'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].

Online media's 'Californian' adventure

The Bakersfield Californian behaves for all the world as though it has forgotten it is a daily newspaper company.

The Kern County, California daily has expanded its online core, Bakersfield.com, in a burst of Web and print product launches and software development that would stagger even the edgiest of New York City multimedia studios.

Online, the Californian puts out staff blogs, produces podcasts and fields reporters with camcorders to augment its robust array of news stories, photographs and local guides. The hard-copy version just underwent a dramatic redesign with a strong use of color and graphics that bucks current newspaper design trends.

But just in the past two years, the parent company has also kicked community-driven online development into overdrive. It

  • launched three new citizen-journalism-fed community newspapers with strong online counterparts
  • developed text-messaging products
  • started selling licenses for Bakomatic, a social-networking/citizen-journalism software platform, which is now pulling 400,000 page views a month, and
  • spread the umbrella of a new division called Mercado Nuevo over all of it.

The company plans to use the new bases of users and advertisers developed by these “outside” products to explore even more new business opportunities.

In short, the Californian has transformed itself into something that many American newspapers are barely struggling to conceive: A post-dot-com information company fueled by an active, engaged and fast-growing audience.

For more than a decade now, online newspapers have been struggling for legitimacy, mindshare, usability and that most elusive of values — audience stickiness. A number of factors have hastened the almost logarithmic slide of print audience: The proliferation of social-networking media and practices and the rise of blogging and cable TV plus YouTube and other on-demand multimedia have eroded mindshare for media audiences, prompting people to spend less time and money on newspaper content.

The Californian has taken that trend as a road map toward future stability rather than a harbinger of the paper’s demise:

“I think that newspapers … have the best shot at success as anyone in this new digital realm,” said Mary Lou Fulton, the Californian’s Vice President of Audience Development. We have the audience, we have a trusted local brand, we have a relationship between our readers and advertisers. Our problem is we’re afraid to use those building blocks in so many ways: We’re afraid we’re going to cannibalize our business, we’re afraid somebody’s going to say something in our Web sites that we don’t approve of or agree with – and you know what? They will, I promise you that. We have to get comfortable with trying things that may not always be successful.”

Unlike many more-traditional newspapers’ attempts at digital-age retooling, the Californian’s drive to experiment came from the top: Publisher Ginger Moorhouse has been encouraging innovation for quite some time, beginning in 1995 with the formation of an “online committee” and followed a few years later by founding of “Area 51,” the paper’s ongoing innovation group.

Area 51 was launched with funding, a mandate to innovate and white monogrammed lab coats worn proudly by its staff. Over the years, Area 51 members have devised hardware solutions such as wireless newsbox monitors for detecting low-newspaper levels, and early text-messaging products for the mobile market.

Fulton, who had served several years on the paper’s board of directors after working in online editorial development for the Washington Post and AOL, said that Moorhouse asked her about two years ago to look into launching a community newspaper that would serve the fast-growing, upwardly-mobile northwest area of Bakersfield saying, “Because if we don’t, someone else will come along and do it.”

They began talking about inviting readers to contribute content — an idea that had been tried before, though not quite successfully. “My feeling was — worst-case scenario — we know how to make a traditional newspaper, we can do that,” Fulton recalls. “Best case — what if we can really create a critical mass of people to write their newspaper — how cool would that be? How awesome would that be?”

Thus was born the Northwest Voice — a biweekly tabloid and online paper driven today almost entirely by contributions from unpaid users.

Fulton and her team spent three or four months evangelizing for the paper — inviting school sports teams, church groups and community organizations to see and use the Northwest Voice as their place to speak and share information. To date, about 25 semi-regulars and a host of less-frequent contributors are submitting about 200 items a month.

After launching NorthwestVoice.com in May, 2004, they began developing a suite of Web tools that would allow contributors easy access to upload photos and text to the site — a content-management and social-networking application that eventually evolved into “Bakomatic.”

In January, 2005 came the launch of Bakotopia.com — a social-networking site much like MySpace that lets users post their profiles, photos, event listings and classified ads, among other things. The site features “Bakotunes Radio,” a slick Flash-based podcast jukebox featuring songs uploaded by Bakersfield musicians that’s sponsored by one of the city’s largest music-gear retailers.

Users can now post blogs of their own, send each other messages, sign guestbooks, browse topic-keyword “clouds” showing the most popular topics, browse profiles by “interests” and add each other to their rosters of “friends.”

In August, 2005 came the launch of Más, a bilingual, weekly glossy-covered newsprint tabloid on the streets and a robust site online delivered weekly for, and written by some of, Bakersfield’s 42 percent Latino population.

Just last April, the Californian launched the Southwest Voice, which mirrors the behavior of the Northwest Voice with its own region’s audience-generated content, and it took off like a shot, Fulton recalls. Submissions are already up to about 100 a month, and eight contributors have become regulars.

“Within days, we had dozens of articles and pictures, because people had already heard of Northwest Voice,” she said. “They understood that this was participation, and they welcomed it. They were eager. You don’t hear people asking for new newspapers every day of the week. We like that.”

Meanwhile, in February, the team had launched two other new sites: TehachapiNews.com, for the resort town’s weekly, and NewtoBakersfield.com, an online guide for newcomers.

NewtoBakersfield is packed with more-static content — guides to everything from restaurants and movie theaters to dog parks and farmers’ markets — but right up front is the key to the Californian‘s strategy, the same interface found on its other sites: three big, friendly buttons that invite users to register, sign in and post their own profiles and content.

“Citizen journalism” is the buzzword addling the heads of many a newspaper new-media director these days, but that’s not quite Mercado Nuevo’s focus, Fulton said.

“It’s really about participation, and participatory media. Participation is at the heart of the Internet. The Internet is a social medium, primarily,” she said. “It’s not really a question of whether newspapers can figure out citizen journalism, it’s more that newspapers have to learn how to participate, because people on the Internet already know how to do that.”

As the social-networking sites began to gain traction, the Mercado Nuevo team began retooling the newspaper’s own site, Bakersfield.com, rebuilding its registration system to allow easier collection of demographic information, adding 15 staff blogs and launching the Bakomatic profile for the site’s users. Blog capabilities are soon to be added for all users there, as well.

In the course of its growth, the Californian last year brought on Howard Owens, the former director of media at the Ventura County (Calif.) Star, which won the Online Journalism Awards for General Excellence among small sites in 2004, to be Vice President of Interactive in charge of Bakersfield.com.

But Owens left the Californian May 31, after a little more than 10 months’ service, and was replaced by Logan Molen, the paper’s managing editor.

Neither Owens nor Fulton would comment about his departure but Owens points to a post on his personal blog which details some of his accomplishments in Bakersfield, including the Bakersfield.com redesign and the push for making site registration into a social network.

Meanwhile, the past two years have seen the newspaper bump its own internal online staff to five, make the Web director a department head and begin a series of brown-bag lunches to train newsroom staffers how to produce multimedia. Fifty-two of the paper’s 75 news staffers have now participated in or helped to produce a multimedia package for Bakersfield.com, Molen said.

Molen said the staff is turning out at least two video packages and an audio package a day, and already has more than 500 multimedia packages in the archive, he said.

“There was some initial resistance, and there still is some,” Molen said. “But I think that in the last year we’ve come a long way … It really sent a strong message that we’re serious about the Web, and we’re going to give it time and attention.”

While Mercado Nuevo is still running in the red, there’s a strong corporate-development strategy behind it, bolstering the paper’s goal of making it profitable within two to three years.

That strategy goes deeper than simply building an audience and selling it effectively to advertisers, Pacheco said: The Californian is building communities of interest, gathering data from registration and cookies and loading it into a central database that can be used, without compromising users’ privacy, to let advertisers narrowcast their messages to specific audience sectors.

If users are the first to adopt the Bakomatic philosophy, and advertisers among the later adopters, there’s plenty of room for exploration and innovation, he said.

“I would love to see advertisers deal with the truly interactive stuff in a social way,” Pacheco said. “Right now, I can have my friends on my profile in Bakotopia, why not have my favorite business? I’m now advertising them, I’m now recommending them to others, advertisers will pay for that as well, if they can. It’s something we’re talking about.”

As Pacheco walks through some of the other current and future Bakotopia features — instant-blogging buttons, future text-messaging products and the decidedly unconventional vision of one Bakomatic user’s profile icon — an animation expert eating a baby’s head — he summed up the potential of what seems on the surface to be rampant experimentation:

“It’s as far away from newspapering as you can get. [But] we have increased page views by 30 percent from these six separately-branded products. Bakotopia is now getting about 400,000 page views a month, which for a town of 330,000 people is pretty dang good.”

* * *

Additional reading: You can find a presentation by publisher Ginger Moorhouse outlining the Californian’s product- and audience-development strategy, dated March 1, 2006, here.

Grassroots journalism: Actual content vs. shining ideal

Community sites filled with local news and humming with spirited discussion were a seductive promise from when the Web went wide in the mid-1990s. Sprinkling cybernetic stardust, prophets of a democratic Internet envisioned Americans connecting on virtual village greens. But it didn’t happen.

Americans did connect on the Web by the millions, but those relationships were based on users’ shared interests, not on where they lived. The initial local sites were essentially bland electronic versions of weekly newspapers. They appealed to and attracted passive readers, not active users. Then, with the dawn of the new century, came the phenomenon of citizen journalism. Suddenly there was a potentially huge new source of community content — and it was free. Across the country, new community sites popped up, many of them started on a shoestring, some launched by major media companies.

Many Internet prophets now see their early vision being fulfilled. And so it seems on the surface. But when you take a closer look, what you see, apart from a couple of honorable exceptions, is the Internet equivalent of Potemkin villages — an elaborate façade with little substance behind it.

To find out what was actually happening, I toured ten citizen journalism sites that have been created since 2003. The sites serve communities ranging from pre-Revolutionary towns to the shiniest new suburbs, across the country.

iBrattleboro

My first stop was iBrattleboro.com. The site launched in March 2003 in Brattleboro, Vt., a 252-year-old town of 12,000. Think kayaking, skiing, roadside farm stands and small-town intimacy. Steeped in history and populated with energetic community activists, Brattleboro should be the perfect incubator for online community journalism. And iBrattleboro often fulfills the promise of citizen journalism, if you can adjust to the site’s sometimes maddening ways.

On a recent evening, the following headline appeared on the iBrattleboro homepage scroll: “Crisis at BCTV – What You Can Do.” The posting by “SK-B” (the handle used by town resident and frequent iBrattleboro contributor Steven K-Brooks) read: “Problems at Brattleboro Community Television which have simmered for years, boiled over at the July 6, 2005 Board of Directors’ meeting at which the chairman refused to apologize to another board member whom he had called ‘an a–hole.’ This shocking display at a public meeting with the press present is the tip of the iceberg. The incident shows that it is no exaggeration to call the current dynamics at BCTV, dysfunctional.”

If you lived in Brattleboro, wouldn’t this pique your interest? At the end of his post, K-Brooks urged Brattleboro residents to come to the next meeting of the BCTV board, which was the following night. Despite his late posting — at 8:34 p.m. — K-Brooks’ notice attracted 168 hits, which, even accounting for repeat visitors, was the equivalent of “a couple hundred thousand” hits in New York City, K-Brooks stated in an e-mail.

He continued: “The item had its intended effect: There was a good turnout at the meeting. I think there were about 30 people, which in Brattleboro is major, public participation. … Had there only been, say, 3 spectators and no reporters, they might very well have marginalized my concern. … As it happened, they took the matter seriously, and the asshole incident was a front-page story in both dailies. The dysfunction at BCTV was dramatized for the general public, and there was impetus for change.”

K-Brooks’ story and its nearly 50 comments (some of them adding pertinent new details) are a powerful example of citizen journalism at the community level.

But does the average news consumer in Brattleboro have the time to click through 50-plus general postings to find out specifically what’s going on at Brattleboro Cable TV? Why not build a special page on BCTV where users can find a summary of the issues with links to each story and related comments? Purists of citizen journalism don’t like to see editors massaging content. Plus, the two people who run iBrattleboro, Christopher Grotke and Lise LePage, both have to juggle their work on the site with full-time jobs. iBrattleboro is not yet making enough income to pay them salaries.

Bluffton Today

My next stop was BlufftonToday.com, based in the coastal resort of Bluffton, S.C. Morris Communications Corp., headquartered in Augusta, Ga., launched the site last April, along with a free daily of the same name. The new daily replaced Morris’ Carolina Today, a seven-year-old daily that was delivered to Bluffton subscribers of Morris’ Savannah (Ga.) Morning News.

When a new user registers with BlufftonToday.com, he or she gets a personal blog, which is the only place original stories can be posted. Only staff reporters, who work for both the paper and the site, can contribute news articles, although users can comment on the articles. Unable to be full-fledged citizen journalists, users tend to do more grousing than reporting – like “Charlie,” who recently complained in his blog: “ANYONE I ASK HAS NO ANSWER. WHO IS PAYING FOR THE POLICE I SEE EVERY NIGHT IN THE FRONT OF THE NEW MOVIE CONSTRUCTION SITE IN POLICE CARS?????”

Greensboro101

Greensboro101, in Greensboro, N.C., is less a community site than a portal for close to 90 local blogs. A volunteer editorial board ranks the stories and the site showcases what it considers its best blogging on its homepage.

On a recent day the site’s homepage featured two bloggers’ takes on political forums the previous night (here and here). But neither posting offered much meat from the debates. Few of Greensboro101’s postings draw comments, even though Greensboro (population 227,000) is considered a very Internet-savvy city.

Backfence

Four-month-old Backfence.com covers Washington, D.C., suburbs McLean and Reston, Va., and Bethesda, Md. Reston (where I used to live) is currently debating whether to try to become an incorporated town — a subject that should be perfect fodder for a new site like Backfence.com that wants and needs to create a buzz. The site has flogged the headline “Should Reston become a town?” on its homepage for more than three months. There have been a little over 20 postings from 10 contributors, but few from Reston’s power players and opinion makers.

Backfence might have sparked a top-to-bottom communitywide conversation by getting one of the main advocates of municipal governance and a high-profile opponent to debate the issue while taking live questions. But Backfence’s founders, Mark Potts, who co-founded washingtonpost.com, and Susan DeFife, founder of WOMENconnect.com, a now-defunct portal for women, insist that control of the site — everything, including what should get featured — belongs to users. If no contributor chooses to organize a debate about governance involving the principals, then there won’t be one — period.

Backfence shares with many other community sites a practice that I find annoying. By allowing users to create fake screen names during the registration process, the site virtually invites contributors to be anonymous in their postings. But why would anyone want to get in a serious online discussion about a local issue with someone who is known only as “woodslope” or “nomdebytes”?

YourHub

At YourHub.com, which launched six months ago in metro Denver, most of the community news that’s featured is produced by reporters who work for the 38 suburban sites and two in the city. Those reporters also contribute to YourHub weekly papers, which are circulated as inserts in the Rocky Mountain News or Denver Post. YourHub.com’s citizen journalism, such as it is, consists mostly of handouts for calendar-type announcements and relentless charity appeals. Occasionally what should be a paid ad creeps into the postings (e.g., “Ask a plumber. A low-budget makeover story”). Navigating through the many postings — which are undated — is like going into a hardware store where all the different size screws are thrown in one box.

YourHub, unlike most other citizen journalism sites, doesn’t have a “comment” button where users can start or join an online conversation about an issue or topic. But site registrants can contribute a “Sound off” piece which will become a new item on the “latest postings” scroll.

YourHub also runs “latest news” links from area news sources. But these are a series of links to outside news sources — so users can’t make comments.

The Northwest Voice

At NorthwestVoice.com, which covers a mainly residential quadrant of Bakersfield, Calif., citizen journalists produce about 80 percent of the content. Most of it is fluff — or as the site puts it, “down-home news, told from your perspective.” Very popular in August were photos of family vacations. Virtually all hard news comes from reporters who work for the site and the companion free Northwest Voice biweekly paper. Both the website and the paper are published by The Bakersfield Californian, which maintains a more conventional website. NorthwestVoice.com users can submit an article on any subject, but they can’t post comments on other articles, so there’s little opportunity for an community conversation to build around a popular topic.

WestportNow

The most news-filled community site I visited was WestportNow, in tony Westport, Conn. WestportNow’s founder and editor/publisher, Gordon Joseloff, enlists a lot of citizen journalists, but he doesn’t post their contributions untouched by editors’ hands — the practice at most of the new community sites. Joseloff, who had a long career as a newsman at CBS-TV, and at UPI before that, said in an e-mail: “I or one of my other journalist pros work with the citizen journalists on their submissions. We explain the need for full quotes, names, ages, the who, what, where, when, and how, etc. … I think it is this professional style that gives us our credibility and has built readership.”

One of WestportNow’s best features is “Teardowns,” where visitors, using an interactive map, can go to photos of usually modest, even dilapidated homes and find out what they cost buyers who plan to replace them with grander structures. The prices — as much as $1 million or more — must create a lot of conversations in Westport. “Teardowns” is just the kind of feature that community sites should be building. There is a wealth of public databases that could be tapped free of charge — in the manner of chicagocrime.org — but most sites are not doing that. (Although iBrattleboro had a great conversation starter recently when an anonymous poster listed the 50 top assessed properties in town along with the neighborhoods that had the biggest assessment increases.)

WestportNow is big on photographs. Almost every article is illustrated with professional quality photos. When you’ve got a slew of celebrities and other notables like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward living in your town, a camera can be as important as a notepad and pencil. A recent on-the-scene photograph featured a supine Eartha Kitt being tended to by rescue workers after “the legendary singer-actress” was “shaken up but not injured” when her Range Rover was upended after being bumped from behind. The New York Post picked up the copyrighted WestportNow photo. A second photo from the site featured Kitt’s daughter taking away Kitt’s two uninjured toy poodles under the watchful eye of police.

Like other community sites depending on citizen journalism, WestportNow is formatted like a blog, with the newest postings on top, regardless of content. Joseloff worried about this at first, but explained why he restrained his editor’s instincts: “We have been through several prototypes which are more akin to traditional news sites, i.e., with headlines and summaries (and required clickthroughs) laid out according to our perceived importance. These prototypes (seen only by selected individuals) were uniformly rejected.”

GoSkokie

When GoSkokie.com was launched as a student project at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in spring 2004, it got considerable attention, and a lot of plaudits, from the national journalistic community. But in Skokie itself, an incorporated village of 23,700 households north of Chicago, it was another story.

Mike Tumolillo, one of the Medill students involved in the launch, said, “We found just one person who had the interest and aptitude” to be a Skokie citizen journalist. The j-school students produced most of the reporting. Tumolillo, now a reporter for the Albuquerque Tribune, said the class “tried to hand off GoSkokie to the people of Skokie, but it didn’t work out.” Tumolillo thinks any citizen journalism site needs someone in charge — he prefers to call that person a “motivator” rather than editor — who can find and train residents to be volunteer reporters and videographers and keep them inspired and working week after week.

GoSkokie 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. Now, however, the site is a virtual hollow shell. Recently, “Today’s featured article” was actually a job-wanted ad posted in May by a Chicago woman seeking a clerical/administrative position. The posting apparently got misdirected. Beneath it was another posting headlined “Hello.” The content reads: “Hey, does this post by itself?” (signed) Anonymous.

MyMissourian

MyMissourian.com, which is produced by the Columbia Missourian, the student newspaper published by the University of Missouri School of Journalism, was inspired, in part, by GoSkokie. But MyMissourian tried to avoid GoSkokie’s fate by using students not only to report and photograph stories, but also to energetically seek local contributors. Yet the results don’t seem to be any better.

MyMissourian’s homepage features about one or two contributions per week. The following item was still being prominently featured near the top of the MyMissourian homepage six days after it was posted: “Pineapple Salsa” — a recipe. At a recent picnic for Hurricane Katrina survivors who are being sheltered locally, MyMissourian gave disposable cameras to young guests, but the resulting online photo album shows mainly the backs of unidentified people lining up for food. Why didn’t MyMissourian bring a couple of laptops and let survivors tell their stories?

Muncie Free Press

K. Paul Mallasch launched Muncie Free Press in Muncie, Ind., in July as a “news and information source by the people and for the people.” So far, the people consist mostly of Mallasch, who covers and photographs everything from city council meetings to truck pulls. Former online manager of The (Muncie) Star Press website, Mallasch has been searching Muncie and nearby communities to find would-be citizen journalists. After 45 days, he’s connected with one. He’s trying to get the journalism department at Ball State University to donate some computer lab space so he can give tutorials to local folks on how to use Muncie Free Press’s publishing software.

On the site homepage, Mallasch tries to avoid the monotonous, extensive scrolling that is the unfortunate hallmark of most citizen journalism sites. He’s devised an elaborate scoring system that lets users vote on whether a story goes on the homepage or elsewhere. But he needs to attract enough users to make the system credible (assuming they understand how to use his scoring system).

On Sept. 23, Mallasch posted this notice on his site: “Hi, your friendly publisher here. If you haven’t noticed, things slowed down a lot at Muncie Free Press this last week. No, I’m not giving up. I’m regrouping and preparing for phase two, which will be launched soon. Stay tuned for a lot more.”

Conclusions

The best citizen journalism sites at the community level — iBrattleboro and WestportNow — buzz with activity. That didn’t happen spontaneously. The proprietors of both sites know their communities, are passionately engaged with them and, in their own ways, are not afraid to put on editor’s (or motivator’s) hats .

At iBrattleboro, founders Grotke and LePage, through words and action, gently prod users to put the site to its highest and best uses. “We’ve … tried to set a good example on the site and demand excellence from people,” Grotke says. The site could do a better job of showcasing content, but it’s working. It has more than 900 registered users and thousands more unsigned visitors. Each week, the site gets 3,000 to 4,000 unique visitors — in a town of 12,000. Pretty good.

WestportNow editor/publisher Joseloff grew up in Westport. Using his extensive knowledge of the community and working closely with his citizen journalists, he has built a site that contains a rich variety of content, both text and photos. WestportNow attracts an impressive 125,000 visits (counting repeats) a month — in a town of 26,000.

Many citizen journalism sites will surely emerge. The powerful search engines are providing community sites with traffic and, where there are partnerships, shared ad revenue, creating a tempting business model. But will new sites be vibrant virtual village greens like iBrattleboro or WestportNow or the more common Potemkin villages? My tour doesn’t leave me hopeful.

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]