Response to Outing: On Demise of ‘Hyperlocal’ Backfence

By: Mark Potts

I’m concerned that Steve Outing’s latest E&P column about hyperlocal sites paints an inaccurate picture of why Backfence failed, and more importantly, might discourage badly needed experimentation in new models for hyperlocal coverage, especially user-generated hyperlocal content.

The failure of Backfence, which I co-founded, was largely the result of situations unique to the company. To blame our problems on our model of using content created mostly by unpaid community members is simply in error.

We were honored with great contributions by thousands of community members (not a single one of whom asked for compensation), and our staff worked tirelessly to encourage and shape that content. I’ve said repeatedly that nothing is more important to user-generated hyperlocal sites than staff involvement in marketing the sites and helping to manage the content.

But the key to getting deep into community coverage without spending a ton of money is to enlist the community’s help. And we know that this works. Indeed, the model of unpaid user-generated content is sound and proves itself over and over every day on countless sites, listservs and other online communities (Facebook, anyone?) that don’t have any sort of editorial staff.

One of the problems here is that journalists tend to want to think of this content as journalism, but it’s not — what makes user-generated sites work is the strong sense of community among the participants and the things they want to talk about. It’s often more about the discussions and dialogue than it is about traditional reporting and storytelling. On a hyperlocal site, the end result may be something that really can’t be defined as “journalism,” but that is intensely interesting and important to the people who visit and contribute to the site.

And that gets to my second point: It’s also unfair to suggest that hyperlocal content is “of low quality and boring,” as Steve does in his column. Low quality? To a professional editor, maybe, but the fact is that most participants in user-generated sites can communicate very well. It may not be “journalism,” but it’s still quite readable and interesting.

And “boring” is in the eye of the beholder. To an outsider, any hyperlocal information is probably boring. It may be to a transient resident, too. But to someone with a stake in the community, kids in the schools, paying taxes, dealing with community services, patronizing local merchants, etc., those arcane town council meetings, zoning disputes, tips on finding good pizza and kids’ sports scores are incredibly important — more so than just about anything a lot of us think of as journalism.

There are many great, thriving experiments in hyperlocal content out there, using many different models — Trib Local, Pegasus News, the New Haven Independent, WestportNow, EveryBlock, etc. None of them has quite cracked the code for hyperlocal success, but these things take time. My opinion, as a survivor of one of the pioneering efforts, is that the truly successful hyperlocal site will combine many of these models, bringing together user-generated content, professional journalism, databases, maps, photos, social media, video, discussion forums and many other elements into a powerful omnibus of local information that is far more relevant to the community than anything we’ve seen to date.

So let’s not go making flat statements about what doesn’t work, or what’s “boring” about hyperlocal sites. It’s way too early in the game to even begin to know what the successful formula will be. Let’s celebrate those of us who are working hard, inside and outside newspapers, to crack the code.
UPDATE: E&P Online columnist Steve Outing posted a response to this column on his blog.

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