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.

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. Tom– Excellent depth here. I was about to remind several people about you earlier survey of the landscape. It appeared that far too much of the recent coverage focused on Dan Gillmor the A-List blogger rather than looking at the actual usage. Dan’s a terrific guy, but it seems like the best way to do it is to grow organically.

    And the technology still has to catch up. Today’s tools still require too much work to adequately servce a community.

  2. I don’t claim to have answers, but a few things jump out at me from reading this.

    1. Investors – could this be a problem? A citizen journalism site shouldn’t require much money to start or operate. I wonder if money got in the way of the mission, or was a distraction. Is the goal to share what community members see, hear, and know, or is it to operate a successful business model?

    2. Size – citizen journalism seems to be doing best in small communities, and large urban areas haven’t really hit on successful models yet. Perhaps focusing in on a particular neighborhood, doing it well, then adding other parts of a city would be something worth trying. Try looking at cities as big collections of many smaller communities.

    3. Time – seven months seems like an extremely short amount of time to give a project like this time to grow and succeed. By the time some people first hear about it, it is gone. A lesson to be learned might be to give experiments like this a few years to find a voice.

  3. Citizen journalism is still in its infancy and still controlled by the technologically savvy early adopters. This isn’t just true of content creators – like Gilmor laments – but also its consumers. When you look at “free market-edited” news sites like reddit, digg, or Newsvine, they almost all focus on what makes mouses click: technology and sex or some combination thereof.

    It would be wonderful if some grad student somewhere did a comparative case study of why Bayosphere failed while OhMyNews International (based in South Korea) still succeeds as does El Morrocotudo and Atina Chile (both based in Chile).

  4. David– You must not have read Tom’s article above. He listed *plenty* of municipal/regional CJ efforts in the U.S. that are not technology-focussed. Not that they are all shining examples at this point, but they are organically growing and should have a good future ahead of them.

    And he was was clear about Bayosphere’s problems.

  5. Blogging had an effect in Canada during the election.

    http://www.theinfozone.net/editorial32.html

    The Boom and the Echo

    Blogging is a growing effort.

    It is still coming into its own.

    James