Great Online Expectations
Dan Gillmor's effort to reinvent journalism through Net startup Bayosphere ended, appropriately enough, on the Internet. On Jan. 24, Gillmor, a reporter turned entrepreneur, posted an open letter online conceding that his attempt to build a community news site for the Bay Area wasn't gaining traction. He said he was shifting his focus to academia. "The site didn't take off -- in large part, no question about it, because of my own miscues and shortcomings," he wrote.
Gillmor's downfall echoes loudly throughout the troubled newspaper industry. While many ink-smudged journalists viewed his effort with suspicion, Gillmor's dream was to create a sustainable model for producing local news. As services such as Craigslist have drained away classified ad revenue, papers have increasingly been deprived of the resources to cover local news. With Bayosphere, Gillmor was betting the same Net phenomenon gobbling up ads could be used to establish a new type of media outfit. In his vision, legions of citizen reporters would work with professionals on news stories and blogs to produce coverage no musty newsprint could match.
Gillmor inspired dozens of similar news sites that are gaining ground in their communities. They're sure to learn from his mistakes. The former columnist at the San Jose Mercury News threw himself into the fray in December, 2004, announcing on the paper's blog that he was leaving after 10 years. He raised venture funding, and in February, hired Michael Goff, founder of Out magazine.
The pair suffered missteps almost from the start. For one thing, they spent much of their time searching for distribution partners, cutting into the effort to build a community of readers and reporters. But traditional media were experimenting with their own citizen journalism to a greater degree than Gillmor expected, and they didn't want to team up. He never signed a partner.
Meanwhile, Gillmor struggled to establish an active community of readers and reporters. In July a promising meeting was held over lunch in Bayosphere's San Francisco offices. But there wasn't a single follow-up. Gillmor also didn't set up an organized way for members to get involved in the site, say by editing posts or policing comments. "What's necessary for any participatory project is a sense of ownership," says Mini Kahlon, a Bayosphere participant. "That was missing."
Gillmor generated frustration in other ways. He put his own blog front and center on the Web site -- to attract readers, he says. But that relegated others to less prominent pages. He also depended on technology tools to collaborate with members, to the bafflement of would-be contributors. "I tried to use the newsroom tool but I was stumped," says Craig Weiler, another Bayosphere member.
DISCIPLES MARCH ON
Last fall, only eight months after starting the venture, Gillmor began to question its prospects. By the time he wrote his letter, he had lined up a job creating a Center for Citizen Media at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley. "What's really important to me is to try to help figure out the future of citizen journalism," he says. "I think I can get a lot more done with this new thing."
While the guru plans a career change, other media outlets are picking up on the lessons of his effort. Nashville's WKRN-TV is engaging locals by including 400 local bloggers in its Net initiative. BackFence.com. is trying to drum up interest in the sites it's building for three Virginia towns by reaching out to people in PTAs and Little Leagues. Many entrepreneurs say Gillmor, whatever his own success, has helped motivate them. "He's the reason we're all here," says Susan DeFife, co-founder of BackFence.com. "He has an incredible vision about what this should be."
By Heather Green