'Potemkin Village' Redux

[Editor’s note: Last year, Tom Grubisich sparked a hot debate within the online journalism community with his hard look at the state of hyperlocal grassroots journalism. With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching in the United States, we wanted to give you plenty to argue about over the break, so Tom revisits the topic, examining how the sites he looked at last year have fared in 2006.

Of course, if you know of a thriving, unheralded hyperlocal grassroots site that also deserves some attention on OJR, feel welcome to drop me a note.]

A year ago I toured 10 geographical community websites that were pioneering in grassroots journalism. I wanted to find out whether they were really fulfilling the exuberant PR of the phenomenon’s hucksters. I discovered that, with a couple of honorable exceptions, most of the sites were the Internet equivalent of Potemkin Village, many URLs away from being vibrant town squares.

A little more than 12 months later – a lifetime in Web publishing 2.0 – it was time for another look. Was grassroots journalism finally living up to its golden-keyboarded billing?

Here’s what I found on my return trip:

iBrattleboro

iBrattleboro.com, was launched in March 2003 in Brattleboro, Vt., a 253-year-old town of 12,000 with a Norman Rockwell-Garry Trudeau double image. iBrattleboro uses the automated scroll format that’s ubiquitous at skimpily budgeted grassroots sites. But iBrattleboro has added some pizzazz with graphics (via Flickr) and video (via YouTube). Co-founders Chris Grotke and Lise LePage say stories from community contributors have doubled to about 12 a day. Also doubling have been users – from about 50 at any given time to about a hundred, though most of them are not registered.

Comments on articles – a key indicator of a 2.0 site’s liveliness – are also up. An article on “these really strange looking things growing up” in the poster’s compost pile, complete with photos, drew 11 reactions concerning whether pumpkins and gourds can “cross-breed.”

IBrattleboro has followed the long-simmering controversy about the local community TV station with the tenacity of a bulldog. Grotke and LePage said in an e-mail: “The denouement [findings of ‘gross misconduct’ against two former station board members] came at the group’s annual meeting for which more than 100 people showed up. One man stood and said that he especially wanted to thank iBrattleboro, because without the coverage on the site, he wouldn’t have been angry enough to want to get involved.”

The site’s ad revenue is “increasing slowly,” Grotke and LePage say. “It is not to the point where we could live off of it, but it covers the basic costs of operation most of the time.” iBrattleboro has no sales reps.

As to where the site fits in the journalistic pecking order, Grotke and LePage write: “For a while, we felt almost embarrassed to be calling ourselves citizen journalists – we felt illegitimate. Having met and talked to a number of professional media types in the last few months, we understand now that we are illegitimate, at least in their eyes. It seems that mainstream journalists resent our use of the privileged term ‘journalist.’ But that turns out to be a strength because iBrattleboro was founded, at least in part, because we felt that the mainstream media was not telling the whole story on important issues. If, by calling ourselves journalists, we can bug mainstream journalists into some much-needed self-examination of their own profession, that can only be a good thing.”

Bluffton Today

BlufftonToday.com was launched by Augusta, Ga.-based Morris Communications [http://morriscomm.com] on April Fool’s Day 2005 in a sly gesture toward its Web team’s intention of subverting online journalistic conventions. One of those conventions was that a newspaper’s website should be a promotion vehicle to guide users to the print version of the paper.

But 18 months later BlufftonToday.com is an aggressive and constant promoter of the free-circulation tabloid daily Bluffton Today, which was launched shortly after the website. BlufftonToday.com confines all it’s hard news to the Technavia-powered electronic version of the tabloid. Technavia brags that its NewsMemory application isn’t as slow as .pdf, but navigating stories and flipping between pages in Technavia is like reading a print newspaper with oven mittens. Online users can’t comment on the print stories then and there. Whatever they want to say, it has to be on their blog – every registered user gets one – or in a response on someone else’s blog. As a result, comments on an important story can end up being fragmented in several places.

Steve Yelvington, the Morris strategist who helped create BlufftonToday.com, says the site has 70,000 monthly unique users who call up 800,000 page views. Registered users of the site have grown to 6,000 – in a community with 16,000 households and many seasonal visitors. Morris will not disclose how much ad revenue the site produces or whether it’s profitable. Yelvington says the economics of the online and print BlufftonTodays are joined at the hip.

Though the electronic paper gets more hits than the site’s web content, Yelvington said user blogs can become a powerful prod for civic action. In one case, a barrage of angry comments helped to force the state to modify traffic management during major improvements on a key highway.

Greensboro101

Greensboro101, in Greensboro, N.C., is essentially a portal for about 110 area blogs – 20 more than were featured a year ago. To figure out what’s happening locally, a user has to hop, skip and jump to content that’s fragmented among the blogs and a user-driven news feed – a structural predicament which may account for the site’s low traffic ranking – No. 501,682 on Alexa on a recent weekday.

Greensboro (pop. 225,000) is a tech-savvy community, but that’s proving no benefit to Greensboro101. The site has recruited a lively, knowledgeable volunteer editorial board, but its members aren’t giving the site a distinct personality. Greensboro’s look and feel are the end product of the sorting and compiling operations of computer software.

Backfence

One of the fastest-growing grassroots sites is Backfence.com. After launching in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of McLean and Reston, Va., and Bethesda, Md., Backfence has expanded to the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley, with sites in Palo Alto, San Mateo and Sunnyvale. In late September, it planted its flag in metro Chicago, starting in Evanston. Weeks later Backfence added nearby Skokie, and is preparing to launch in Arlington Heights, west of Evanston, on Nov. 29. Backfence has also spread farther in the Northern Virginia suburbs – to Arlington County and the newer suburbs of Chantilly, Sterling and Ashburn.

Backfence was founded by two early Internet players, Susan DeFife, who was strong on the business side, and Mark Potts, who was strong on the content side. (Potts recently left the Backfence management team to return to consulting and start a blog called RecoveringJournalist.) Last October, Backfence won a big vote of confidence in its expansion strategy when it received $3 million funding from venture capitalists SAS Investors and Omidyar Network.

Shrewdly, Backfence bought out Dan Gillmor’s failing Bayosphere site last spring, and used Gillmor’s high profile as the guru of grassroots journalism to give credibility to its entry both in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. Backfence’s first Bay Area community was Palo Alto, where it competes with 10-year-old PaloAltoOnline, which features stories from the Palo Alto Weekly. Just before Backfence came to town, PaloAltoOnline opened up a prominent block of its homepage for an interactive feature dubbed TownSquare. The website has lost some traffic since Backfence’s launch in late April, but still attracts as much reach as all 12 Backfence sites combined.

Backfence’s brand of grassroots journalism generally reads like a well-written but bloodless press release. The who-what-where-and-when are there, but who cares? As Liz George, the managing editor and co-owner of Barista.net wrote in PressThink in December 2005: “The style at Backfence…makes no reference to actual places where people live, but only to an imagined place in times past where villagers shared information over the back fence.” When the sites does try to put its finger on a throbbing pulse, it often doesn’t know how to take the reading. On Oct. 3 the brand new Evanston site ran an item, written by Content Manager and Editor Robert Reed, on the “growing number of houses with ‘For Sale’ signs,” but the item had no facts, and ended on this desperate boosterish note, “These things can change quickly and before you know it the housing market will be hot again.” A link to Trulia, the new, deeply and widely zoned and easy-to-use site founded by realty professionals, would have provided Backfence users with loads of information about Evanston home listings and sale prices and their recent histories.

YourHub

YourHub.com, co-owned by E.W. Scripps and MediaNews, started out with 38 hyperlocal sites clustered in metro Denver in the spring of 2005. Now it has 110 sites in Colorado, California, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas (all connected with Scripps print papers), and powers 44 sites that the Los Angeles Daily News (owned by Dean Singelton’s Media News chain) publishes under the valleynews.com brand in the San Fernando Valley.

Too much of the content on YourHub remains handouts promoting some product, service or fight against a disease. Some of the PR is hard sell, like the articles “Public Relations? What is it and do I need it?” and “Home-Flip.com for free real estate ad.” Some of the sell is of a softer, nonprofit variety, like the article “The 11th annual Denver/Lakewood/Golden Tour of Solar and Green Built Homes in Boulder.”

After the Platte Canyon High School hostage taking west of Denver on Sept. 27 in which the adult assailant killed a 16-year-old female student, YourHubConifer, which serves the area, ran some of the condolences that poured in from the region and beyond. But the site made no attempt to answer what must have been on many people’s minds, including the parents of students at Platte Canyon: How good is the school’s “safe students” plan? On Oct. 3, three days after a query by this writer, the YourHub staff reporter finally posted the “Platte Canyon School District Safety Policy.” The policy says “a final report …shall be made available to the public.” You would think the report would be posted on the school district’s website. But it’s not there. If this had been pointed out by YourHub, the gap might have prompted a community conversation about school safety, not only in the area served by Platte Canyon High, but throughout metro Denver.

The Northwest Voice

NorthwestVoice.com has been one of the mostly frequently, and favorably, cited examples of how grassroots journalism can transform the Web on the community level. But reality doesn’t match the PR. Most of NorthwestVoice’s hard news is written by paid reporters for the companion print product, while most of the soft stuff (some of it very soft) comes from volunteers.

Even after nearly two and a half years of operation, and a steady stream of positive media mentions, NorthwestVoice.com still struggles to attract traffic and generate productive conversations among users. It ranks 1,107,759 in reach on Alexa, which means it barely registers a traffic pulse. In one of the site’s featured “Discussions,” someone asked, on July 13: “Who’s responsible for providing public facilities, i.e. a post office, library, etc. for the Northwest?” Three months later, the question remains unanswered. Ten of the 17 discussion articles, dating back to November 2005, had no comments.

WestportNow

When Joanne Woodward couldn’t join her husband Paul Newman at the Westport Country Playhouse’s Sept. 25 salute to composer Stephen Sondheim because of a fall she took while walking her two Miniature Schnauzers, the news broke on WestportNow.com. Besides its wide variety of up-to-date news, including high school sports – all of its contributed by residents – the site is loaded with volunteer photos that capture Westport’s people and places.

WestportNow founder Gordon Joseloff, after running the site for its three and a half years, has brought in a salaried editor, Jennifer Connic, who is well connected with the town as the former Westport reporter for the Norwalk Hour. Unlike most grassroots sites, WestportNow does not run contributions untouched by editors’ hands. Joseloff, a former CBS News correspondent who now is first selectman (mayor) of Westport, insisted on professionally crafted stories when he was in the editor’s chair. That meant he and his volunteer part-time editors did a lot of training, and mentoring (and rewriting) of volunteer contributors.

One of WestportNow’s most popular features continues to be “Teardowns,” which features photo stories, with an interactive map, on million-dollar-plus homes that are to be demolished to make way for bigger and more expensive ones. The New York Times recently ran an article on how the grassroots site Barista.net in suburban New Jersey was fighting redevelopment with a feature inspired by WestportNow’s Teardown.

Joseloff said his site’s traffic continues to grow about 30 percent annually, with unique visitors now hitting 5,000 to 7,000 daily.

Summing up WestportNow as a business, he says: “WestportNow is running close to break even. When I left the editorship (for which I received no remuneration) and we hired an editor, our expenses went up. Advertising revenue is up but not enough to cover all the increased expenses. I still believe there’s a viable business here (and in expanding elsewhere) and hope to be able to continue WestportNow until such time that it becomes self-sufficient.”

GoSkokie

GoSkokie.com was launched as a student project at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in spring 2004 in the hope that it could be handed off to the residents of the city of Skokie (pop. 23,700) north of Chicago. GoSkokie received a flurry of plaudits from the hucksters of grassroots journalism, and even received a 2004 “notable entry” in the Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism from the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. But it gasped its last breaths in the fall of 2005.

MyMissourian

Like BlufftonToday, MyMissourian.com has become a joint Web-print operation, with, so far, the print product generating most of the ad revenue and paying the bills.

Two-year-old MyMissourian, which is produced by the Columbia Missourian print newspaper, was developed by Clyde Bentley, associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, for which the commercially owned Columbia Missourian serves as a teaching and research lab. Bentley, while he’s in London on leave, has turned the MyMissourian site over to graduate student Jeremy Littau, who worked as a sports copy editor and page designer at the Los Angeles Daily News before pursuing his master’s degree at Mizzou.

Last October, MyMissourian took over the total-market-coverage Saturday print edition of the Missourian, the daily produced by students at the MU School of Journalism. As Littau noted in an e-mail, the takeover was “a reversal of the print-to-online model that newspapers have been following.” The strategy is for the TMC to subsidize MyMissourian till the website can build its own advertising base. In a quid pro quo, the TMC is stuffed with recycled MyMissourian content.

After getting off to a shaky start, MyMissourian has tripled its registered users to 1,200. Contributor-generated news is strong in some areas – like local history and arts/culture – but not so alert to news about business and civic life. Sometimes stories ramble across non-local subjects, like a Sept. 20 article on “designer dog breeds.” Without any comment tools, the site is more 1.0 than 2.0. It doesn’t have any home-grown blogs, but links to some external ones.

While Bentley and Littau are bullish about what they see as MyMissourian’s progress, the site has a weak reach – No. 5,161,651 in traffic, according to Alexa.

Muncie Free Press

A little more than a year after he launched MuncieFreePress in Muncie, Ind., KPaul Mallasch says: “We’re still afloat! We’re still growing.” Mallasch still runs the site out of his apartment, and still does a lot of the reporting and other editorial and business chores, while also juggling freelance balls to pay the bills. But he’s finally getting help from the community.

“I have one citizen recording and providing audio for her town’s council meeting,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I have a retired professor writing the occasional column. Tips and press releases of all types are coming in more frequently now. I have another lady writing and reporting on the local CAFO issue [concentrated animal feeding operations that critics say can produce heavily polluted runoff].” Still, he has to lard his pages sometimes with syndicated bulking agent, including a Michael Reagan column.

Mallasch’s main online competition is the Muncie Star Press, where he used to work. “We’re at about 1/8th of the traffic that the Star Press had when I left a year ago,” Mallasch e-mailed. “They’re still stomping us in the search engines too, because they’ve had their domain since ’96 and Gannett heavily crosslinks their sites.”

Between January and September, MuncieFreePress more than tripled its monthly visitors (from 2,543 to 8,035) and almost doubled its page views (from 38,867 to 74,651).

All this with one person in charge of everything from bandwidth to blogging.

Conclusions

The best sites – WestportNow and iBrattleboro – have got better over the past year and are closing in on profitability, but only because the key players don’t take salaries. It’s not clear how scalable either operation is. Neither has the capital yet to expand or even hire advertising staff.

YourHub is grassroots journalism only under a Play-Doh definition. It provides five percent news and 95 percent bulking agent consisting of press releases and other handouts. Yet YourHub is expanding nationwide with lightning speed. It’s able to do that because it is backed by the considerable wherewithal of Scripps. Backfence’s grassroots journalism is several hundred percent better than YourHub’s, which puts it somewhere between so-so and mediocre. Backfence, with its investor funding, has been able to expand in three major markets in a little more than a year, and, like YourHub, hire ad staffs to generate revenue.

If this trend continues, and we get more virtual Potemkin Villages, what will happen to grassroots journalism? Will it start looking more like AstroTurf journalism?

Tom Grubisich, a screenwriter based in Santa Monica, Calif., was managing editor of news for DigitalCity/AOL until AOL’s merger with Time Warner in 2001, and, earlier, was a reporter and editor for the Washington Post, then co-founder of the free-circulation Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. He is reachable at [email protected].

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]

Comments

  1. Jeff Wilson says:

    Ouch. Tough review Tom, but accurate.

    I’ve been running a community news website for about 7 months now. It’s had modest success. Here’s some things I learned:

    – Don’t depend on contributions. They either come in the form of advertisements, press releases, or poorly written editorials. You may have good intentions, but readers may not.

    – When I started, my only reason for building the website was to start an online discussion forum of news in my town. I’ve been disappointed by the lack of comments, but the readership is there. Two local newspapers read my site daily, a local land development firm checks in daily, City Hall, County of Los Angeles, and even the water agencies look at the site a few times a week. I consider that a success. If the content on my site is of such quality that these different agencies and companies spend 5 minutes a day on the site, then I’ve achieved my goal.

    – Reporting for the site is also marketing for the site. I’ve attended at least a dozen events, press conferences, social gatherings, charity events, and even an astronomy club meeting. Just as a real journalist would do, I check ahead of time to see if I’m welcome. Once at the event, I had out my home-printed business card with the website on it, then I get to work, taking pictures, talking to people, and getting interesting stories. The people I talk to generally become readers and sometimes commenters, creating accounts the next day. Reporting is a social job, it’s not something you can do just behind the computer screen. Get out and talk to people and the readers will come.

    – Differentiate your content: iBrattleboro chose a good content management system, GeekLog. The system allows managers to post stories under specific categories -denoted by icons in the post- unlike a lot of blog software. I emulated this with my website, which is based off PHP-Nuke. Readers see an icon, they know what to expect. Opinion will be just that, but something with the news icon or Featured Story icon will generally have an inverted pyramid structure

    When the Los Angeles Daily News and YourHub opened up a citizen journalist website for my town, Santa Clarita, I thought my site was finished. But in the two months since ValleyNews.com/Santa Clarita has opened, I’d guess that 7 out of 10 articles posted there are either advertisements, press releases, or uninteresting posts. Despite their marketing muscle, I get more comments on my stories than they do.

    So even if my site is a Potempkin Village, at least the movers and shakers in this town check into it every day. I’m getting a few invitations to cover events (a wine festival organizer let my wife and I in for free!), I’m finding interesting content that may not otherwise be exposed, and I’m having a lot of fun.

    So far I have two volunteer writers who understand the idea of the website and produce quality content. If I can get 20-30 stories a week, I’m going to redesign the site. I hate scrolling too, and there are templates and themes available that look like legitimate newspaper websites. The only reason most of our sites use so much scrolling is that we don’t get enough content to refresh an entire front page everyday.

  2. And I’m not sure how talking about Alexa rankings has anything to do with hyperLOCAL sites.

    You raise good points about the “build it and they will come” idealism that infects community-based journalism, but the form is still evolving, and I suspect there are structural predispositions that hinder some of these efforts.

    It’s not a magic bullet for the news industry, but it’s also in the early stages of development.

  3. Tom,
    For the second time I’m rather surprised by your take on citizen journalism sites–and that it’s slightly more favorable this time.

    A couple of points though–the viablity of a “Web 2.0” site isn’t necessarily its comments. As many recent surveys have pointed out, 9 out of 10 readers to any blog or interactive site are lurkers. So, a site may have a thriving community of readers with little comments. Subscription rates and stat counters that give hits and pageviews give a much better picture of a site’s readership…

    Visible comments also do not account for emailed comments. Blogs at Conde-Nast newspapers–that use a software put together by Advance–did not have comments until recently, yet many of the bloggers received regular email from readers.

    In general, some people are just more comfortable sending email vs. posting a comment (even if anonymous.)

    And speaking of software that doesn’t do much for citizen journalism, your comments regarding YourHub are spot-on. I’ve been watching YourHub since it was rolled out, and find that it’s a lot of lip-service to the idea of citizen journalism and Web 2.0. A lot like the Advance sites. Some of that has to do with the papers who are contributing to the service (same thing with Advance) who are choosing to closely montor/control what citizens contribute–and give the impression that citizens can’t be trusted to write more than fluff under the direction of editors (who do most of the writing anyway.)

    I would think, though, because YourHub is so closely tied to various local papers, that it would fall under a different category of citizen journalism than many of the independently produced sites. The motivation for the independent sites is far different than what appears to be the motivation for a newspaper adopting a tool like YourHub. Perhaps it’s time to differentiate “citizen journalism” in a highly controlled, newspaper-sponsored environment (“astro-turf journalism” is a pretty good term) vs. citizen journalism that is produced by citizens as community services. They do, indeed, function quite differently.

  4. I was talking to my grandmother the other day (bless her heart) and she said she’d mentioned MFP to one of her friends. Cool thing was that the friend had already heard about us.

    Traffic spiked on election night to just under 1,000 unique visitors. I’m seeing the 1% rule in effect too, though. With maybe a little less than 1% of visitors being active on the site.

    You need good content and comments to attract comments, though. And more than one voice. I definitely see the need for a paid staff. Doesn’t mean it has to be set-up like big media’s new ‘information centers’ though.

    That’s all I got for now. Back to work… 😉

    -kpaul

  5. It is a valuable report.

    True, the way that sites are chosen are a little scattershot. The report doesn

  6. Thanks, Tom, for a job well done and for the favorable comments about WestportNow.com.

    With Google and Yahoo seeking to form alliances with newspapers for their local content, I think it is only a matter of time before they find that in some markets their best partners may not be newspapers but credible, independent online local news sites staffed by pros aided by citizen journalists.

    As newspapers continue to cut staff and their news hole, more and more journalists will be encouraged to take their labors online for their own betterment and the betterment of their communities.

    Without the burden of maintaining presses and everything that goes with the printed product, lively local online sites that can deliver news, classifieds, multimedia and all kinds of localized digital content with unlimited space will attract eyeballs and advertisers–and become viable businesses.

    Gordon Joseloff

  7. I’d like to comment on the “Potemkin” problem, as we call it in our shop. I think the major issue is that while hyperlocal startups can’t necessarily afford the staffs of a major daily, you HAVE to actively seed the community.

    Our hyperlocal music site, TexasGigs.com, broke a million pageviews in only five months, only covering local bands in the DFW area. While we’re highly dependent on user-gen content, our small staff makes sure that there are new stories posted daily, and actively engages with every user who comments on the site. We also know that in many cases, tagging a photo in Flickr or posting a comment is the most “citizen journalism” you can hope for — and try to feature that content prominently.

    Finally, one key point that gets lost in a lot of the cit-j conversation: 75% of our traffic is on “data,” not news. Long-tail concert listings, band info pages and the like. The digital medium is surely a way to distribute news and commentary, but it is a sure fit for actionable data. We look at it this way: The data brings them in, and the stories are the extra pageviews.

    That said, we certainly haven’t yet proven there is a business. And I seriously doubt there is a business bringing hyperlocal content to an individual community, except in small markets isolated from a major metro. We think that the opportunity is in creating a conversational environment where you can get your major metro news and your hyperlocal and your niche local news in one place.

    To that end, we’re launching PegasusNews.com (hopefully) Monday. I’ll be interested in hearing the feedback on our new baby 🙂

  8. It’s looking good Mike! Congrats!