The problems at Backfence, the series of local “citizen journalism” sites in the US which has cut two-thirds of its 18-strong staff, make the future of this brave experiment look doubtful. Amy Gahran at Poynter has a good analysis.
Less than a year ago Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media, handed over his Bayosphere experiment to Backfence. At the time he wrote:
I’m happy that this means the small community weâ€™ve nurtured here has a chance to grow and mature. (There’s also some small financial relief for me, as Iâ€™ve been covering Bayosphereâ€™s costs for months now.) One of the obvious options was to simply shut it down. We never wanted to do that. But it wouldn’t have made sense to keep it going indefinitely, either, without some clearer purpose and direction.
Tom Foremski at Silicon Valley Watcher sees a failure to provide enough support from journalists. He writes:
It is not enough just to put up a site and have a grateful army of citizen journalists populate it with great content. Journalism is not that simple.
Dan Gillmor’s favorite refrain is that his readers know far more about the subject he writes about than he does. That might be true, but that doesn’t mean they know how best to tell a story.
Often, they are not able to tell a story because they are too close to it–they might get into trouble. And journalists get to talk to a lot of people, they can add connections and relevancy, and improve upon news stories.
That’s why we have professional journalists (and professional PR communicators).
I agree, but I think there is more. The Bayosphere definition of hyperlocal is a community of around 50,000 people. That is probably too large to for the sense of community in which will encourage the necessary range of people to become involved and contribute.
At the start we probably need to go back to something more akin to the model of the parish magazine. Editorially such projects may be more likely to succeed in communities of probably not more than 5,000. And that would need the support of an experienced journalist or a gifted amateur.
I am starting to wonder whether a group of contiguous micro-sites might work. But how do you get the income to make it work?