YourHub 10th Anniversary: A Journalism Survival Story & What Might Have Been

Why haven't you noticed the hoopla over the tenth anniversary of YourHub, an experiment in citizen journalism and content sharing that remains a regular print and online feature of the Denver Post?

Because there hasn't been any.

The mere fact that YourHub continues to exist is a surprise given the 2009 shut-down of its first parent paper, the Rocky Mountain News, and the gruesome deaths experienced by so many similar efforts from the era.

YourHub founding editor Travis Henry, corresponding via e-mail, notes that "when we launched," circa 2005, "our biggest competitor was Backfence.com, which was VC backed, raising millions of dollars, and was the darling of the industry."

Two years later, Mashable ran a story with a headline that read, "Backfence Closes, Citizen Journalism a Failure." Yet YourHub is still here — and if the Post hasn't made a big deal of its survival, Henry feels it's an accomplishment worth celebrating.

We first told you about YourHub in a 2005 media column that found Rocky editor and publisher John Temple touting what he saw as a revolutionary concept.

Here's an excerpt from our piece that summarizes the idea and puts it into the context of the time.

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The paper expects to launch 39 zoned Web versions under this name, each corresponding to a different portion of the metro area, with content provided by regular folks. Temple, in full promotional mode, makes the concept sound practically altruistic. "We can fulfill a role of helping to connect the community," he proclaims. "Readers will be able to share their lives — and we're giving them a platform to do it." However, profit is clearly a goal here. DNA salespeople are already pitching advertisers about the concept, which will mate grassroots communication of the sort trumpeted by champions of citizen journalism with more obviously commercial components, like on-site sales. But contributors won't be paid for their articles or photographs, even though the Rocky will benefit from their labors.

Temple is confident the sites will attract lots of submissions, and he may be right. As blogging demonstrates, plenty of Web-savvy individuals are more concerned with being heard than being paid — and a handful of companies nationwide are already using this knowledge to their advantage. Morris Communications Corp. has launched a website called BlufftonToday.com that caters to residents of Bluffton, South Carolina, in much the same way that YourHub.com proposes to serve surfers here. Likewise, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, a sister paper of the Rocky, puts out community-news sections known as Appeal Editions that are entirely reader-generated. Its articles are edited, as will be pieces in the fifteen zoned YourHub.com print versions the Rocky plans to bundle with its paper once a week in the coming months. Rocky personnel will determine what winds up on the various YourHub.com home pages, too, but they won't edit online pieces — a decision that will help the paper avoid liability for anything questionable that appears. "If you're willing to register, you can post anything you want, as long as the language isn't vulgar or violent," Temple says. "We'll have a filter to identify that, and our users will let us know when something is inappropriate."

This approach hardly seems crazy in 2015, but ten years ago, there weren't many precedents for it.

"When we launched YourHub.com, sites like Huffington Post, Patch.com and Examiner.com didn't exist. Facebook was still a walled garden just for college kids," he writes, adding that "I was considered a deviant radical for suggesting that people could participate in content sharing. I remember being at newspaper conferences in 2005-06 as a speaker with publishers who still refused to put any content online and no way in hell would they allow comments from readers."

And then there was Craiglist, which "was just a blip in Colorado" at the time, Henry continues. "I remember having a conversation with staff at the Denver Newspaper Agency. A very smart woman who helped me build YourHub.com suggested that we allow the local classifieds we had at the time on YourHub.com to be free. The suggestion went over like a lead balloon with the ad execs. We charged something like $25 for a crappy web classified and Craigslist destroyed newspaper classifieds across the country, changing the business as we know it. What might have been."

In the meantime, community papers saw the YourHub concept as a threat to their business.

"We took a lot of criticism," he acknowledges. "I remember being asked to speak at a panel at the Colorado Press Association conference where I was ganged up on by a group of suburban publishers who attended the session just to attack YourHub.com."

In retrospect, their fears made sense, given the resources poured into the project by the DNA, which supported what was then viewed as a Rocky Mountain News product the Post also carried.

"The launch was ambitious," Henry allows. "We launched forty web sites, with eighteen zoned print sections delivered weekly. We were lean and young and profitable from the start, as bigger backed ventures failed. As there was no Facebook at the time, the stable of contributing writers formed a neat online community. They were allowed and encouraged to drop in on our staff meetings at any time. If someone couldn't figure out how to post, I would send out one of our journalists to their house to show them how to do so. The collaboration with the community and my staff of journalists was simply amazing."

The out-of-the-box success of YourHub convinced the DNA to create a syndication model, Henry points out, with the notion expanding to newspapers in Los Angeles, Florida and Kansas. But Henry says the Post didn't trust the YourHub team, even going so far as to create a competitive site dubbed Neighbors. "It was maddening," he concedes.

"I loved YourHub.com, believed in it deeply and thought syndication had an amazing chance," he goes on. "Imagine if newspapers, which notoriously at the time would never work with each other but had the holy grail of content resources, teamed up to fight the emerging Craigslists and social media sites of the world. But when Harry Whipple was tapped to run the DNA, he seemed to have his marching orders: cut costs across the board. And that meant no more new web development for YourHub.com. As I suspected then and have learned so much more deeply now, that was trouble. A web product is never done. When we launched YourHub.com, it was functional, but it was just the beginning. We should have had weekly, even monthly, development releases, but instead we were stuck with the half-baked product we had launched with. That doomed syndication, which was just taking off."

In early 2008, Henry was recruited to help start Examiner.com — but despite the opportunity, he considered sticking with YourHub.

"I had a meeting with Harry, with John by my side backing me," he recalls: "I said even though I was being offered substantially more money to go to Examiner.com, I would stay at YourHub.com if Harry could promise me that needed upgrades would be made to the platform over the next year. He said no and I left to help launch and grow Examiner.com to be one of the largest content sites on the web."

After that, the Rocky folded — but against all odds, YourHub lived on. "It was put on a new platform and given new upgrades and direction under the Denver Post leadership, who can now fully claim it as its own," Henry says. "Today's YourHub.com looks much different. It's just in Colorado and its content is driven as much by professional journalists as citizen journalists. It's also one of the only things the Denver Post kept when the Rocky went away.

"I still believe YourHub.com could have helped newspapers across the country combat Craigslist, or be what AOL had always hoped Patch could be. But YourHub.com was always scrappy and always local, so maybe its current incarnation is what was always meant to be. It really is the last site standing from those early days of citizen journalism."

At present, Henry is co-founder and Chief Product and Content Officer of Unleesh, which he describes as "a mobile-first based collaboration platform aimed at getting a millennial, remote workforce on the same page through 'experiential education' based training and updates. Basically, I am trying to kill lame Learning Management Systems, e-mail and conference calls for the workplace in one big swoop."

He hasn't forgotten YourHub, however. Next week, he'll join current and former staffers at a private party to mark its tenth birthday — which is about eight more than most observers would have expected it to reach.

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