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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Some Thoughts on the Failure of Bayosphere and the Future of Citizen Journalism

Dan Gillmor's Bayosphere was among the most well-publicized and anticipated experiments in citizen journalism, so it's recent failure came as a double shock to many folks outside the San Francisco Bay area where the project was based.

Earlier this month, I briefly commented on Bayosphere's passing. Go here for that comment and links to Dan's own lengthy account of what happened and Mark Glaser's interview with Dan on the same topic.

Now the Online Journalism Review at USC's Annenberg Center features a lengthy analysis by Tom Grubisich of the lessons to be learned from Bayosphere's failure. Grubisich notes among other factors what I think is likely the most important factor in the Bayosphere demise.

Bayosphere featured numerous posts about airy issues far removed from the nitty-gritty of daily life in the San Francisco Bay area, according to Grubisich. Put another way, Bayosphere never really was what it claimed to be, which was the news portal by and about its home region.

Thus the lesson Grubisich draws:

"If there is any general lesson about Bayosphere, it's that citizen journalism at the community level needs less high-flown rhetoric and more street-smart testing. The model for what works in content remains to be finished. Citizen journalism is not a failure. But there needs to be a more engaged relationship between the proprietors and impresarios of community sites and their contributors, some of whom are news-gathering novices."

Grubisich is being diplomatic. In the corporate world, they say good companies "stick to their knitting." In journalism, be it online or otherwise, the same principle applies: If you claim to be a news source for Hoboken, you need to publish news about Hoboken first and foremost and news about everything else is secondary.

This is likely a tough lesson for the Blogosphere to absorb because so many Blogospherians seem to view the online world through the lenses of a cause or professional perspective, rather than that of a place or region. Those "little platoons" Burke so praised don't really determine how we look at the world when it comes to our expectations for an online experience.

There is another aspect of Grubisich's observation that merits attention. In order to focus on the news of a specific region or place, it is necessary to distinguish between what is real news and what is something else, be it commentary about the news, propaganda or mere bloviation.

That means there must be some governing understanding of what is news and how to find it and report it. My guess is that the definition of news will vary somewhat from site to site as the understanding and needs of the contributors change. But somebody will need to be able to say "that is news, but that isn't" and then make it stick in terms of what is published.

Or am I still thinking too much like an old newspaper editor? I don't think so because what I have in mind here seems to be along the line of what Grubisich sees:

"It may be useful to organize blogs not only around personalities, but also subject areas, like crime and public safety, real estate trends, schools, quality of life, food and entertainment, and other topics tailored to a community's particular identity. If that were done, then the homepage could be a lively collage of the best of the blogs, and, in 30 or so seconds, give users a snapshot of their community on a particular day."

Citizen journalism is far from dead. The Paul Mirengoff-Dick Durbin exchange on Capitol Hill earlier this week demonstrates the potential of citizen journalism at the national political level and I believe there is an inevitability about the Blogosphere's future dominance in that arena.

But we still have a long way to go and people like Dan Gillmor deserve respect and thanks for being trail blazers, no matter the eventual conclusion of their particular experiments.