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Papers beef up sites as Backfence.com starts

Palo Alto residents will soon have three local news Web sites competing for their attention. Backfence.com — which last year started local sites in four Washington, D.C., suburbs — has announced that it is coming to Palo Alto. It’s Palo Alto site could be online as soon as Tuesday (June 6). It will provide news, event listings, classifieds and retail display adverting. Residents are strongly encouraged to post their own opinions and photographs. Backfence has hired former Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor to write for the Palo Alto site.

Perhaps in response, the Palo Alto Weekly has redesigned its web site, http://www.paloaltoonline.com, adding a blog by editor Jay Thorwaldson and a web log, where residents can post comments.

Last November, the Palo Alto Daily News put a web log on its site, where readers post topics and then comment on those topics. The topic with the most views (2,474 as of June 2) was headlined “Bring Back Diana Diamond!” referring to the paper’s former editor. Other topics include “Gays in Los Altos,” “John McCain sells out,” “Shrub makes a good move,” and so on. The Daily News, which was acquired by Knight Ridder last year, says it will launch a redesigned web site in a couple of weeks.

The Backfence approach of a “hyper-local” web site has been tried before in Palo Alto. The Palo Alto Weekly launched Neighborspace.org in 1999. Here’s the editorial announcing it. It folded about a year later due to a lack of participation.

A look at Backfence’s sites in the D.C. suburbs doesn’t show a lot of participation either. On the news page of Backfence’s Arlington, Virginia site, for instance, there were 10 news items on Saturday (June 3), none with any comments from readers. Five of the news items were press releases from local nonprofits, two dealt with the weather, one was a link to the police department’s web page, another was about a school board agenda item on extending recess, and there was a plea for readers to post items of their own. The site had only a few classifieds posted. One part of the site that showed public participation was the photos page, where eight people had posted their favorite pictures.

Ironically, it was a lack of participation that caused Dan Gillmor (right) to throw in the towel on his Bayosphere “citizen journalism” project earlier this year. Now Gillmor is going to Backfence.

How will Backfence promote itself in Palo Alto? Will either the Palo Alto Daily News or Palo Alto Weekly accept ads from a would-be competitor? Both newspapers accepted double-truck ads from the Mercury News two years ago when the Merc was trying to build its print circulation in Palo Alto (and before the Daily was purchased by Merc parent Knight Ridder). But promoting a rival web site might be a different issue.

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