Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Dan Gillmor's citizen media project acquired by Backfence

Posted by Tom Foremski - April 17, 2006

By Tom Foremski for SiliconValleyWatcher
Dan Gillmor's Bayosphere citizen media project has been acquired by Backfence, a Vienna, Virginia based company that intends to use local communities to generate all online content and sell advertising around it.

It is a logical move but it also shows that citizen media is not easy to do. Bayosphere did not become the runaway success that characterized Oh My News, the Korean citizen media venture.

In my view, Bayosphere suffered from a lack of professional media involvement. Dan Gillmor, blogged there semi-occasionally but he has always been more interested in lecturing and talking about citizen media than in the work of creating it.

Mr Gillmor had been looking for someone to takeover Bayosphere since December 2005. And at one point, he approached Silicon Valley Watcher. However, SVW did not have the resources to run Bayosphere.

In my view, citizen media projects will be difficult to create unless there is strong involvement from professional media. News media is difficult to produce and citizens often lack the basic training to produce high quality media.

The best solution is to combine professional media, with citizen media and with what I call smart-machine media (SMM). In the SMM category are online ventures such as Gabe Rivera's Tech Memeorandum.

Here is Dan Gillmor's announcement and also the press release from Backfence:


From an email sent today by Dan Gillmor:

By now you may have heard about the new direction that Bayosphere is about to take. The folks at Backfence, a community information network based in the Washington, D.C., area, are expanding and have offered to continue our operations here under their wing. My business partner, Michael Goff, and I made the decision with our investors. We all agreed that this was the best possible outcome of several alternatives.

I'm truly pleased with this move. Let me explain why.

Backfence, which launched its first sites in the Washington area, is a genuine pioneer in the citizen media field. The company focuses specifically on "hyperlocal" sites, forging new media and models to better serve communities and neighborhoods in ways we couldn't do before the Internet came along. Its founders, Mark Potts and Susan DeFife, are smart, talented and energetic -- and combine terrific backgrounds in journalism, the Internet and business. They care deeply about the future of local news and information, and they've put enormous thought and effort into their operation.

They're expanding, and have known since they started that the Bay Area would be a great place to try some new ideas. We're able to give them a leg up with what we've done here at Bayosphere

I'm happy that this means the small community we?ve nurtured here has a chance to grow and mature. (There's also some small financial relief for me, as I've been covering Bayosphere's costs for months now.) One of the obvious options was to simply shut it down. We never wanted to do that. But it wouldn't have made sense to keep it going indefinitely, either, without some clearer purpose and direction.

There will be changes, major ones. Backfence is all about local, not global,serving needs that many of us believe has been underserved by traditional media -- for entirely sound business reasons. Take a look around the Backfence sites, and you'll see how their tools focus people in a relatively small geographical area on helping each other know what's going on.

I'm going to keep blogging here. The Bay Area has been my home for more than a decade. I'll be aiming my own postings on the technology economy and other facets of our lives here, such as housing and traffic, and hope to keep our conversations, which have sometimes been downright enlightening, as lively as they've been in the past.

One of the lessons I learned in 2005, when we were all exploring some new ideas about bottom-up media, was that we didn't have sufficient focus on the Bay Area. Although our conversations (some might call them arguments) about Big Issues were interesting, they ultimately may not have served us as well as the ones where we had a personal and more immediate stake in the situation. There are hundreds of places where we can beat each other up about Iraq and Bush. There are relatively few where we can help each other through the daily travails and joys of our communities.

Again, to be clear: The new site will reflect Backfence's hyperlocal style much more than mine, though as noted I'll continue to blog here and do everything I can to make this transition a smooth one. I will offer my advice to Susan DeFife, Mark Potts and colleagues at Backfence, and I hope you will, too. But they will make the final decisions.

Backfence is about local news and information, and we hope you'll be part of that more local conversation. For example: Post your views about local issues. Share with us your favorite place in the area to have a burger, or your tip on a good local plumber. Let everyone know about a community event you're putting on - and then tell everybody (don't forget photos!) how it went.

That's some of the local flavor we hoped for when we started Bayosphere, and now Backfence is going to continue that vision, beginning in Palo Alto in May and expanding into other Bay Area communities over the next few months. Please help them out by suggesting things they should do with the site and communities they should focus on. And if this appeals to you, please share your local knowledge and participate in the community conversation. That will benefit everyone.


Dan Gillmor


Here is the Backfence press release:


Backfence.Com To Acquire Bayosphere and Expand to San Francisco Bay Area


Company to Launch Hyperlocal Bay Area Community Sites Featuring Dan Gillmor’s Blog


Merrill Brown Joins Backfence Board of Directors


VIENNA, Va., April 17, 2006 — Backfence Inc. (www.backfence.com), which is building a network of hyperlocal citizens’ media community Web sites, announced today that it is acquiring Bayosphere, a site cofounded by citizens’ media pioneer Dan Gillmor, and expanding to the San Francisco Bay Area.


“Dan will be a tremendous asset as we bring Backfence to the Bay Area,” said Backfence President and CEO Susan W. DeFife. “His vision, commitment and accomplishments in the field of citizens’ media are unparalleled. We are delighted to have him join our efforts to provide the citizens of the Bay Area an opportunity to more closely connect with their communities.


Gillmor’s blog on technology and Bay Area life will be featured on Backfence’s five new Bay Area community sites, the first of which will launch in Palo Alto in May. In the meantime, the existing Bayosphere site, which has become a popular destination for discussions about regional issues and technology news, will operate under the Backfence banner, and Gillmor’s blog will be available at www.backfence.com/bayarea beginning immediately.


“I'm happy about this for many reasons, not least of which is that we're going to be able to go forward with what we started at Bayosphere” said Gillmor, a former columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and author of “We the Media,” the definitive book on citizens’ media. “The people at Backfence care deeply about the future of grassroots local news and information, and they've put enormous thought and effort into their operation. I’m confident that the Bayosphere community will be excited about using Backfence to post, discuss and share local issues and information.”


Bayosphere, which was launched in June 2005, has close to 100,000 unique visitors per month. It has become a lively forum for debate on Bay Area issues, as well as a home for Gillmor’s popular blog on technology, citizens’ media and social issues. Gillmor announced in January that he was stepping away from fulltime participation in Bayosphere to concentrate on the Center for Citizen Media, a think-tank he founded in cooperation with Harvard University Law School and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.


Backfence launched its first sites in McLean and Reston, Va., in May 2005 and has since added sites in Bethesda, Md., and Arlington, Va. Consisting entirely of content contributed by readers, the sites provide hyperlocal news coverage of the communities, as well as event listings, reviews and ratings of local businesses, photo galleries, free classifieds and other services.


“Backfence provides local community members with a vital gathering place for local information and discussion that’s not available anywhere else,” DeFife said. “It has been exciting to watch as each community creates a place that reflects its unique personality. We look forward to being part of the Bay Area and watching as it brings its own voice to Backfence.”


DeFife said Backfence chose to launch its first Bay Area hyperlocal site in Palo Alto because “it is the linchpin of Silicon Valley. Its broad collection of community organizations, strong business and commercial base, high Internet penetration and its population base are the kinds of things we look for in deciding where Backfence should open local sites. We’re looking forward to becoming an important part of the Palo Alto community and then launching additional sites in Bay Area communities over the next few months.”


Both Backfence and Bayosphere received funding from Omidyar Network, the mission-based investment group founded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to foster social, political and economic self-empowerment. Bayosphere also received funding from technology entrepreneur Mitch Kapor.


Backfence also announced today that Merrill Brown, the founding editor of MSNBC.com and a leading new-media consultant, has been elected to the company’s Board of Directors.


Brown, who had been a member of the Backfence Advisory Board for the past year, brings a wealth of media experience to the company’s Board of Directors. He is a principal in MMB Media, a consulting and investment firm and was recently named National Editorial Director of News 21, the content development component of the news initiative launched by the Carnegie and Knight foundations. In addition, Brown was the founding Editor-in-Chief of MSNBC.com and a founder of Court TV. He also has been an executive with RealOne, Channels magazine and The Washington Post Co., and is a member of the advisory board of Gillmor’s Center for Citizen Media.


“I’m very excited by the potential for Backfence to reinvent the way that local communities get and discuss local news and information. The company’s concept for hyperlocal citizens’ media represents a powerful new form of advertising-supported information, and I’m looking forward to helping the Backfence management team bring their concepts to fruition,” Brown said. “I’m a longtime admirer of Dan Gillmor, and am pleased that he’s working with Backfence. I’m confident that Bayosphere will be a vital part of Backfence’s westward expansion.”

About Backfence
Founded in 2004 by Mark Potts and Susan DeFife, Backfence (www.backfence.com) has headquarters in Vienna, Va. Backfence is building advertising-backed, hyperlocal community Web sites in which members of the community create virtually all of the content. Backfence sites bring together user-generated content tools such as blogs, photo galleries and events calendars, as well as do-it-yourself advertising tools. Backfence is designed to be easy for participation by everyone in the community. Access to the sites is free, and all that is required to post information is a simple registration. Backfence is supported by local and national advertising, including display ads, enhanced Yellow Pages listings and business classified ads—all priced low enough to make purchasing an ad to reach the Bay Area community a “cash-register decision” for local businesses.

The company raised $3 million in funding in October 2005 from SAS Investors of New York, Omidyar Network of Silicon Valley, and a group of Washington-area private investors. The company has 10 employees.


About Dan Gillmor

Dan Gillmor is founder and director of the Center for Citizen Media, a project to enhance and expand grassroots media and its reach. The center is an affiliate of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University Law School and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Gillmor is author of "We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People" (O'Reilly Media, 2004), a book that explains the rise of citizens’ media and why it matters. From 1994 until early 2005 Gillmor was a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, and wrote a weblog for SiliconValley.com. He joined the Mercury News after six years with the Detroit Free Press. Before that, he was with the Kansas City Times and several newspapers in Vermont. During 2005 he worked on media projects at Grassroots Media Inc., which was funded by Omidyar Network and Mitch Kapor. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Vermont, Gillmor received a Herbert Davenport fellowship in 1982 for economics and business reporting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.


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