Wanted: Experienced, passionate citizens for hyperlocal sites: Earn $$$ from your home!

The approximately one million people who live in the 13 communities in suburban Washington, D.C., Northwest Chicago and the Bay Area that Backfence tried, but failed, to serve spend about $13 billion annually shopping and dining out. That’s right – $13 billion. To reach them, local online advertisers spend $28 million, based on Borrell’s 2007 numbers. Of course, established Internet sites in those communities – particularly ones run by well-established metro and smaller newspapers – gobble up most of that $28 million. But what about the ad revenue crumbs that fall from the table?

Backfence shrewdly positioned itself amid all that affluence, but didn’t capitalize on it. But couldn’t a network of grassroots sites that actually connected with their communities pick up a small fraction of that $28 million by year two or three? How about 6 percent? That would be a little more than $1.6 million. Continuing my back-of-the-envelope math, that splits down to about $750,000 for Backfence’s seven communities in the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, and $425,000 for the three communities in Northwest Chicago and the same for the three in the Bay Area.

By my estimates, the three clusters of sites could break even and maybe squeeze out a modest profit – about $100,000 – from $1.6 million ad revenue (display and paid search).

Here are the estimated expense numbers for each cluster:

  • Publisher: $60,000
  • Content manager, $50,000
  • Two sales reps: $40,000 each (in base salary and commissions that would go higher with bonuses based on sales that top goals)
  • Tech manager: $20,000 share of total cost
  • Staff fringes and employer taxes: $40,000
  • Citizen contributors: $110,000 or $250,000 for $1,000 monthly stipends, with the higher amount for the seven-community metro Washington cluster
  • Office rent and expenses: Up to $25,000 (depending on cluster size)
  • Computers: $10,000
  • Other (including promotion, phones): Up to $50,000 (depending on cluster size)

All this, multiplied by three clusters, adds up to slightly less than $1.5 million. Green-eye-shade folks may argue with some of my cost estimates. I agree a content manager – a good one – is worth more than $50,000. But if the compensation included stock options, wouldn’t there be a lot of talented Internet editors – ones with a passion for building grassroots sites – who would be eager to take the plunge?

Success with even a modest budget would hinge on whether the sites succeeded in connecting with their communities and producing content that users found generally interesting, sometimes significant and occasionally indispensable.

It would also depend on a “feet-meet-the-street” advertising staff that could sell strong visitor/page-view numbers to local and regional advertisers who, for good reason, have been resistant to buying display space on grassroots sites.

The Backfence strategy – expecting its communities to deliver compelling content without any inspiration, mentoring or compensation – was doomed to fail. The result was stories and commentaries that rarely made anyone sit up and take notice. When Backfence announced its impending demise on its homepages on June 29, users, the few there were, paid almost no notice. Boring content meant weak traffic, and the most aggressive ad staff can’t sell that.

We shouldn’t beat up on Backfence too hard. It was doing what most other hyperlocal sites were doing, and continuing to do, which is why so many media opinion makers have turned negative on the prospects for hyperlocal

To succeed, grassroots sites need above all experienced and passionate editors collaborating with experienced and passionate citizens. Experienced citizens aren’t just soapbox ranters. Sometimes they become activists on issues – not as one-off loners but as part of a network of deliberative doers. Working with them, editors can help pinpoint the sometimes elusive themes that shape a community’s identity. Experienced citizens know why one neighborhood school is succeeding and another is failing or why one church or synagogue in particular has a thriving congregation, but mentoring editors can help them to be better communicators.

Backfence expected its contributors to work for nothing. Its founders piously maintained that financial compensation was the last thing contributors wanted or expected. Many people donate their time to their church or congregation, neighborhood school or library and charitable organizations. But why should they work free so a for-profit company can justify its business model and rake in more money?

I propose that regular citizen contributors – working, say, 40 or 50 hours a month – be paid a $1,000 monthly stipend. That comes to $20 to $25 an hour – not a lot, but not an insulting amount, either. If you’re a retiree, a stay-at-home mom (or dad) or somebody looking to close a household budget gap, $1,000 a month for a few hours here, a few hours there, may seem like a pretty good deal.

If Adam Smith and Ricardo were even half right, compensation is also likely to produce higher value content, especially if experienced, passionate editors and experienced, passionate contributors are working in sync finding out what makes their community tick, what makes it proud but also sometimes angry about various pieces of the hometown mosaic.

In his otherwise unpersuasive apologia, Backfence co-founder Mark Potts made the excellent suggestion that entrepreneurial grassroots sites try to hook up with major media companies. Newspapers, struggling to find their place in the Web world, are plunging into hyperlocal, but the results so far are journalistic Velveeta. The missing flavor – the tang – will not be delivered by the creators of Scripps’ YourHub, Tribune’s TribLocal or even the Washington Post’s snazzy new LoudounExtra, but by journalistic entrepreneurs who have the right instinct for connecting with the inner being of communities.

On July 17, Pegasus News, the hyperlocal that covers more than 120 neighborhoods in Dallas/Fort Worth with a sassy brand of “pro-am” user-tailored content, announced it had been acquired by the Seattle-based Fisher Communications, which owns 19 TV and eight radio stations in the Pacific Northwest. With his hands-on editorial strategy, Pegasus founder Mike Orren is 180-degrees opposite what Potts and his let-the-community-decide team stood for – a lesson, perhaps, for would-be hyperlocal entrepreneurs.

On Aug. 7-8, “Journalism That Matters: The DC Sessions,” will gather at George Washington University. High on the agenda will be this imperative: “Define the citizen/media connection. How will the public be involved?”

The Washington conference has attracted more than a hundred participants from academia, corporate boardrooms and, most importantly, the trenches of hyperlocal. I hope it will put aside the millennial rhetoric that thrust grassroots journalism in the media spotlight, but didn’t provide any follow-up support and counsel that proved useful. Instead, I hope the conference will help guide journalists – pro and am – on to a hyperlocal path that is realistic but creative, that balances bottom lines with soaring ambitions.

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.)

'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.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, 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.


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.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.


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.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.


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.


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].