Why Backfence Tells Us Nothing About the Viability of Citizen Journalism

Rafat Ali reports that Backfence, once the poster child for aggregated citizen journalism, is shuttering all 13 of its local-news based web sites.

citizenjournalismYou remember Backfence.  It is/was, to quote the American Journalism Review, “a series of hyperlocal, news-oriented web sites whose tone and content – news, commentary, blogs, photos, calendar listings – would be supplied primarily by the people who knew each community best, its residents.”  It was one of 6 citizen journalism ventures that were mentioned in a December 9, 2004 article in the Washington Post that said:

Several notable ventures have launched or raised money this year to create local news sites online in which readers contribute all or most of the news. The big idea is that citizen-generated content lowers costs and creates more loyal audiences.

Of the 6 notable ventures mentioned in that article, here’s how they fared in the ensuing two and a half years:

Three of them: iBrattleboro.com, NorthwestVoice and Wikinews are still in business.  The first two have overcome My-Space-like design problems and are still accepting submissions.  Wikinews doesn’t seem all that local to me, unless North America is local, but is still going strong.

Advance Internet seems to have evolved into merely a directory of NJ-related blogs.  I can’t tell if there is a more formal relationship between the blogs, thanks to a most unhelpful About page.

GoSkokie seems to have joined Backfence in the deadpool.

Which translates to a 50% survival rate.  That’s probably better than the survival rates for a lot of other businesses over the same two and a half year period.  And, unlike Backfence, many of those businesses didn’t have $3M in venture capital funding to work with.  That fact being the epitome of both a blessing and a curse.

More significantly, I don’t believe the failure of Backfence or the survival of iBrattleboro.com and NorthwestVoice says anything one way or the other about the future or viability of citizen journalism- at least not the way I view true citizen journalism.  All of those web sites, as well as more than a few others that have attached themselves to the citizen media movement, have the very distinct look and feel of old media- old media that is still not entirely comfortable with the whole online thing.  Sure, accepting submissions for publication is a neat idea (and no doubt helps lower expenses), but lots of old media offline publications do that.  True citizen journalism the way I view it is journalism by citizens, for citizens, published by citizens and controlled by citizens.

Not so much people writing and submitting articles to the online editions of a dying newspaper industry.  Or to web sites that look more like a newspaper than a blog.  Everybody always blows right past this point, but the citizens who create the journalism should demand the right to serve and control that content from their own platform and for their own benefit.  Not from some online quasi-paper, not behind the walls of some ad-happy social network and not for the pecuniary benefit of third parties.  A story submission button and a comments section does not equate to citizen journalism.

It’s the combination of content creation and aggregation that mucks everything up.  Just like musicians don’t need the record labels any more, journalists don’t need the newspaper platform- or a semi-collaborative photocopy of one.  The aggregation of content is better left to the Diggs, Techmemes and blog comments.  Or even better, to feed lists tailored to the interest of the reader.

Let me say it again.  If you are are a citizen (as opposed to a member of traditional media) working your tail off to create content to then turn around and give that content to others who control its distribution and/or make all or most of the money off of it, you are neither citizen nor journalist.  You are at best an employee and, more likely, an indentured scribe.  You are an ant in another’s farm.  Why do people not get this?  Someone queue that Apple commercial.

Rather, the true citizen journalism is occurring simultaneously on distributed blogs of thousands of learned bloggers out there.  Bloggers like Scott Karp, Phil Sim, the guys and gals at Mashable, Nick CarrDonna Bogatin, Mathew Ingram,  TDavid, Tony Hung, Twangville, Don Dodge, J.P. Rangaswami, Jeff Pulver, Stereogum, Rex Hammock and Rafat’s PaidContent.Org.  And those are just a few that I noticed when glancing at my feeds list.  There are easily a hundred more on that list.  Maybe two hundred.

The future of citizen journalism is in the hands of people writing the blogs about the events that are happening around them.  The path of citizen journalism will be mapped starting from the citizen/blogger side of the phrase, not from the journalism/old media side.  At its core, citizen journalism is about learning how to distribute reliable information without being chained to a platform or gateway.  It’s equal access reporting where the readership picks the winners.

Maybe Backfence was a pioneer and, as the AJR article says, destined to be the one with arrows in their backs. And maybe Backfence led the way for a segment of the trip.  But the journey has just begun and citizen journalism as it looks today is merely a working sketch of what citizen journalism will become.

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