Why Citizen Shovelware doesn’t work

…or “Sometimes hyperlocal just ain’t enough.”

Community site engine/citizen journalism startup Backfence (Here’s the Palo Alto version.) appears to be well on its way to falling apart.


Because people don’t want to participate in your brand, they want to participate in their community.

I don’t know if YourHub, a hyperlocal site framework developed by the Rocky Mountain News, is faring any better, but I think there’s a distinct difference between developing and selling to other newspapers a piece of software and developing and selling to other communities a brand.

This might have been part of my problem with Bayosphere, Dan Gillmor’s SF Bay Area community site that eventually became a part of Backfence. I stated a variety of cases here, and Dan engaged me in conversation in comment threads here and where I posted it on Bayosphere, and we’ve talked about other things since, but I think when it came down to it, I wanted a little space for my own neighborhood, where I could find out where to play pickup soccer on Sundays, how to sign up for the softball league in the spring, and where parents in my town sent their kids to preschool.

I’m still waiting for that.

Instead of giving us a site focused on OUR TOWN, YourHub and Backfence and now American Towns (Fremont edition here) give us a site focused on THEIR BRAND.

I can’t emphasize this enough. No one wants to connect with your brand, they want to connect with their town.

That’s why Baristanet kicks ass. It is so focused on a small chunk of New Jersey that the set of links for resources just outside the city limits of the three towns it primarily covers are called “Outer Baristaville,” because they’re just of tangential interest to folks living in Baristanet’s, um, circulation area, if you will.

So how can a newspaper provide this sort of tightly-focused hyperlocal community site?

First of all, if you’re going to use pre-fabbed syndicated software, re-brand the damn thing and localize it.

Second, if you’re going to roll your own, I want that thing braised in the juices of your town. Think about getting input from outside the newsroom. Go to community leaders and ask them what they want out of this sort of site. Ask them what they would post, and what they would want to read.

Then, brand the thing as if it were created from the bottom up by the locals in your community. Think about how both the least tech-savvy and least newspaper-friendly locals are likely to interact with the site. Serve the community, not your brand.

Danny Sanchez serves up the call to action:

“Make no mistake: If the local newspaper doesn’t get hip and develop an online community (and that doesn’t just mean snarky message board minions), they will eventually face someone who will. And it will then become a choice of bearing another spirited online competitor or spending the bucks to buy them out.”

He also points to Tish Grier, from whom I lifted the pleasant coinage in the title of this post.

To check out what the real hyperlocal animal looks like in the wild, visit a few of the Top Ten Placeblogs in America over at Placeblogger. I’m fond of #10, having lived in El Burque for a year. Duke City Fix covers Albuquerque like an online alt-weekly and then adds links to local bloggers and has its own Flickr pool.

Hint: If your hyperlocal site makes me think “Hmm, maybe we’ll move back there someday,” you’re probably doing something right.

So does Duke City Fix run on an expensive built-for-hyperlocal all-in-one solution?


It’s a free, open-source CMS called Nucleus.

15 thoughts on “Why Citizen Shovelware doesn’t work”

  1. hey Ryan, thanks for the link! (and I don’t mind borrowing from my title )

    Important point about branding–I’m often toggling between the worlds of marketing and journalism, and sometimes overlook where there’s the overlap (or just forget to transfer one vocabulary set from one profession to another…)

    But that’s exactly right when it comes to stuff like AT.com. It asks folks to participate and promote their brand–not the towns people live in, which should be the point of c.j…

    I also found it super-offensive that the AT crew wants to post local ads, which not only assumes everyone wants to jump on the internet ad bandwagon (local small businesses are often reluctant), but also takes ad revenue out of communities. Ads on hyperlocal sites keep the revenue in town.

    Advance.com has been trying to do local blogs for years (don’t know if you know who they are and the machinations behind how they got involved w/Conde Nast owned papers–emai me though…) Rather than culling info and talent from local bloggers, they decided to “develop” their own–with very mixed results. All the local papers in W. Mass region I live in have wanted to cultivate bloggers from inside–claiming they’re a cut above “regular” bloggers because they’re also “journalists”. Which, in many respects, doesn’t reallly do much for nurturing blogger relations.

    great blog you’ve got though…:-)


  2. Tish – re: Newspaper bloggers claiming to be a cut above “regulars,” I certainly don’t think that’s the case everywhere — to me, newspaper blogs are more about the conventional press trying to insert themselves into the blogosphere that might be “better” at communicating (and driving traffic) these days.

    Then again, I’m all sorts of wrapped up in the topic, working on a thesis about the adoption of blogs as an interactive technology, and doing a bit of blog evangelizing at the paper I work at: Shameless plug.


  3. I was just looking at the American Town Web site for Gainesville a few days ago. I signed up, poked around, and walked away. The Gainesville Sun newspaper Web site is far more Gainesville than AT.
    And that’s a good thing.


  4. […] Invisible Inkling: Why Citizen Shovelware doesn’t work Ryan Sholin has a theory about why Backfence is in trouble: “Because people don’t want to participate in your brand, they want to participate in their community. … No one wants to connect with your brand, they want to connect with their town” (tags: backfence citizenjournalism community hyperlocal) […]


  5. I completely agree with your point that readers want to connect with their town, not with a company’s brand. Backfence’s appearance comes across as some sort of template with the word “McLean” or “Reston” in it.

    But I have to disagree with the idea of ‘leave the newsroom” to an extent. Here, Backfence could have provided a bit more news – or at least solid infomation that would have attracted more users. Most posts, if not done by a Backfence employee, were about relatively mundane topics – which may be expected as local issues can often be.

    I live in Northern Virginia. Backfence never really developed a real connection with residents. In part, because, it seemed like a template trying to seem local.


  6. Totally agree with your point, Ryan, about branding versus building community. But I totally disagree with Trish’s follow-up point that courting local advertisers is “super-offensive.”

    She said: “I also found it super-offensive that the AT crew wants to post local ads, which not only assumes everyone wants to jump on the internet ad bandwagon (local small businesses are often reluctant), but also takes ad revenue out of communities. Ads on hyperlocal sites keep the revenue in town.”

    The Readership Institute shows over and over again that advertising is a form of content. If any site wants to be local, it’s advertising must be local, as well. And if a site wants to be hyper-local, it’s advertising should be hyper-local.

    There’s no ethical rule anywhere that says media companies should refuse local ad dollars if they’re not headquartered locally.

    Whoever does the best job for local readers deserves local ad revenue.


  7. @Lucas – I was wondering what Tish meant by that, actually.

    I would *hope* that community sites with local content would be sustained by local advertisers. What better place for Joe’s Pizza on 4th Street to advertise than a news page for people who live on 4th Street?


  8. Ryan, if you are ever in Denver please come by a Wednesday YourHub.com meeting. I can only speak for Colorado’s YourHub.com, but we are definitely not facing the problems of connecting with the community other sites may be having. We regularly have users attend our staff meetings and help shape the site. We are in constant contact with our community members, who really more or less control the content of YourHub.com. We may not be the flashiest site in the world and don’t seem to break the big stories, but we have built a great online community that reflects what is going on in the different cities and towns in the Denver Metro area. Last year we had a powerful luncheon with an auditorium full of users who talked about how the site had open up a whole new world to them. It’s hard for outsiders in other states to really get a feel of the impact we have because we are so local. I’m sorry about that. I believe we have a lot of improvements to make, but our greatest strength right now rests with the community. And that I am thankful for. Check out my latest blog entry where I discuss this further. The invitation is open.


  9. This reminds me of this presentation Derek Powazek made about community, in which he says (I paraphrase) that old-style online communities were like company towns with a bossman whose rules you had to follow, and that new communities won’t let you talk at them but might let you visit if you’re nice.

    I agree that it’s a good idea to keep risks low by using low cost and commonly available tools (though depending on whether it’s a newspaper company or an individual what “low cost” is might mean something different). One thing I’ve been thinking about is how many sites like Duke City Fix and my own at H2otown kind of rub up against the limitations of blog software in terms of supporting a community. In particular, I’d love to see greater support for social networking among the visitors to the site. Sites like these are successful when the participants come more to talk to each other than to “read stuff, get information.” Comments go some of the way, but ways to let people “friend” one another would be great.

    (Bakersfield did something like that with a tool they developed called Participata, but it’s out of reach for the average individual. Not too expensive for a smallish to midsize paper, though)


  10. Ah, some controversy here. Whom should the ad dollars go to?

    One concern I have had with Citizen’s Media is the well-intentioned idealism as shown by Liz. In many ways I share that idealism. But I think we have to take a step back and look at reality.

    Reality is that, quite often enough, that locally created and run citizen’s media may not be sophisticated enough to provide viable advertising opportunities for local businesses.

    Reality could also be, as Megan Taylor found out, that sometimes those big ‘corporate’ type sites DON”T do the job right, but the local one does.

    Yes, it would be great to see the latter as the rule as opposed to the former. But for that to happen, those that run local sites MUST learn the ins and outs of online advertising. And they also MUST learn how these small, local businesses think when it comes to advertising. They’ll often see is strictly as a cost factor, not as an investment, and, as a result, go the low-cost route (fliers), or the traditional route (the local newspaper). It’s my bet that many citizen’s media types won’t be prepared for this unfortunately. Their idealism may get them to think that bringing in advertising should be easy…until they go out and find out its challenges. Suddenly they’re turned off when they can’t seem to get the local restaurant, tire shop, or dentist to place an ad. Yet they have to pay bills like the rest of us.

    I DO think that Ryan and Tish are onto something though with the way the sites like Backfence and others appear. Intentional or not, they can come off as too corporate, which takes away form it’s “down home” feeling.


  11. Michale Bazeley got it right about what I said..

    My op on this relates to stuff that Terry Heaton’s written about local broadcast affiliates and their need to keep ads local vs. relying on GoogleAds (it’s pretty complicated–you have to go to Terry’s blog and read a bunch of his past essays to get my drift…I’ve been reading him for over a year now, and what he says for broadcast makes great sense when also applied to print.

    But, to re-state it: why should local ad revenue be going to some corporate entity somewhere that is disconnected from the community. What is the corporate entity’s investment in the local community? How can the corporate entity understand what works for a local business? It’s more of the “shove your content into our site and let us make some bucks” –If no one in the local community cares about the big corporate citizen shovelware site, how effective will the ads then be?


  12. Hey Lisa,

    I’ve been thinking alot about that “audience” participation thing, and it *may* change as people become more comfortable socializing online. Right now, we’re at an in-between time, and may not see the effects for awhile. this article from CNet explains how the kids of Gen X’ers are far more comfortable with all the social media–even as little kids–because we are the pioneers who have been mucking around with it and not worrying about it so much like the Boomers.


  13. […] Backfence in a Box: Our Brand or Your Town? Ryan Sholin of Invisible Inkling makes an excellent point as to one of the reasons why Backfence may be faltering. People want to participate in a site that focuses on their town and not your brand. While it may or may not fully apply to Backfence’s intentions, it is, at least in theory, a pretty accurate assessment of what people will look for and how Backfence can appear. […]


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