Trouble at Backfence?
I’m not one for spreading rumour and hypotheses bordering on guesses, but
there’sthere has been little else to turn to when it comes to the development at Backfence, the local citizen media site for a number of smaller cities in the States. Two of the founders have now left the project, and according to Peter Krasilovsky at the Local Onliner two thirds of the staff of 18 are being let go.
Mark Potts, who was first to leave the company, has now returned to run it, after Susan DeFife, the second of the founders quit. Potts says the numbers and the layoff ratio I cited from the Local Onliner are incorrect, but doesn’t supply more detail.
Susan DeFife is quoted stating this reason for leaving the company: “Ultimately, we did not share the same strategic vision for the company as the Board of Directors”. This seems to translate to the site not making enough money.
But in an email, Mark Potts gives me a different picture.
Backfence is still operational; our sites are up and running and serving their communities and advertisers. We’re still very excited about the opportunities for ad-supported hyperlocal citizens’ media sites, and we’ve got some great success stories in both content and advertising to point to at Backfence. And the Backfence managers and employees that I’m leading are really pumped about our plans to expand the company more broadly and to add many exciting new features.
Perhaps BackFence isn’t aiming at the right target. Stories that appeal to an audience across a 50,000 to 100,000 population, i.e., BackFence’s target (e.g., “city council enacts smoking ban in restaurants”) may best be reported by professional journalist, as has been the case for generations. Stories that appeal to residents of one neighborhood, supposedly the cornerstone of BackFence (e.g., “utility work closes Maple St. and Birch Ct. to through traffic this week”) are not of interest to the other 49,000 people in town.
So, a BackFence model runs the risk of combining (A) stories with broad appeal that may not meet professional journalistic standards with (B) lots of micro-stories that are each only interesting to a very small slice of their readership.
The blog I, reporter has a good point about interaction being a key issue.
In my experience, community-based online media thrives when there’s strong participation and collaboration. It’s not enough just to read the news there, or even to publish your own stories there.
Sadly, Backfence never really got the participation/engagement part down well, as far as I could tell. Matthew Ingram’s recent scathing headline nailed the experience of most Backfence community sites, I think: A back fence around a ghost town.
As I’m not a very economical person – that’s something I leave to people who are good at it – it is hard for me to figure out how a startup in a small local market, starting from scratch, could be expected to make enough money to break even in such a short period of time. But surely they must have a plan? Though without enough people (citizens) participating, it seems like a daunting task.
So far all I have to go on is speculations. So far, Dan Gillmor who sold his Bayosphere to Backfence in April 2006, hasn’t commented on the current situation in his Backfence blog.
At CyberJournalist, though, Mark Potts, the first co-founder who quit Backfence and who’s now come back to run it while the site recovers, has this to say:
“We’re very excited about what we’re going to be able to do and how the hyperlocal space is exploding,” he said. “We’re up and running and moving forward, and very excited about where we’re going, with an excellent team and very supportive investors and board.”
Update 2007-01-11 with Mark Potts comments in the first part of this post.