TERENCE SMITH: Tell me what Backfence is.
SUSAN DEFIFE: Backfence is focused on the very smallest community issues.
Hyper local citizens media, whereby we're going into towns of under a 100,000, and asking the community to talk about the issues most important to them. We've created technology, we've created a design template and a very easy user interface, and now we're going out and asking the community to tell us what's news to them, what's important to them.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark, journalism from the ground up?
MARK POTTS: Yeah, grassroots journalism is what it's been called -- very different from top-down journalism where an editor decides what's important or a reporter goes to a meeting and maybe writes about one or two things that happened at that meeting, but there were eight or nine things on the agenda that people cared about, and people in town may have cared about, you know, the eighth or ninth item on the agenda that the reporter didn't care about or left early for to file.
And this gives them ability to talk about that amongst themselves and someone can come in, go back home, write on their computer, hey, the decision was made on the stop sign and here's what it is, and other people can then jump in and comment on, well, that was great, or that wasn't good. But to try to get at that sort of micro kind of news.
TERENCE SMITH: And so the site is there for people to contribute to. And how do you know who they are and the accuracy of what they're reporting?
MARK POTTS: Well, we know who they are because we ask them to register. We ask them to give us their name and some demographic information so that we can confirm them with an e-mail address, of who they are, and we're finding that most people, when they pick a user name, are picking their own name, so they're known in the community and that helps.
Beyond that, we hope they're going to be reliable and they're going to be accurate.
There are community rules on the site that explain -- please be truthful, please don't liable anyone, please don't do personal attacks. There are also on the site buttons for reporting misconduct. If you see something you think is inaccurate, you think is wrong, you can report that or you can post a comment to it and say, I don't agree with this, that this is not what happened, or this is how I saw what happened -- and hope that that kind of dialogue is how this gets sorted out and that the community itself winds up policing itself which is what we've seen in our experience with online communities.
TERENCE SMITH: So Susan, it should be self-correcting.
SUSAN DEFIFE: Well, in fact, Mark and I have a lot of experience running communities and we have seen this happen, that the community comes in and will either say, you know, this is not productive, let's not have this conversation here, or the community will ignore those kinds of posts and have its own dialogue elsewhere on the site.
What we tell people is, you know, use this as you would any, everyday conversation -- take it with a grain of salt, determine whether that sounds right, or explore it further and ask some questions.
We also have a feature where you can click on somebody's name and you can see all of the posts from that user. So you can start to look at, Is this an opinion that I value? Is it something that's similar to mine? Or is it something that I want to look at and think twice about?
So it really is a use it as you would everyday conversation.
TERENCE SMITH: What is the niche that you're trying to fill, or vacuum, if it is one, that you're trying to fill?
SUSAN DEFIFE: There's a huge gap in local information. You can get national news in many places, and very good national news. What is missing is that down-to-the-neighborhood level.
How do I find a good plumber? How do we take care of getting a traffic light at that dangerous intersection? What's going on with the school principal being transferred or mobile classrooms going into our school?
It's conversation that used to take place on the front porch or over the backfence, if you will, when there were parents who were at home during the day.
Now you've got, you know, two-income families and parents who may be in "silos." Their children play soccer so they're in soccer silos. So how do you find all of that other information in the community, it doesn't exist, and how do you have it on an interactive basis where you're exchanging information, asking questions and getting that dialogue going?
TERENCE SMITH: Well, traditionally, you would have looked for that information in the local section of your newspaper.
SUSAN DEFIFE: Yes, and what's happened is metropolitan areas have gotten so large and the newspapers that cover them have gotten so large, it's harder and harder for them to cover something on a much smaller level.
There are 60 or 70 or 80 communities in the Washington area at least. The Washington Post, you know, is simply stretched too thin to cover them. And any newspaper is. So they've sort of, you know, they cover the highlights but don't cover the real local information.
The weekly newspapers may cover it, it depends, the quality varies widely in weekly newspapers, and they're weekly. They come out once a week, you can, you know, you see them. If you want to reply to something, write a letter to the editor, that shows up the next week. If you want to reply to that, that shows up the next week.
We can do all that in real time. We don't have to wait. If something happens on Monday, it can be on our site Monday, people can be talking about it Monday and Tuesday. They don't have to wait till Thursday when the paper comes out, and then the following Thursday to comment on it.
So we think we can surface that local news in real time and get people talking about it in real time.
TERENCE SMITH: Now I know you've just got this site up and running. Are there examples, however, where you think there's some news, where you are performing sort of the classic editorial judgment? There's some news that you want to report and you sit down and put it on the site?
SUSAN DEFIFE: Initially, that has happened. We've seeded content, we've looked at what are the key topics in the community, to help get that dialogue going. We also help build the homepage on a daily basis. So everything else on the site is created by the users in the places that they want to create it.
We take some of the most interesting or the most traffic posts, and bring them up to the homepage so that the viewer coming in can see what's most important.
Over time, this is going to belong to the communities themselves, and what we found is that if you try to over-edit or if you try to come in and make posts, the community fails to respond.
The community wants this ownership and they want it to be what they think it is. Again, it's going to be very interesting to see what bubbles up to the top in each committee. It may be sports in one community, it may be schools or traffic in another, and we're really going to enjoy watching how that goes.
TERENCE SMITH: Now these people who contribute are not professional journalists. They may or may not be a good writers.
SUSAN DEFIFE: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there an upside and a downside to that?
SUSAN DEFIFE: The strong upside is that you're getting information that you might not get anywhere else. A reporter has certain resources that they'll go in and look for but what about the, you know, the man down the street who runs the local gas station, who may talk to everybody who comes in, who has information that a lot of people don't have.
How do you gather that information? So the real plus is that you're getting news that is important and maybe not well reported or available in other places.
The downside may be that somebody tries to put up a press release or rambles, and so we set guidelines, where we just make suggestions. Think of this as a conversation. What information would you want to know about? The who, what, when, where, why basics of reporting apply here, and so we use that as suggestions.
We've been very pleasantly surprised. There's only been a couple of days but we've been very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the content and the dialogue that has happened so far, and we expect that that will continue.
TERENCE SMITH: Have you had to take anything down, Mark?
MARK POTTS: No, not a thing. I agree with Susan, the quality's been surprisingly good. Maybe not surprisingly good. We've heard from people around the country who've done things kind of like this.
They've been pleasantly surprised at the content, and so we probably shouldn't have been surprised, and we've gotten some very thoughtful things put up already, that you'll go, wow, this person really knows this subject.
And I think that's the thing that's so magical about this. Where we're reaching out in the community is where people themselves know the subject, cause a comment that, you know, none of us are as smart as all of us, and so we're reaching into that pool of information in the community.
I may not know anything about, you know, why the new street light is there but there's somebody who is a community activist, who is all over, who knows about it, to put it up to share with everybody, and to answer those kinds of questions and to share that kind of information is really the crux of what we're trying to do.
TERENCE SMITH: How is this different from blogs or chat rooms or community postings of one kind or another?
MARK POTTS: It has elements of all those. In fact the format of the site is very blog-like, but the word blog does not appear on the site because blog is a loaded word. People don't seem to know what it means or they have a lot of different definitions of it. They think it's political, they think it's kids, or they think it's, you know, just crazy ranting.
We think it's a very interesting format to use for what we're using, and so we're using blogs and a technology called "wikies" and some other things that are powering the site but are not explicitly talked about on the site.
We want people to feel comfortable, that this is like writing an e-mail or writing something in a Word document, without having to think about what the technology is.
But the target audience is not geeks, it's not techies. It's soccer moms and soccer dads and people who, you know, are just living their lives, and we want to make it very easy for them to use.
So from that standpoint, we want technology to be very easy and transparent for folks to use.
But at the same time, that this does pull together a lot of the things that have appeared before in some sort of crude community forums online and some of the e-mail list servers that run in some communities, where they were built several years ago on technology that is now pretty crude and hard to use, and we think we've built something that's a lot easier than that and it's a lot of those will move over -- that discussion will move over to our platform now in the community.
TERENCE SMITH: And of course the overhead is marvelously small. I mean, you can and do run it from your dining room table.
SUSAN DEFIFE: Exactly. You know, the great news about this is that it's all virtual. We have a tech director in Florida, we have a product developer in Massachusetts, we're working from our dining room tables. The content is being created by the users themselves. It really is a very low-cost model.
At the same time, we're putting do-it-yourself ad tools into place, so you can create your own ad, create your own classifieds, create your own yellow pages. There's no printing press, there's no paper or ink or delivery cost.
It really is a very virtual, community virtual business.
The idea is that this expands nationwide and we take this Backfence in a box concept into many communities around the country, all the while keeping the cost basis very low.
TERENCE SMITH: But you do sell ads.
SUSAN DEFIFE: We sell advertising, display advertising, classified ads and yellow page advertising; yes.
TERENCE SMITH: And why should people invest -- why should an advertiser advertise on Backfence rather than in The Washington Post?
SUSAN DEFIFE: The Washington Post is a great newspaper. They cover a very large geographic area, however. We are focused on communities of 100,000 or less.
So we're talking about pizza parlors, nail salons, hair salons, and these kinds of businesses are very localized.
So an ad in the Washington Post is far too expensive and it covers a geographic area that is too large and is not of interest to them.
The weekly newspapers have costs that are about $500 for an eighth of a page ad, they're black and white, they're not interactive, and you have no idea of what your return on investment really is.
So a lot of these local advertisers have said I'm looking for an alternative. We've created is what we believe is a cash register decision, $100, $200 for a display ad, yellow pages ads are free but if you want to put in your hours of operation and description of your business it's $120 a year. I mean, it really is a very easy decision for local business to make and then you get the ROI measurements -- how many people are looking at your ad, how many --
TERENCE SMITH: ROI?
SUSAN DEFIFE: Return on investment. How many people are looking at your ad, how many people are clicking through. That's detail that we can provide. As far as the weekly newspaper is concerned, people are looking at that newspaper, maybe once a week, reading it and then putting it in the recycling pile.
Our site is one that's bringing people back, hopefully several times a day, seven days a week, and your ad is constantly running and constantly being viewed by people who are coming back and are thinking about your business on a regular basis.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell me about the first few days, Mark. I know you've just begun.
MARK POTTS: Yes. We're still catching up on our sleep. The first few days has been very interesting. We've gotten very strong reaction from the community, very positive reaction.
We've done page view numbers that were beyond our wildest dreams. I think we did about four months word of page views in the first two days. That was very encouraging. A lot of that is coming from people looking around the nation at us.
But it's also coming through community. We've seen registrations in the communities running way ahead of our projections, of people registering to use the site, and we're starting to see some content going on the site, and that's very exciting.
We know it's going to be a gradual build. This is not going to happen overnight. It's going to take a while for the word to get around the community that this is where to come.
But one of the things we did early on was -- and this is critical to how we launch one of these -- we went out into the community and talked to the leaders in the community and the community groups, the government officials, the heads of the chamber of commerce, the people at the schools, the people in the PTAs, the people in the swim clubs, and talked to them about becoming involved, putting their information up, getting their members to come on a regular basis.
We felt we'd be lucky if we had a good response from about 5 percent of those people at launch. We got a good response from about 95 percent of those people at launch and they're committed, and they want to use it and they're going to bring their members with them.
TERENCE SMITH: So that suggests that there is a need or there is something missing in the other sources of news that they have.
MARK POTTS: Yeah, I think so. I think it's the ability they have to control the message, they're waiting for what somebody else says about it, and what their stamp is, and they can't get their message out in the pure way that they want, you know, without any spin or with their spin, and I think this gives them an opportunity to talk directly to their members and directly to the community in a way they haven't had before.
TERENCE SMITH: One of you, I'm not sure which, maybe you, Susan, described this as sort of a "perfect storm" of both technological and other developments. Take me through that thought.
SUSAN DEFIFE: Right; right. What's going on now is very interesting. Community content in advertising is something that was done six, seven years ago, and then it seemed to die off, and now, all of a sudden, content community and advertising is back with a vengeance, and what we're seeing is a perfect storm of the technology use and acceptance.
Internet use is incredibly high. Broadband penetration in the markets we're targeting, particularly, is very high, which means the Internet and the computer has become an always-on appliance. It's much easier to go in and check on a regular basis, what's going on.
People are far more willing to create their own content. The number of blogs out there is just growing exponentially. People are willing to put themselves out there and put their content online.
And then we've got this gap in local information but a very strong desire to get that information about what's going on in the communities closest to me.
So all of this is coming together at the same time that local advertising is flowing. You know, it's a billion dollar market that is really moving very quickly online. So we saw this as a prime opportunity in a perfect storm, if you will, for creating this company.
TERENCE SMITH: So, in theory, it could be very profitable.
SUSAN DEFIFE: In theory, it should be very profitable, again, given the low-cost basis and the number of advertisers. We're also seeing a very interesting phenomena bubble up around the country now of people who want Backfence in their communities.
So we're looking at the possibility of licensing this throughout the country to grow much faster than I think we had thought it might grow.
TERENCE SMITH: You going to use video or radio?
MARK POTTS: We'll definitely have video. There's photography up there now. We'll add video in the next few months, so people can put up a video of their kid hitting a home run in a Little League game or the video of the parade down Main Street.
TERENCE SMITH: Explain that to me. Video that they would take themselves --
MARK POTTS: Take their own video with a video camera and we'll provide a space for them to upload it, you know, a 30-second clip or something like that, that would live on our computers and then be available for anybody to see, so they could show their neighbors or show their families or whatever -- here's Johnny hitting a home run to win the game.
And I think we'll look at audio, we'll look at some of the other ways of distributing information. It's clear that, you know, one of the things, you can't just sit here and wait for people to come on to the Web site. You've got to find ways to push it out. So we'll use RSS and e-mail as ways to do news headlines and bulletins.
Here's what's on the page. You're going out of town today; here's your daily e-mail on what's going on in town today, that people will get, read, and then come back to the site to read more. So we'll build those products as well, so this becomes a really full-fledged multimedia experience for people.
TERENCE SMITH: And what has happened, then, to the concept of the gatekeeper? The editor or the reporter who tried to discern what is news in a community and report it.
MARK POTTS: I think there's still a huge place for them and I think there's you know -- this is a supplement and a complement to that, and that can't go away and it won't go away. There will still be journalistic enterprises that do the great investigative work that -- you know, figure out what the big stories of the day are and tell people.
But it's very clear, and I think in the backlash we've seen against the media, that we've seen in circulation and advertising over the last couple years, that people want something else, that they're not satisfied for whatever reason, with what they're getting from traditional media and they're looking for another way, and so we want to give this alternative to them, especially for local news.
You know, there are a lot of places to get national and international news. There's not a lot of places to get local news, especially online. So we want to try to fill that gap.
But we also want to give people a way to tell their stories and talk to their neighbors that way. At the same time, they can still get traditional journalism from other sources.
TERENCE SMITH: Why couldn't washingtonpost.com do this?
MARK POTTS: Boy, that's a good question! The washingtonpost.com is, which is terrific, is, is got some of the same issues that the Washington Post newspaper has, which it covers a huge metropolitan area, and actually, now, covers a huge national area as well because most of their traffic comes from outside the Washington area.
So they're spread very thin doing that, covering the national news, being on top of what's going on in Iraq and the Supreme Court and everywhere else.
They haven't had as much ability to focus on local. It's expensive for them to focus on local. They've got to deploy people to do local news.
Now they could do something like what we're doing. But there's real concern at a lot of media companies with intermingling nonedited content with edited content, that the readers will get confused that what we stand for as a newspaper brand is that we edit this content, we vet it, we make sure it's real, and we put it up and we stand behind our story, and that if you commingle unedited reader-submitted content with that, you're going to have problems.
There are some folks who say look, just put a label on it and you're done; that works. And we've talked to some media companies who take that position and are going to try to integrate it a little more into their product.
So there's kind of two schools there. Plus, you know, the newspaper companies are fighting lots of battles right now and they don't move quite as quickly sometimes, innovate as they could or should, and that may be a reason that, you know, you haven't seen a lot of them move into this.
We're now starting to see some. There's an experiment in Greensboro that's very interesting. It's something very much like what we're doing...
But there are people dabbling with it and I think we'll see, over the next few years, more of that, and we're hoping to partner with the media companies to help them do that.
We're in conversations with I think just about every newspaper company of size in America about how we can work with them as a partner, as an investment, as a consultant, whatever, to help them figure out how to get into this business.
TERENCE SMITH: Susan, I'm trying to get at this notion of unedited content. Surely somebody is going to perpetrate a fraud of some sort on an unedited site. The temptation is too great.
SUSAN DEFIFE: Uh-huh.
TERENCE SMITH: What's your vulnerability in a situation like that and what do you do about it?
SUSAN DEFIFE: I will tell you that I think our vulnerability is a bit less than maybe another site. We are very, very small in our focus and being very small in the focus and the size of the community means that you know many of the people who are coming on to the site.
We've been careful to ask people to register and we know how to reach them, even if they use a user name on the site, we know who they are and how to reach them, and we've put this report, misconduct tag on to every comment, every photo, every post within the Web site.
We've created a community agreement that we've asked you to agree to. Having said that, you know, could it be vulnerable? Certainly it could be.
And we have hired very good attorneys to work with us and help us figure out what is -- what does publishers' liability look like on the Web and with user-generated content?
Quite frankly, we are paving new paths here, so we're learning a lot of this as we go along; but we are very careful about the fact that if we were editing content, we would be liable for that content.
So if we don't edit it, you know, ironically, in addition to what goes on in the community, if we don't edit the content we are not liable as publishers for that content.
Having said that, we do want our community to feel safe and we want to make sure that we're doing everything we can to keep some of this kind of content out and we will remove it immediately, if we find that is the case.
MARK POTTS: And obviously we've seen that even edited products are subject to fraud. So, you know, is there a Jason Blair in McLean? There may be, but it turns out the whole raft of editors can be fooled.
In fact, we might actually work better than that because if the community sees something and protests it, we can react to it immediately. It took The New York Times a few weeks to react to their problem.
TERENCE SMITH: But that's your first line of defense, is that the community or people in the community would spot a fraud and call the author on it.
MARK POTTS: Yeah, and they will. We've seen -- even just in the couple days of public operation, and a week or two of data before that -- people take ownership of this site. People start feeling like it's theirs and they start sending in suggestions on how we can make it better, and they say, Why isn't it this way? and, you know, why did that person say that? and was that said in the right place? should that be somewhere else?
Just, even in the early days, we're seeing that, and that's very exciting. Just what we want to see happen.
TERENCE SMITH: And you -- I didn't ask you this but I'm assuming there's no subscription; this is free.
MARK POTTS: This is free; yes; very much.
TERENCE SMITH: And anyone can post a comment? SUSAN DEFIFE: Sure. Anyone can read the content on the site. If you want to post the content, post a photo, you need to be a registered user in order to do that, and that's part of the control mechanism at least on the site.
TERENCE SMITH: A registered what?
SUSAN DEFIFE: Registered user or registered contributor.
MARK POTTS: Or member.
TERENCE SMITH: The reason I was curious about the word is that word is the substitute for reporter.
MARK POTTS: Yeah.
SUSAN DEFIFE: True; that's exactly what it is. Contributor; right. You have to register in order to be a contributor; yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Now reporters have been users for years.
MARK POTTS: That's right.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, let's ask the question. Is it?
MARK POTTS: It's a redefinition in a lot of ways. This is not Woodward and Bernstein stuff. This is what's happening around the community, which is, tends to be very mall. People have said church bulletin kind of information.
So from that standpoint, you know, the issues at hand are not that great, although they may be to the people in the community. Is that news? I don't know. It does kind a redefine what we thought of as news.
We thought of news as being kind of big issues of the day but the fact is, if you're in a community and the stop light is out, that's big news. Or if there's a big traffic jam and we can't figure out why, that's big news. If there's a fire down the street or a string of robberies, that's big news if you're in that area. That's not news that almost ever would have been covered by traditional media. It was too small, it was too local.
And in a sense what we're doing is creating a lot of little news stories that may have, you know, 50 or a 100 readers, but when you add them together you start getting a fairly interesting aggregate of readers around a lot of different stories.
TERENCE SMITH: So you would argue that it's news but overlooked news.
MARK POTTS: Exactly. News, overlooked news. It's news because it's happening to me and my neighborhood and I wasn't able to find out. I had no way to find out what happened. A townhouse burned down down the street and it happened in the middle of the night and I, you know, I know [inaudible] but what happened? Was someone smoking in bed? Was it an electrical fire?
Is there something I should know about the neighborhood? You wouldn't know. Traditionally, that was the kind of thing that was sort of neighborhood gossip over the back fence or at the front porch. But we don't see that.
You know, we don't know our neighbors as well as do. We don't have that kind of communication.
This provides a new medium to surface that kind of information, to look and say, oh, there it is, or to ask a question -- Hey, does anybody know what happened? Does anybody know, you know, why the principal was transferred? And find out from the community -- Oh, yeah, I've got the inside information on that, or I'm speculating about this, or I know somebody on the school board who can tell us, or the school board themselves will explain to you, here's what happened. This is a way of talking to our constituents.
It's a different way of exchanging information. Is that news in the traditional definition? Sometimes yes and sometimes it's just good information.
SUSAN DEFIFE: I think what it comes back to is if I don't know about it, it's news to me.
And as somebody pointed out to us -- actually, a media executive at a newspaper who said presumably, and arguably, everything that is on the site is of interest to someone. It's been posted; it's of interest to someone.
TERENCE SMITH: That's good. Very interesting; very interesting.
MARK POTTS: It's a great sociological experience.