Fake grassroots don't grow…

Fake grassroots don’t grow.

It seems an obvious statement. But it remains lost on too many Internet entrepreneurs, who will lay down plenty of fertilizer, but who seem unwilling to plant actual seeds.

Last week, a relative who works in the journalism field told me of a pitch he’d heard from a gentleman who’s planned a national network of hundreds of local “citizen journalism” websites. He’d hired a techie to produce a site template (“Which should be ready in four months!”) and was seeking investors to raise money for a national sales staff. As for the content… well, the readers would provide that!

If anyone wants to take bets in another dot-com dead pool, put down March 2008 as my guess. (And that’s assuming the would-be CEO finds a full year’s worth of venture capital funding.)

Last week also brought news of turmoil at Backfence, one of the more notable attempts to create a local “citizen journalism” network. Co-founder Mark Potts returned after other co-founder Susan DeFife left the company, amid reports of lay-offs of up to two-thirds of the company’s staff. (Backfence was one of the local grassroots reporting sites that disappointed OJR writer Tom Grubisich in his round-up of CitJ efforts in 2005 and 2006.)

One might think that thousands of failed newspaper dot-com discussion boards from the 1990s would have taught the everyone in the industry that “if you build it, and don’t staff it, at best, a few wackos will show.” But some managers and investors continue to cling to a new media business model that reads like something written by the “South Park” underpants gnomes:

Step 1. Install discussion/blog software.
Step 2. ???
Step 3. Profit!

Perhaps this frenzy to create a “reporterless” news publication is simply the logical extension of the disdain that many in news management have had for employing actual journalists over past decades. It’s the ultimate Wall Street fantasy – a newspaper without reporters.

The trouble at sites like Backfence should warn investors considering ventures such as the one my relative’s colleague proposed. Online publishing remains a tough, competitive business. The skills necessary to build and manage a lively online community — the core of any grassroots journalism project — lie outside the skill set of many journalists, MBAs and Wall Street investors. But that does not mean that such skills do not exist.

The most successful and profitable community websites demand every bit as much work as goes into producing a daily newspaper of similar income. Readers do not long contribute smart copy to a website for free without substantial encouragement, guidance and affirmation. A site template and comment algorithm won’t provide that. A community website needs people, leaders who can find the most knowledgeable sources, ask the right questions and elicit thoughtful responses.

Just like a news reporter.

No, an interactive news community does not need as many staff reporters as a newspaper or broadcast station. But you can’t expect a community to grow, and survive, without leadership. And an MBA or Wall Street type without the ability to write or report thoughtfully on a website’s subject matter does not count. In fact, given the tough economics of launching a news website, the weight of an MBA’s salary might itself be enough to sink the project. (See Robert’s Rule #6 in top mistakes made by new online publishers.)

I’m sure that many would-be local journalism entrepreneurs are inspired by Jason Calacanis, the Weblogs, Inc. co-founder who built a network of inexpensively managed topic blogs into a $25 million purchase by AOL. But Calacanis’ blogs still relied on writers with knowledge and passion about their topics to attract the attention of readers.

New local websites that succeed will follow the rules for building strong reader communities and avoid the mistakes made by unsuccessful publishers. They will be the work of writers who know their communities, who are experts in one or more of the various beats within it, and who take the time to draw thoughtful comments and insightful reports from their readers. Whether one cares to call these leaders “journalists” or not.

The sites will not be empty shells, the Potemkin Villages of entrepreneurs with a template and a temporary sales force.

Fake grassroots don’t grow.

Now, go plant some real seeds… and see what happens.

Editor’s note: For some time now, we’ve been including links to Technorati and Yahoo at the bottom of each OJR article, so readers can track what other websites are saying about that piece. Today, we add a link to Google Blog Search, as well.

I’ve been watching Google Blog Search’s results for OJR articles, and over the past weeks found them more extensive and relevant than Technorati’s. (Though Google continues to include results from too many bot-written “scraper” blogs for my taste.) Rather than replace the Technorati links, however, I’ve decided to link both Technorati and Google, so readers can choose the better source for their own needs.

We will continue to link Yahoo, as well, to hit backlinks from more traditional websites that neither Technorati nor Google index as “blogs.” (FWIW, I chose Yahoo over Google because Google does not reveal all backlinks to a URL in its normal search engine results pages. And yes, I’m looking at Microsoft’s Live search and might add it at some point in the future.)

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. I am the editor of the Denver YourHub.com sites. When I speak to newspaper publishers or clients interested in syndicating our platform I always stress that it is not simply something you can just turn on. We hired 25 people when we launched YourHub.com in Denver and have maintained that staff.
    We are trained journalists who help the community tell its stories. The stories the community has to tell may not be the stories that we initially envisioned would be on our site. But we love them just the same.
    We invite users to staff meetings and talk with them on a daily basis. Bells and whistles are much less important than being in touch with users.
    Robert, I loved your article on the silliest debate in journalism.
    Here’s my response to being lumped into the Potemkin Village argument : Due west of Potemkin Village

  2. News organizations can be ideal platforms from which to launch grassroots journalism projects, if they devote the editorial resources to lead these communities. But that means taking on additional editorial responsibilities. Too often, news companies see grassroots journalism simply as a way to offload reporting costs onto readers, with no initial additional investment in online community development. That approach is destined to fail.

  3. Robert, that’s exactly what I’m seeing at the Gannett owned The Star Press in my neck of the woods. They launched a ‘Get Published!’ section this week. Seems to be mostly press releases and a few reader photos so far. The person in charge of it, Phil Beebe, doesn’t have a blog even and isn’t sure if he will have one. This isn’t going to help Gannett and others break-into the citizen journalism that already abounds in their communities.

    I agree with everything you wrote, Robert. Great piece.


  4. We’re new to the online grassroots world, but after five months, http://www.cornwall-on-hudson.com is getting noticed in our community of 3,000 people. I once looked at Backfence.com and felt little — now I can see how being in the middle of the action, going to village board meetings and work sessions and reporting on them, brings people information they never had before, builds a sense of community and readership — and the advertisers follow.

  5. Jeff Wilson says:

    I’m eager to read your article about what you think the definition of journalism is in an online world, since that seems to be a peripheral subject in many of your articles.

    YourHub.com and BackFence seem happy to accept press releases, birthday parties, and advertisements as news from citizen journalists. Maybe they dislike the fact that that’s all the contributions they get, but one thing I’ve learned running my website is that it’s hard to get quality submissions from readers.

    The point is that even when you plant real seeds with good intentions, lovingly care for those seeds, you still don’t know what you’ll get. Reporting isn’t exactly an easy task; hoping readers will submit unbiased news or even well-written personal journals seems to be pointless at times.

  6. Jeff, I’m not sure where you received your information, but I can tell you that press releases, birthdays and advertisements are certainly not all the contributions YourHub.com (in Denver) receives. In fact, I would say they make up a very small part of the contributions we get on the site.

    I’m very happy with the quality of contributions we have on our site. We put out 15 print sections weekly chock full of them. The key is to have a staff engaged with the community and to give users ownership.

    One of our biggest problems at YourHub.com in Denver is we have 44 local Web sites and thousands of submissions a week, so sometimes it is hard to highlight all of the best stuff in one place. We are working to improve that all of the time, while still staying super local.

    Saying that, do we discourage press releases and birthdays? Certainly not. We are trying to open up the online conversation to people, not close it down.

    How many newspapers rewrite press releases, slap a byline on it and call it a story? If we let a press release run, at least readers can see where it came from and judge it by knowing the source.

  7. Jeff Wilson says:

    Travis, I’m sorry I should have been more specific. The YourHub.com for my community is (ab)used by small businesses and those seeking free advertising. Here’s two sample headlines: “Osteopathic Physician Opens New Practice,” and “There is Hope for Acne Scarring. We can Help.”

    Granted, articles like that probably just don’t get read…but articles like that also turn readers off to YourHub.com in general (at least for my community). How many people visit a website where 65% of the content is advertising?

    I get ‘news’ submissions like this all the time, and I reject them. I may not get very many good news submissions, but I think my readers appreciate the fact that we put a lot of effort into our featured articles and daily posts.

  8. You are correct, Jeff — that definition is what I’m building up to. But I’m gonna take the scenic route, if y’all don’t mind. 😉

    To clarify, having press releases on a community website is no journalistic sin. Nor is having a slew of event listings or write-ups of interest to only a handful of readers. But such content does not engage a large percentage of a site’s potential readers the way that smart, informed reporting and analysis can.

    Eventually, the community can provide that on a regular basis. But to attract such thoughtful correspondents, a CitJ website needs to “prime the pump” with some solid “staff” reporting. (It can be from a solo blogger.) And even then, it can takes months of work before a vibrant community forms.

    Without a leading voice, though, others will step into the forum and try to assume leadership. In most cases, these folks tend to be either cranks, politicians or PR agents — folks with an agenda to be heard. And that will discourage more responsible, objective voices from sticking around, much less contributing themselves.