CityTools: phenomenal promise . . . but of what?

tn_cauthorn.jpg  “To peel back newspapers to their essential core , , , creating marketplaces”

Bob Cauthorn is a guy with a history in newspapering, opinionated and abrasive (here’s a taste) — and I say this having worked with Bob and indeed having sparred with Bob, only to come away impressed by his passion, intelligence and committment to what was once called interactive journalism but is now social media or citizen journalism depending on the context.

Online Journalism Review recenty interviewed Cauthorn about his newly launched  CityTools, which OJR editor Robert Niles described as “a social media framework for publishing news articles, lists and classified advertisements,” adding that “Cauthorn demo’d . . .  a platform that serves both newspapers as well as independent and individual publishers.”

I smiled as I heard Bob’s voice behind words like these:

“After I left The [San Francisco] Chronicle, I went backpacking along the Pacific Crest Trail and did a lot of thinking about the state of journalism and online newspapers . . .  I decided, on a very cold night in the Sierras, to peel back newspapers to their essential core. You know? And part of that essential core has been creating marketplaces.”

Exactly how? Well, it takes OJR’s Niles more than three paragraphs to distill the site’s promised activities, including simultaneous support for multiple languages. “Speak English, Spanish… and Swedish?,” Niles writes, “CityTools will let you read, create, order and distribute content in all three, at once.”

I visited the CityTools site to get a sense of how it presented and, sadly, I came away confused. I am not sure who is supposed to do what. From a long menu on the left I clicked on the entry for how-to and landed on another page with far too many choices starting with, “The detailed 15-minute HowTo.”

I’m sorry, but in our Attention Economy time is in short supply. New habits and even new tools must be intuitive and viral. We have to know what it’s going to do for us before we pick it up. That puts a premium on simplicty and punishes complexity. CityTools, which is awfully powerful but powerfully intimidating, is on the wrong side of that trend.

And despite Bob’s professed and no doubt sincere desire to create a marketplace of ideas, I am fascinated that neither he nor Niles used the words “money” or “cash” or “revenues” in their discussion. What kind of market can exist without them?

I say this as a sympathetic, if critical observer, because I sense an incredible power in CityTools. I registered with the system and was impressed by the smoothness of the process. I felt like I’d put my hand on a purring race car. Trouble is, now I don’t know how to drive it.

So let me pose a few suggestions or questions that might be helpful in focusing the sales message for what I sense could be an important tool – a breakthrough tool perhaps. Here goes:

 — Less vision and more substance about who should buy CityTools and get what payback how soon.

– Are there case studies of the tool in use?

– Is this a system that can be adopted by the freelancer or a startup or is this a big-outfit system?  And if both, how does an organization deal with those vastly different customer needs?

– Is this a proprietary or open source toolkit? I am guessing proprietary. If so that is a strike against CityTools. Open systems can innovate and improve faster and at less cost; open systems can proliferate faster by giving buyers options; even if the core toolkit must be held close, there should be some open source element to encourage experimentation and adoption; 

— Finally, why would the news consumer adopt this? What is the viral uptake method to show the next person why they should use this, and to train them or to hold their hand as they acquire whatever skill or habit is necessary to realize the benefit?

Questions, questions, questions, but I hope taken in the spirit asked — fascination and interest, and a belief that Bob may have come up with a powerful something here . . .  if he takes another deep breath and explains how this will help media producers make money, get famous or attain power, which are the prime motivations for doing anything in media.