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Media Notes

This Just In, From The Guy Next Door

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2004; Page C01

Mark Potts, a self-described "recovering journalist," says with a bit of understatement: "It isn't Woodward and Bernstein stuff."

He means that a major metropolitan newspaper -- say, The Washington Post, where he was once a reporter -- can't penetrate to the nitty-gritty, hyper-local level of school plays and soccer league scores that will be prime fodder for his new Web site.


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"A housewife or hardware store owner can have something to contribute, that's important to them, that would be way under the radar of what we as journalists think is important," says Potts. "It's the kind of thing you talk about at cocktail parties and barbecues."

Potts and his partner, Susan DeFife, are launching Backfence.com in two Fairfax County towns, McLean and Reston, early next year. If the idea flies, they would expand to 16 other metropolitan areas over three years, with 10 town-size sites in each market.

What makes this a noteworthy challenge to the traditional Big Media model -- we report, we decide -- is that Potts and DeFife want ordinary folks to do most of the work, with no more compensation than an occasional T-shirt. That would be a seismic shift from the top-down approach in which news organizations judge what is worthy of mention and customers have to take what they can get.

There are already some community sites practicing what's been dubbed "open-source journalism," and the potential appeal to people who feel little connection to metropolitan dailies is obvious. Backfence is generating some online buzz because of its national ambitions, its founders' track record and the notion of stealing some turf in the shadow of the nation's capital.

Spurred by the success of political blogs, Potts and DeFife are convinced that thousands of people in places like McLean and Reston can become bloggers, or post responses to other bloggers' columns, or contribute photos and information about their particular subcultures. Backfence would have a five-person staff -- plus free classifieds, Yellow Pages-style listings and a local search function -- but the content would be provided by the users. The goal: Build it and they will post.

"Yes, the Iraq war and the presidential election are important to me," says DeFife, a McLean resident and former soccer mom who founded Womenconnect.com, a portal for professional women. "But what I'm most focused on is what's going on in my world today."

There are plenty of question marks about the venture, modeled in part on a Web site launched by the Bakersfield Californian newspaper. But DeFife and Potts, a co-founder of washingtonpost.com and the @Home Network, say they don't need much to make it work. Ads would cost local merchants just $150 to $200 a month, and the partners say the site needs only a few thousand regular users to become viable. They are beginning to peddle the idea almost door-to-door, pitching Backfence to PTA groups and church organizations, and may sponsor a Little League team.

Potential investors have been wary, waiting to see if the Virginia experiment can generate revenue. The Bakersfield site's editor says it is nearly breaking even from ads that also run in a companion print edition. The site currently has a feature on local cheerleaders, a man who wrote 75 self-help books and a first-grader who won an essay contest, along with crime logs, home sales, church news and a holiday lights photo contest. Other companies, including Advance Publications, are planning town blogs, which could either be the Next Big Thing or a faddish bubble like pets.com.

"Backfence sees the de-professionalization of news as a key to its success," says New York University's Jay Rosen on his PressThink site. "The pros gave away the 'news of your neighbors' franchise -- or never had it."

Unlike sites where journalists control the content, the users theoretically will be in charge -- within limits. Abusive posters won't be allowed, though what constitutes abusive remains to be seen. "If you cross a certain line, absolutely we will ban you," DeFife says. Good posters might be awarded a certain number of stars, as on Amazon.com.

The key concept here is that what becomes hot -- such as a pie-recipe contest on the Bakersfield site -- will bubble up from the masses rather than being imposed by smart-aleck media types.

Of course, there may be some similarities with actual journalism. "What happens if two people go to the same council meeting and write two different accounts of it?" Potts says. "Fantastic. Controversy is great."


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