, we might hazard a guess that there isn’t necessarily one blanket citizen journalism model that will work in every community because every community has different needs, quirks, and participation levels.

    So, perhaps its not that Backfence’s struggling because of a weak revenue model, or a weak editorial model but a combination of factors including an inability to intuit the minds of the communities it wanted to serve.


  1. […] Backfence, provider of hyper‐local media sites, is undergoing some tough times. CEO and co‐founder Susan DeFife has resigned, and the company has had to lay off some staffers. How many people were let go is a bit of a mystery. Paid Content had originally reported that 12 of the company’s 18 staffers were let go. Backfence disputes the number, but won’t quantify it. Backfence received $3 million in venture funding in 2005, but apparently hasn’t found the right ad model to sustain itself. Writes Amy Gahran: “…finding a sustainable way to financially support local news content is a thorny issue. Personally, I don’t think conventional advertising can continue to shoulder most of that burden, in any media.” Terry Heaton adds: “It’s a tricky proposition, to say the least, but I think efforts that don’t do well have difficulty, because they’re trying too hard to build something that’s already there. Aggregation is the key, not content creation.” […]

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