On being a citizen reporter: an international perspective, part VI

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This was a presentation by Susan DeFife, CEO of Backfence.com, to OhmyNews International Citizen Reporters’ Forum held in Seoul, Korea on July 14. OhmyNews is one of the first and largest Web sites for citizen journalism, the same citizen-driven content that fuels the Twin Cities Daily Planet. However, in contrast to for-profit Backfence the Twin Cities Daily Planet is a project of the Twin Cities Media Alliance, a nonprofit organization.

Susan DeFife, CEO of Backfence.com

Backfence is a for-profit collection of hyperlocal community sites consisting completely of citizen reported news and emphasizing neighborhood-level information. Their ideal targets are suburbs and “ring” cities of 50-60,000 surrounding medium to large metropolitan areas. They are now in Washington D.C., Palo Alto and three other sites. The Chicago area will be one of their next expansions.

Susan says that it’s all about user-generated content. There are no editorials and it is not edited. They don’t pay for the content either, offering no payments or incentives for stories generated by citizen reporters. The only editorial control they maintain is the home page for each community.

The home page is automated to pull and display the articles that are most viewed, most commented upon, etc. However, there are also safeguards so that one person can not dominate the home page with frequent postings.

The contributing writers determine what to submit and to which section of the site they post their stories. Citizen reporters cover local news that would otherwise be cost prohibitive for traditional media — but not for an online effort. They see themselves as complimentary to traditional local media, not competitive with it.

They are supported by display ads and classifieds from advertisers within the local community. It is comparatively very affordable for advertisers and it gets their ads to their local readers. No popups nor interstitials are allowed, just block ads. Susan said that theirs is a low-cost, high-profit model.

She reports that Backfence’s plan is to hit 16 metropolitan areas within three years, building 10 community sites across suburbs or nearby cities.
Despite this aggressive growth plan it’s important to have a local presence in the communities they serve, and they do so with a local bureau office. They put a local content manager on the ground, as well as some sales people and a general manager as well.

In searching for content contributors, they find that small organizations respond best. Little Leagues, PTAs, arts organizations, etc. are prime customers. As Backfence becomes part of the community there is a trust factor involved. You are to the community what you said you would be, so transparency is important.

Since the local Backfence site may become the outlet for local news, it must be done so in a respectful environment. Backfence sets the community culture and sets some safeguards (for example, no anonymity) but each site establishes its own personality. In McLean, Virginia, the whole town was excited about Girls Little League and how their local team worked their way up to win the Girl’s Little League World Series. The traditional media coverage was sparse until the win.

Readers can search on articles by writer, subject or date. In their early days they did put up a Wiki on the site to allow readers to edit each other’s stories, but found that people didn’t want to edit the work of others so they took it down.

What they have found is that viewership is evenly distributed in age and sex for registered members. Each month 6,000 unique members visit. They have found that 10 percent of the local population is reading content on their site and 1 percent is producing content for the site.

Finally, Susan mentioned that tensions do arise between the writer/reader and the business model for Backfence. Readers have been slow to accept that there is no content without their contributions. There have also been those who want to provide stories covering an issue broader than their local demographics, but they have not allowed these stories, as that would not benefit Backfence’s local advertisers.

©2006 Gregory Daigle

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