If you ask why people read the newspaper they might say, ‘to be informed.’ But to be informed for what? I think the answer is to be informed to connect with other people. But those places to connect have shrunk. No one joins the Elks Club, they don’t have time to go to meetings. My neighborhood in the wintertime, I saw people going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark. It’s not that they didn’t want to have those conversations anymore, it’s just that they didn’t have [a way to] fit those into their lives. H2otown is low impact and it allows people to have those conversations at the times that they can do it. That’s why this kind of community could be important to newspapers. It provides the civic conversations.
This reminds me of one aspect of Front Porch Forum… people say that it replaces the neighborhood grapevine that use to exist when neighborhoods were full of people during the day (“housewives,” toddlers, milkmen, etc.).
What about the franchise idea like Backfence, taking one model and replicating it for other communities? Do you think that’s possible or that each community needs its own independent way of looking at it?
Williams: There’s a bigger problem here. It’s very hard to make sites with user-contributed content work. And by work I mean have enough fresh content on a daily basis to attract more participants. Even if you have the content of a newspaper, and you combine that plus volunteer content, and you try to get that down to a local level, it’s still not cooking. Whether it’s Backfence or whether it’s a newspaper or some other thing, being interested in aggregation is really important. Because there are already so many people writing about places online, so it’s not that wise to expect people to find your site and volunteer their time to write for it.
You have to have a three-legged stool if you’re a newspaper: content from the newspaper, content contributed to the site, and content that other people are writing about that topic already online that you have an automated way of finding and presenting to people.
Many Front Porch Forum neighborhoods have plenty of content… generated from only several dozen households. It takes a specific design and facilitation in our case.
What do you think about Outside.in?
Williams: I think it’s very interesting. I like the technology and like what they’ve done. I wonder what would happen if you could add Outside.in to a newspaper site. I think there are a lot of good individual pieces but no one has put them all together yet. They’re a lot better together.
One of the things we’re still working out is, ‘What is the logical footprint of a local site and what does it contain?’ If you don’t have everything it’s like having a car without all the wheels. It doesn’t work too well. I don’t think anyone, including me, knows what will work. We’re trying to work out what’s effective for readers and what’s economic for advertisers.