What are the lessons from Dan Gillmor's Bayosphere?

It was an extraordinary confession. The fervid evangelist for citizen journalism, Dan Gillmor, acknowledged, in excruciating detail, that his attempt to put his preaching into practice — by launching his widely anticipated Bayosphere site — was an editorial and business failure.

For years, Gillmor, from his columnist’s perch at the San Jose Mercury News and in talks around the world, has been proselytizing about empowering citizen journalists as a counterbalance to mainstream media, and chronicling what he called the movement’s heartening success stories. He literally wrote the book on the subject — “We the Media” — in 2004.

In early 2005 Gillmor left the Merc to take up a new project that he didn’t immediately identify. He acquired a partner, Michael Goff, who, in 1997, launched Microsoft’s since-disbanded Sidewalk community sites. Gillmor and Goff won outside funding from Mitch Kapor and the Omidyar Network and assembled a small, humbly paid staff and stable of volunteer citizen journalists. The anticipatory buzz began. In the summer of 2005, Gillmor and his team launched Bayosphere as a site that would be “of, by and for the Bay Area.”

Between the June 23, 2005, launch and Gillmor’s letter last week to “the Bayosphere community,” it was a rocky and sobering seven-month journey. By last fall, things were going so badly that Gillmor said he and Goff decided not to seek any more investor funding and chose to operate the site with their own resources. In his letter, Gillmor said he was not giving up on citizen journalism, and would take his mission to the new Center for Citizen Media at the University of California at Berkeley, the nonprofit he founded and directs. It’s unclear at this point whether Bayosphere will survive and, if so, in what form.

Gillmor declined to be interviewed about Bayosphere and its implications for the citizen journalism. “I’m going to have to let that piece speak for itself for the moment,” he wrote regarding his “Letter to the Bayosphere Community,” in an e-mail.

How could it happen?

While Gillmor generously took most of the blame for Bayosphere’s failure, I believe he didn’t confront the site’s overriding problem: It never came close to living up to its mission. It was neither of, by nor for the Bay Area.

If you lived in, say, Wichita, Kan., and Bayosphere was your only source of news and information about the Bay Area, you would think the region’s 7 million people spent most of their time thinking and talking about such nerdy subjects as podcasting kits and how far their region was behind Seattle in Wi-Fi deployment.

Shortly after Bayosphere’s launch, blogger Bondi Tram sounded a telling warning: “I will be keeping my eye on Dan Gillmor’s Bayosphere. Dan’s trying to set up a news site focusing on SF, all fed by postings of ‘citizen journalists’. I like this idea a lot — and no doubt it could be replicated elsewhere. But I see already some posts are already, in my view at least, well off topic — interesting and worthwhile story sure, but is it SF news? I think posts like this will dilute the usefulness of the site.”

Though Gillmor frequently said he and Bayosphere would “listen” to their community, Tram’s warning, and others like it, seemed to make no impact. Bayosphere continued to concentrate on news about technology, as if it were a sister publication of CNET.com. During its seven months in existence, Bayosphere ran about 400 news items, but few of them dealt with events or happenings in San Francisco or Oakland or the other communities comprising the area. What was happening at Yahoo! with its chat rooms, gun control in Chicago or the German job market for foreigners seemed to be more important.

Bayosphere has a category called “Living Well,” but little of it was a celebration of the pleasures of living in or visiting the culturally rich Bay Area. Food — an obvious topic of interest — was generally ignored. One of the few exceptions was a citizen journalist contribution called “How to Eat Sushi Properly,” but it dragged out into a tedious six-part series.

Though Gillmor and partner Goff are very savvy about Internet technology, they seemed to have problems translating that knowledge into practical know-how. When Goff sent out an appeal to citizen journalists last year for video to be added to Bayosphere, he got this reply from videographer Craig Weiler: “It’s about seven to nine weeks from conception to finished product. All the bazillion details require a great deal of planning and time to make them come out right. Because creating video content is so time consuming for everyone, people pick the projects that they want to be involved in carefully. The only exception is when people are getting paid.”

But Bayosphere had no money to pay citizen journalists, especially a video crew.

What does it mean for citizen journalism?

Is the failure of Bayosphere a bad omen for grassroots journalism and community sites in general? I don’t think so. There aren’t many success stories, but a close look shows the good sites are doing what Bayosphere mostly failed to do. They focus on a specific locality — such as Brattleboro, Vt., Westport, Conn., or Bluffton, S.C. — not an entire region. They try to capture the unique flavor of those communities. They do what blogger and media observer Tim Porter said, in commenting on Bayosphere’s failure: “They have voice and emotion and quirkiness, human qualities that appeal to people and bring the news down to a small-town level.” Gillmor’s citizen journalists, with his encouragement, too often preferred to muse about cosmic subjects, like the recent poster who proclaimed, “A New American Revolution Is Coming.”

If there is any general lesson about Bayosphere, it’s that citizen journalism at the community level needs less high-flown rhetoric and more street-smart testing. The model for what works in content remains to be finished. Citizen journalism is not a failure. But there needs to be a more engaged relationship between the proprietors and impresarios of community sites and their contributors, some of whom are news-gathering novices. 

It may be useful to organize blogs not only around personalities, but also subject areas, like crime and public safety, real estate trends, schools, quality of life, food and entertainment, and other topics tailored to a community’s particular identity. If that were done, then the homepage could be a lively collage of the best of the blogs, and, in 30 or so seconds, give users a snapshot of their community on a particular day.

The business model, as Gillmor emphasizes in his letter, should include compensation for its citizen journalists. Perhaps payment could be based on the traffic and advertising that grassroots sites generate. This possibility is steadily moving to the forefront of the lively discussion of how to make citizen journalism work in the marketplace.

There are about 6,000 identifiable communities in the urban United States. Shockingly few of them have websites that capture their voice, emotion and quirkiness. Sooner or later, they will be heard. And then Dan Gillmor’s vision for grassroots journalism will be fulfilled.