by Brad RourkeFounder and Publisher of Rockville Central
When we announced in late February that we were moving our successful local blog, Rockville Central, entirely to our Facebook page and that we would no longer be updating our standalone web site, a number of readers were surprised and dismayed. And we ourselves were surprised when this move gained some national attention as people who think about journalism weighed in on whether Facebook was “the future of news” and whether our move was a harbinger of things to come. (See here for a wrap-up of some of the key reactions.)
Certainly, our move to Facebook may well provide an object lesson to those running news sites, especially local ones. However, we think there is a more interesting story embedded in our move to Facebook. It has less to do with journalism, and more to do with our role in the community. Rockville Central was, from the beginning, was not meant to be a news site but a community hub — not unlike the ones called for in the Knight Commission report and further outlined by Adam Thierer.
In our view, the question to ask about our move to Facebook is not, “Can a news site succeed on Facebook,” but instead: “Is Facebook a good place for a community hub?”
News Or Community
Over Memorial Day weekend in 2007, there was a piece in the Washington Post about local blogs around town. “Why isn’t there one for Rockville, Maryland?” I thought. I’d lived in Rockville, the county seat of Montgomery County, just outside of DC, for about five years and was active in the community. I had been blogging since 1996 on various subjects. So I spent the weekend setting up Rockville Central and asked some friends if they would be interested in joining me. Cindy Cotte Griffiths said yes because she had also read the article and wanted to start a site. Together we have been blogging locally ever since. Our vision from the beginning was to create a vibrant community space where people could talk about important issues facing Rockville.
Through the next few years, we grew. Traffic rose steadily. Rockville Central became one of the most-read local blogs in Maryland and was a fixture on the local political scene. We convened a local candidate forum in the most recent city elections. We were a part of TBD.com’s community network of blogs. We began to accept a modest amount of local advertising.
As we grew, and became known for providing news, this posed something of a dilemma for us. Journalism was not our point. The minor bits of news we provided were really the substance for people to engage around. While our chief goal was to draw new people into public life and to provide a civil forum for people to talk about local issues, we knew that such a site would have to have a certain amount of news. But, the most important element would not be the content but the qualities and characteristics of the space.
Throughout the growth of Rockville Central, as we watched traffic numbers climb modestly, the metrics we followed most avidly had more to do with interaction and engagement. How many people were commenting? How often? What kinds of things were they saying? Were they engaging with one another or just expressing their opinions? Were other local sites springing up to add their voices? Were people beginning to take action in the “real world” as a result of things that took place online? Some of these can be counted, but some (the ones we hold most important) emerge through anecdote and story. And we continued to see enough such stories to make us believe that we were on the right track.
When we decided to shift from a standalone web site to Facebook only, there was no single thing that drove it. In one of our periodic strategy conversations, Cindy and I asked ourselves, “Why do we need a web site? Why not go to where we know the conversations are happening, instead of trying to convince people to leave Facebook and visit us?”
And just like that, we thought we had a good idea on our hands.
There was a confluence of factors that suggested such a move might make sense for us:
- 35% of our referred traffic was from Facebook (the only larger referrer was Google);
- We personally knew that our key commenters were very active on Facebook;
- We had long been struggling with what to do about the fact that the conversations and interactions around Rockville Central were fragmented — some on Facebook, some on the blog (and, to a far lesser extent, some on Twitter);
- On February 10, Facebook began rolling out significant changes in the capabilities that Page admins had — suddenly it was much easier to stay plugged into Facebook.
But, the most important factor is one that everyone is already well aware of. Facebook has essentially won the social race and day by day it is becoming the chief social platform for user after user.
We realized that if we took to heart our mission being a community hub — a space that was devoted to a certain kind of interaction — then the fact that we had a separate online edifice was beside the point. Since we like to experiment, we decided to experiment with abandoning our website (actually, just making it static, essentially freezing it in time). We decided to take the conversation to the people.
Complaints and Praise
Media coverage notwithstanding, our February 23 announcement of our move generated a fair amount of reaction among the community of Rockville Central readers. The post where we revealed the news received over 60 comments which for us is a large number. As with many issues, the negative voices were louder than positive ones.
Many commenters said we had lost them — chiefly due to perceived failings on Facebook’s part. In fact, in some ways the comment trail reads like a referendum on Facebook’s policies. “Facebook is the garbage dump of the Internet” wrote one commenter. “I am not a member of Facebook and I do not have any intention of becoming one,” wrote another.
We kept the settings on our Facebook page at their maximally public, meaning that anyone (even someone who does not have a Facebook account) can read it fully. In order to comment on an article, a reader has to be logged into Facebook, but our judgment was that this is no different than our then-current commenting requirement. In order to post a comment, commenters must furnish us with a real full name and email.
Our sense was that for the majority of potential audience members, they have already made their decision when it comes to Facebook and they have decided they are OK with the embedded privacy trade offs.
We expected some negative critiques of our move and they did not faze us. Meanwhile, the positive views were less vocal but just as important. The announcement article (at last count) had 89 “likes” which is also a record for our small site. The number of “likes” of our Facebook page immediately began to climb by 20 and more on a daily basis. Even more encouraging, though, was that the kind of interactions beginning to happen on Facebook were exactly the ones we hoped for. People began posting their own content (questions, articles, and links) on our page, and we started seeing names we had not seen before.
Public reaction aside, we were well aware of what we would be giving up substantively with a move to Facebook. By working solely off of a third-party platform, we would give up our deep statistics package, our ability to keep control over the particulars of our site, our ability to run our own ads, and other aspects of autonomy.
Our plan was to use the Notes application in Facebook to publish what used to be stories. We anticipate that Notes will continue to become more robust but, for now, it cannot be searched and cannot be tagged and categorized. So we were in essence losing the ability to archive and serve as institutional memory. That is a trade off, but we decided to consciously step away from that in favor of more real-time interaction.
We were also very clear about what we thought we might gain in return for giving up all that a standalone site can offer. It was simple: We were after better interactions between readers, more sharing of our content in a natural way, more connections between people’s online and offline worlds. We thought focusing on our Facebook page would make it easier for people to post minor items on our Wall instead of feeling they had to create a story and pitch it to us.
We also made a conscious decision to do less “reporting” and more sharing and Facebook makes this easier. We have never seen ourselves as real journalists, though we have come to be seen as a trusted news source. We don’t have the same set of journalistic drivers that professionals do. We don’t care about scoops, and don’t see competition between Rockville Central and any other news site. We are not trying to make any money.
We thought better use of our Facebook page would free us up to share other people’s content more — driving home our noncompetitive standpoint.
Indeed, many articles framed our move as the result of competition. AOL’s Patch had recently set up shop in Rockville and the local newspaper, the Gazette (owned by the Washington Post), had begun to ramp up some of its Web initiatives. Nieman Lab’s story carried this lede: “Say you run a community news site. In your spare time. And Patch has moved into your neighborhood. How do you, with limited resources but a desire to keep contributing to your community, stay competitive?”
It’s easy to see why the “competition” frame would come into play. After all, we look like a news site, and those competitors are news sites. But, looking at Rockville Central as a community hub, the increased journalistic coverage of Rockville and its surrounding area made possible our decision to move to Facebook. We felt Rockville was adequately covered and we could focus on our raison d’etre, engagement. We see our move as enabling increased interaction in an environment where the friction is low and the norms are already set.
Results So Far
We have only been publishing on Facebook for a short time. It is hard to make any definitive statements about our results. However, it is fair to say that the initial response is much more encouraging than we expected. We’ve just about doubled the number of people who “like” Rockville Central. Many of the people who complained bitterly when we announced the move and implied that we had lost them as readers, are now commenting in the new space.
Better still, because of the way Facebook operates, people are having conversations around Rockville Central content without ever having to come to the page itself. So, the reach of these conversations has extended. As more people join in, we hope that this will continue to snowball.
Most important, we are seeing new names commenting that we had never known before. Our hope that we would by and large gain new voices more than we would lose old voices appears to be holding true.
Our move is not one that would be suitable for many. We have no desire to generate revenue (in fact, we gave back some minor amount of advertising revenue when we made the announcement, as there were a couple of ongoing ad contracts). We have no need to survive as an institution or organization — and so we don’t have a need to brand ourselves. So an existing news organization that needs to make a living is probably not going to follow us right away.
However, that could change. There may be ways for publishers to create business models that exist within Facebook. (As my partner, Cindy Cotte Griffiths, told a BussinessWire blogger recently: “We’ve already heard of a local newspaper which has informed its staff that it will be shifting entirely to Facebook. However, sites which intend to take advantage of the projected increases in local online advertising probably would not be in a position to shift entirely to Facebook, since Facebook does not offer a revenue sharing arrangement.”)
Here’s where we see our own biggest challenge moving ahead. It’s the same one we have always had, but we think we are in a position to make progress on it: We are trying to increase the amount of offline civic activity that occurs as a result of online interactions. That goes along with our mission of civic engagement. Just having readers is nice, but it does not improve public life in our community. But as people begin to take their conversations from their online worlds to their day-to-day worlds, we hope that we can begin to see progress.