About Me

  • I've spent more than 25 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. I've helped to invent ways to read and interact with the news and advertising on computer screens and iPads, and before that, I wrote news stories on typewriters and six-ply paper. I co-founded WashingtonPost.com and hyperlocal pioneers Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland; and have done product-development and strategy consulting for all sorts of media and Internet companies and startups. You can read more about me here.

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« Dog Bites Man; Kids Don't Care | Main | Pegasus Rising »

July 15, 2007


Jay Rosen

Thanks very much, Mark. Very informative. I give you guys a lot of credit for going out there and doing it, taking the plunge, making the mistakes, adjusting the model and of course dealing with doubters who can't be bothered to spend 30 minutes finding out what you are actually doing.

I found especially informative the part about partnering with big media sites.

One thing you did not go into here is: what kind of content did you find citizens successfully contributing that other citizens wanted, and how did the actual content differ from projected content, meaning the ideas you had at the start?

Mark Potts

Thanks, Jay. A couple quick comments on content:
* We really didn't have any predetermined expectation of what the content would be, because we knew the communities would determine that for themselves, based on their specific local needs. In keeping with that, it varied from community to community—McLean was heavy on youth sports; Reston had a lot of discussions about local politics. These reflected the interests in those towns.
* Some of our best content was long, back-and-forth discussions about local issues, where the meat was in the discussions (much as often happens on your blog). We also had a number of stories from the community that were picked up a few days later by local media.
* We had a lot of posting of announcements and press releases by local organizations, which generally didn't foment much discussion, but often received a lot of page views as the community checked to see what was going on around town.
* Least expected: The success of our user-generated event calendar, in all communities. It was deep, it was comprehensive, and it was entirely user-contributed.


Thanks for the information, Mark.

The content information in your comment was also very interesting.

Best of luck!


Hello Mark,
Thanks for posting your observations. Very useful reference for anyone engaging in local space. One thing though, don't you think folks building hyperlocal sites should accept the fact that their content will be mundane and think of building "community business" around that. What I mean is against the news of Paris Hilton or Facebook zillion dollar potential IPO, story of a new shop in neighborhood is always going to be mundane stuff..yes, even if you are going to buy bread from that shop. It just does not have that urgency ..that pull. But Paris Hilton/Facebook news earns money on CPM basis as against the local shop will be willing to pay for $3000 in ads if you are getting him/her exposure in front of local crowd. I know nobody wants to say this but for hyperlocal to succeed first innovation and differentiation has to be in terms of business model. If you see CPM based ads or google ads on a hyperlocal site then you can be sure that it won't succeed. You can not have business model of volume play for hyperlocal sites. Whoever does that successfully can engage whole heatedly in creating niche local presence that does not have glamour or scale of larger communities but still has very vibrant and useful presence on the web (with its abundant resources). With right business model, these communities would have got metamorphed into success stories.

Phil Wolff

So what plans have you made for your communities? Will they be closed? Copies saved at Archive.org? Put in a not-for-profit trust owned by the community members? Sold to a bigger outfit promising to keep the motors running?

I've been on small sites that just walk away and that hurts. I wonder what happens with a bigger site with more loyal, committed community.

Mark Potts

Ashish: There's no question that the hyperlocal ad sales model is very different than the national model. On a local level, as you say, AdSense and CPM are both problematic. The sales proposition to local merchants has to be based on helping them understand that they can target and reach their best local prospects.

Phil: The disposition of the Backfence sites and contents is uncertain. The company's investors are entertaining a number of possibilities that may or may not include continuation of the sites and content in their curret form. It probably will be up to an acquirer to decide how the archives are handled.

John White


I launched a hyper-local media service in Winnipeg last year and had to shut down do to cash flow issues. We were staffed by professional journalists, but also had a community space for users to post.

Registered users could comment on any story.

We shot video, audio, photos and had blogs and regular print-style stories.

We were able to cover breaking news ahead of the big players in the marketplace, and had positive reaction from the majority of users.

Cracking the cash flow nut in finding the right balance of staff is the key...


Thanks very much for writing about your experiences and lessons learned.

As a small business operator in the DC region I inquired about advertising at backfence and ultimately decided against it based on cost benefits of costs versus traffic. My business has high rankings at search engines for appropriate phrases and generates the majority of sales off of internet advertising (after decades of YP and newspaper classified and other media) In fact earlier today I spoke with a web developer and someone who follows search engine optimization and as he perused clients stats he found most traffic off the web from most clients was coming directly off of searches.

Advertising media on the web is a tough nut let alone creating vital, large, appropriate communities. I have been a participant in interest group forums that have experienced varying levels of interaction and success.

I suppose it is a learning process.

I'd simply like to thank you for your efforts and comments. Much to learn.


steven johnson

hey mark, what a thoughtful and gracious post. I really appreciate the parting thoughts, and look forward to seeing your next move....

Steven (from outside.in)

Karen Bridgman

Way down here in New Zealand we have been following your site closely, because we are in the process of launching New Zealands first ever hyper local citizen journalism network. Of all the sites in the US, Backfence was the one we thought most likely to succeed and I am very sorry it hasn't worked out at this stage. The revenue model at www.iworldpeople.co.nz includes web pages, local classifieds and site ads, all user generated, on top of publishing of news, events, opinions and photos by businesses, organisations and citizens. We will certainly take into account the lessons learnt at Backfence as we develop our sites and wish you all the best.

Rocky Agrawal

Thanks for the great summary, Mark. Sorry, things didn't work out with Backfence.

I'm a big believer in hyperlocal, but am beginning to wonder if the uber-hyperlocal portal is the way to go.

Will people instead stitch together services on their own to meet their needs- e.g. get community events from Upcoming, restaurant reviews from Yelp and neighborhood info from their HOA Website?

Angela Button

Thank you for your thoughts, Mark. How to make hyperlocal sites successful is going to be one amazing puzzle to play with over the next few years. Will be in touch again soon!

Kevin Roundtree


Thank you for your article. Kaesu, a company I develop for, has created a model that hits on just about every item you discuss in your article. We leverage relationships with local newspapers (mostly weekly) and newspaper associations to help reach local communities. We have combined free and paid (place in print) classifieds, a display ad archiving and online distribution system (similar to AdSense distribution), a local business directory and tools for businesses to add content. We also brand sites for the newspapers so they can continue to own their markets ( i.e. mtoliveweekly.coolerads.com - A paper in Budd Lake, NJ).

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But is local advertising enough these days?


Just wanted to say thanks for probably the most interesting hyperlocal article i've read in recent memory despite the fact its over two years old! I'm looking into doing something similar in the UK so your insights are much appreciated.

Martin Reeves

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