Is citizen journalism a passing fad, or can it be a self-sustaining way of being …as Rob Curley would put it … uber local?

I think it can be a vital part of a newspaper’s future, but I feel I’m in the minority. I just don’t think it’s been done right.

It seems newspapers … and non-traditional media, such as the now-defunct backfence.com … are not achieving the results they expected because they are suffering from “Field of Dreams” delusions. That is, if you build it, they will come.

Two things that have been missing in most cit-j projects out there. First is knowing what potential readers want from citizen journalism sites. Traditional media has assumed they want the same things that drive the local newspaper. What they’re finding is that, even with training, citizen journalists don’t provide that information because it’s too much work, and takes away from their valuable time. In other words, these citizen journalists are not cheap or free labor. But that’s what they eventually figure out, and that’s why they stop doing what they do.

Second, the companies assume that, once they’ve introduced themselves to the community, the citizens will flock in droves. What happens to potential readers is that, once out of sight, it’s out of mind. A strong marketing effort needs to be done to make sure everyone in the community knows they’re there and … more importantly … they can find news, or provide news, in an quick and east format. A recent blog on Poynter’s E-media Tidbits site, comparing marketing community journalism to running a political campaign, is on target. You have to keep it in the community’s face, or they’ll forget about you.

Citizen journalism sites should not be web-based weekly newspapers. They should be the equivalent of the bulletin board at the local grocery store. They are places that people can post news about their friends, their Little League teams, who’s going where, etc. Bakersfield, Cal.’s Northwest Voice accomplishes this well. It’s not pretty, and may not be interesting to you. But, it’s a great compendium of what’s happening in Bakerfield that has people reading and contributing to this. Compare this with the Chicago Tribune’s Triblocal. Flashier and more sophisticated in look, but lacking in a true “community” feel. Information there can easily be gotten from a number of local newspaper web sites. There’s nothing unique about it for a St. Charles resident to WANT to look there first for community happenings.

What’s missing from all of these, however, is a community soapbox. Here, I think, a newspaper could capitalize on “uniqueness.” Editorial, comment board, reader comments, and web-based community forums could bring readers to the site to not only read what is there, but participate in community discussion. This will require setting aside an FTE or two to be a monitor and facilitator of discussion. But this is where community journalism could really pay off. We’re already seeing this in reader comments on the web. Imagine transferring that interest and passion of discussion into an electronic community park!

Yes, there is a future for citizen journalism. Let’s just hope the “innovators” in our business don’t pull the plug without giving it a chance.

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2 thoughts on “

  1. Thanks for the clarification, Mark. I agree backfence’s problems were more internal than a flaw in its mission. My experience with backfence comes from its start-up in the Chicago suburbs, and the grassroots effort didn’t seem that strong. But that could be due to the problems you cite affecting the marketing program.Again, thanks for your comments!RK

    Reply
  2. Excellent post, Richard, but as a co-founder of Backfence.com I have to correct a canard: We did NOT follow an “if you build it, they will come” philosophy–in fact, we did extremely active grassroots marketing of the type you describe, and we knew from the jump how essential it was to success. Backfence’s failure was primarily due to unique internal issues, not from a lack of effort to engage the communities we served. As I have said and written repeatedly, nothing is more essential to the success of hyperlocal community projects. In that sense, your post is spot-on.

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