When Dan Gillmor told readers last month that Bayosphere.com, his community journalism startup, wasn't working out, it came as a shock because of the high hopes pinned on him. Thanks to his blogging and writing as a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and his book We the Media, Gillmor had become perhaps the preeminent guru of grassroots media. He was expected to help bridge the gap between the old world of journalism and the new frontier of the Web.
While Gillmor's grand plans to jump-start community journalism with Bayosphere may have fallen flat, other startups are gaining ground. A growing number of services are racking up successes great and small. The service that originally inspired Gillmor, Ohmynews.com in Seoul, has become an established media player in Korea. The 6-year-old site has turned into a prominent news outlet, with 80 staffers and revenues of $5 million. In the U.S., a number of small sites, including Baristanet.com in Montclair, N.J., and Westportnow.com in Westport, Conn., have steady audiences, turn a profit, and plan to expand into nearby communities.
What's more, even established media operations, including Nashville's WKRN-TV, The Denver Post, and Rocky Mountain News, are setting up new services for local bloggers and community members to report the news -- and creating innovative advertising models at the same time.
When Gillmor published his open letter about Bayosphere on Jan. 24, he outlined some of the lessons he had learned. Among them: Community members need clear guidance and direction, collaboration tools are no substitute for good old-fashioned community outreach, and people need to feel motivated to stay involved. While it was too late for Gillmor to apply these lessons to his own startup, many of the community sites have already taken such knowledge into account.
Take WKRN-TV, the ABC affiliate in Nashville. It is one of the most aggressive in fostering the involvement of people in its community. In April, it launched Nashvilleistalking.com, a site that aggregates the posts of 400 local bloggers and features a blogger employed by the station. Next, WKRN-TV plans to create an advertising network to sell local and national ads across the blogs, with revenue to be shared between the bloggers and the station. "I admire WKRN's management for throwing a lot of commitment and resources to citizen journalism when they had no idea where it would lead them," says Rex Hammock, a Nashville blogger who is part of Nashvilleistalking.com and who runs a custom publishing company.
The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News are using print in an attempt to entice locals to join an online community. Last summer, the two papers set up 42 community sites under the umbrella of Yourhub.com, which allows local residents to post photos and report on events. The newspapers then plumb these online offerings to create local weekly print sections delivered to subscribers in 15 different regions served by the papers. In their first year of operation, the 42 sites and their associated print editions are already in the black. "The thought in the beginning was, will the community be able to provide the news?" says Travis Henry, managing editor of Yourhub.com. "We're doing a great job of covering what the high schools and churches are doing."
For these virtual community newspapers, big and small, getting people involved in gathering the local news is critical. Debra Gallant, the founder of New Jersey's Baristanet.com, has emphasized training to bring along new writers. She teaches them how to pick and report stories, deal with comments and tips, and mimic her breezy, irreverent style. Started in 2004 by Gallant, a former New York Times columnist, Baristanet.com covers such things as fires and Girl Scout cookie sales, in Montclair, N.J. "We're not doing what the local newspaper is doing," says Gallant. Although Baristanet.com focuses on crafting an entertaining take on the events the local papers don't cover, its reporters can spark controversy. When the site broke a story about a local teenage band that used racist lyrics, readers bombarded it with comments and Gallant's house was egged.
And despite the explosion of cheap tools aimed at helping people collaborate and publish online, technology isn't a panacea. With its publishing tools, Backfence.com, a startup service, is trying to create communities online in three areas where they didn't exist before. The hurdle is making locals aware that this technology is available and persuading them to try their hand at journalism. Although the sites, launched last May in McLean, Reston, and Bethesda (Md.), each attracts 6,000 to 7,000 readers, the challenge is turning readers into journalists. So now Backfence.com is asking people who are active in the community -- whether as PTA or Little League leaders -- to join advisory boards and take charge of evangelizing their local Backfence.com sites.
Even as Gillmor retreats from the field, the movement he helped spark is gaining traction. Community journalism on the Web is gaining mass and evolving well beyond anything he could have done on his own. "What we're doing takes a while to sink in and then for people to understand it and then to trust it," says Lise LePage, co-founder of the iBrattleboro.com, a citizen media site in Brattleboro, Vt. "And then they come back every day." As more community journalism sites proliferate, they may help point the way to new models for how the news is reported.
By Heather Green in New York