Monday, January 15, 2007 Citizen Shovelware isn't Citizen Journalism

Update 2/20/10: apparently "citizen shovelware" won't die. See this new post on AOL/'s "hundreds" of pages idea Will3 yrs and AOL brand make a difference? I doubt it.

Update 9/12/07 Today I received a press release announcing Idearc Media Corp's $3.3m investment in That's nice. However, given that Idearc is a spinoff corp of Verizon, and Verizon is one of those big telcos that not only denies service to rural areas of W. Mass (under the excuse of lack of profitability) but also stands to gain from the anti-Net Neutrality, partitioning of services nonsense issued the other day by the U.S. Dept. of Justice--well...y'all can fill in the blanks re my opinion...

The New York Times doesn't quite get what citizen journalism is about: witness this piece that highlights a new piece of citizen shovelware called (and completely doesn't get hyperlocal citizen usual for msm...)

In an odd twist-of-software-building, seems to mimic many of the features of via a consultant friend: AT was first)--only differenct being AT has managed to have already put up sites for pretty much every town in the U.S. Apparently, AmericanTowns founders have that same sort of "if you build it, they will come," optimism that was part of Backfence. They've also had some success in one region of the U.S.--most notably Pleasantville, NJ--and believe that lightning will continue to strike in every single town across the country.

They've even rigged it so that you can see there are members in your town--just no more than the first 25 without having to register yourself. This is a sure-fire way of getting people to register, but no guarantee of participation.

I find it odd, too that the site's founders, Jim Maglione and Tom Panian, believe people will flock to their app to post stories just the way they do at

The thing is, their app doesn't look like a citizen journalism site and doesn't have the sense of local community as (or Baristanet.) looks like is what could be considered "citizen shovelware"--the basic message being "we want to be your town square! come shovel your content into our site and let us make some money off of ads!"

Some local papers that use products want to be their geographic area's virtual town squares, too...but the success of those varies from place to place, with some place feeling nothing for the product, while others finding use for it during big emergencies ( comes to mind.)

Although, when something that feels so corporate wants to be so hyperlocal, it just doesn't feel right...

A key component to the ideal of citizen journalism that Maglione and Panian don't appear to have considered is that there is an amazing spirit of indepedence and a strong sense of civic duty among citizen journalists--and that there are great pieces of cheap/free software out there for them build their sites. There really isn't much incentive for someone interested in citizen journalism to want to use M & P's app.

Even if the effort is kind of corporate, that it is hyperlocal corporate makes a difference. I'm thinking of that has a very good community because of the type of paper it grew out of.

Yet another aspect of that's missing is that sense of virtual community and a community flavor that is so much a part of real hyperlocal citizen journalism sites. Sure, participants can register and post all sorts of information, but there's nothing that allows for comments--there are no blogs, no forums, etc. There are listings for attractions and there are even some photos of a local music event from someone's Flickr account (in Easthampton)--but there's no sense of life there. One of the biggest criticism levelled against in the recent weeks was that the sites seemed bland and lacking community. There doesn't seem to be too many ways one can build active community on AT either.

And even if there was, who would moderate it? Registration is a great start, but registation is no reason to put a site's community management on auto-pilot. Leaving comments in thin air does not make happy those who want to interact...

And what about's economic model? Looks right now to not only want to maximise GoogleAds, but also to take in local advertising, thus siphoning off more revenue from local media. Yet, from what I know about the local ad community's thinking, if there isn't a clear incentive, and a quick return, on their advertising, they're not going to go online for long. (I'm also reminded the following statment from Susan Mernit's recent post"Most of the really good--and viable--hyperlocal sites--are small businesses that serve a focused audience, with decent ad revenues but nothing like the big numbers VCs need for their $5 to $13 MM investments"

Further, I don't believe there's a one-size fits all citizen/community journalism model that's going to cash in, rake the big bucks, and put down every other citizen journalism project that's out there. Every community is different, and there are various levels of online participation in every communty.'s cook it up, throw it against the wall and see what sticks model of citizen journalism may not be what inspires communities of people to participate. I can see from the Easthampton site that there may be some local musicians who might like its app, but that's not to say the same for Bozeman, MT or Kalamazoo, MI, or Searsport, ME or anyplace else on the map.

Yet only time will tell...

Note: I would consider Backfence to be a form of "citzen shovelware" also--have it on very good source that Backfence was modeled on , and wanted to outdo AT. However, it's not about outdoing AT, but coming up with a better model where people feel connected. IMO, neither provides that sense of connection to anything beyond a corporate mothership.

, ,


gilasakawa said...'s parent company is Advance Internet, and its domain is, not ""

The company owns newspapers across the country (New Orleans Times-Picayune, Portland Oregonian and Cleveland Plain Dealer among them) but operates only 10 Web sites.

In some markets the site represents only one Advance newspaper (, for instance, has content from only one paper, the Post-Standard), and in other markets the site serves as a portal to a wider geographic area and multiple newspaper properties (, for example, is headed by the Newark Star-Ledger but also includes Advance newspapers across New Jersey).

The sites aren't citj sites -- they're built around traditional newspapers and newsrooms, so comparing Advance sites to BackFence or worse,, isn't really accurate or fair.

Full disclosure: I was employed by Advance Internet as managing editor last year.

Tish Grier said...

Thanks, gilasakawa, for the ".net" vs.".com" correction...and for the other insights

Actually I know a few things about Advance products, that they're connected to Conde Nast--and a few other things I *can't* say about them because I do not want to get myself in hot water with certain "Powers that Be" (I'm not high enough on the blogger food chain to not worry about those kinds of things...)

What I *can* say is that in Western Massachusetts, products are promoted to the public as being "citizen journalism" portals...and one paper that uses them wants to be the "hub" of citizen journalism--aggregating all the citizen journalism sites under its umbrella. For a time, it employed some local business owners and musicians to write "citizen journalism" blogs, but it has since abandoned most of them--only keeping a few, re-designing their sites to take comments, and preferring to grow its bloggers in house vs. giving opportunities to others in the blogosphere who may know more or be better bloggers than the ones they are nurturing.

I have a *big* problem with a newspaper nurturing its own "citizen journalists." It's not their job to do this. It is the responsibility of the community--if its members want to--to be the citizen journalists. The local paper should not be picking and choosing its verison of Citizen journalists, telling the public that they are citizen journalsits, and then not disclosing how they became citizen jounalists.

I hate mythmaking and misleading the public.

Further, citizen journalism is not a requirement of being part of a community. It's not like voting. It's something people choose to do because they believe it is necessary and that they can do it. Nowadays, people really don't need 3rd party tools to be citizen journalists, but they do need to have the newspapers that might write about citizen journalism to be fair and accurate and not mislead them. That, unforturnately, does not always happen.

The NoLa example was used only because their editor, during Katrina, was amazingly devoted to keeping the thing up and running, and took contributions from the citizenry. He did not wait to hear from the approved people before he posted because the reports and info he could get was more important.