Backfence, No More. And?

Anyone who’s been watching the “hyper-local” space (more than just hyper-local journalism) has been keenly aware of Backfence. They were probably the first Internet company to raise a significant amount of money and then try and build a business around hyper-local journalism. Many thought it would work, many thought it wouldn’t. The first time I heard of Backfence was in the fall of 2005 from a passerby at a networking event who spoke about it very fondly. He was from the DC area and thought that Citysquares should emulate what they were doing, otherwise he thought we ought to watch out! Well, here we are nearly 2 years later and Backfence has announced they are closing shop.

Despite a recent history of management problems it seems to me that their demise was really just the result of a lack of execution, or of executing on the wrong plan. I have an inside source at Backfence, and he spoke frankly with me about the lack of open-mindedness at Backfence, a total stubbornness. Quite frankly, I’m relieved that Backfence is out of the way because if their present model did work, I think we’d all have to stop and take a very long and hard at the local advertising marketplace. Now, we just got more validation that the local advertising marketplace is not so naive, something I believe strongly in.

Peter Krasilovsky states,

“Ultimately, Backfence’s real legacy may be that it was a laboratory that helped pave the way for newspapers to seriously pursue hyper-local solutions that, notably, are not centered around local news (which it turns out, is not always very compelling). In the past several months, a number of useful, imaginative and fun newspaper hyperlocal sites have sprung up. Check out what The Washington Post is doing.”

I totally agree. They cleared a path through some very thick brush, and at the end of the path was a cliff. A trailblazer they were not.

Pete Cashmore at Mashable says that Backfence’s failure makes citizen journalism a failure. Well that’s an awfully bold headline! He says,

“The hyped “citizen journalism” trend isn’t panning out too well: Backfence, a network of 13 local sites where users could post their news items, classifieds and photos, is shutting down.”

And goes on to say,

“[Backfence and sites like it] were too ambitious, and focused too heavily on “journalism” instead of tech. Notice how the most successful “user generated writing” sites are really just about getting your users to write and rank material that turns up in search engines: success story Topix is all about good SEO, not some Utopian vision of users becoming journalists.”

I partly agree with this. Pete is right about one thing, for sure – “users” and “journalism” don’t go well together. I couldn’t agree with that more. That notion, in and of itself, is flawed. It’s almost an oxymoron – “citizen journalism.” I think that term clearly demonstrates how respect for real journalism is at an all-time low – it’s gotta be. That’s sad to me.

But in my not-so-humble opinion, Backfence’s demise has about as much to do with “tech” as it does with Britney Spears shaving her head. The reality, the apparent reality anyway, is that the execution was done poorly. It’s debatable whether or not “citizen journalism” at a hyper-local level could ever work. My instincts tell me that it can, if it’s done right. It seems to me that the problems were really that management got tangled up in itself, and according to my source, it refused to consider other methods of scaling. Hyper-local journalism can definitely work, but not in the way Backfence was going about it. It’s an exciting opportunity. Rob Curley (the poster boy for hyper-local news) is not just an anomaly, Rob Curley is a success story. And the Washington Post (now Rob’s employer) as Peter K. points out, is really onto some exciting stuff.

Hyper-local journalism can work.

I’m interested in how this affects Mike Orren, my friend at Pegasus News. Mike’s company seems to have a different approach to hyper-local news, one that makes better sense in many ways. Mike?

Amended 2007-07-16: See this article for Potts’ explanations.