I just sent out my periodic email to folks (you can sign up at the right) and in it I gave a quick recap of the reaction to our decision this week to move Rockville Central to Facebook.
I thought you might be interested to read the note, as it collects much of the response and provides a bit more rationale.
Dear Colleagues and Friends–
For my periodic email update I wanted to share some interesting news with you.
As many of you know, a few years ago I founded a “hyperlocal news site” called Rockville Central. Since its founding in June 2007, along with my colleague Cindy Cotte Griffiths, we have built it to be one of the top five local blogs in Maryland, and it is sometimes looked to as a model for such efforts.
The key thing to know about Rockville Central is that its chief objective is civic engagement, not journalism or page views. We established it in order to provide new pathways into public life for people and, even though it has succeeded in a conventional sense, it has succeeded even more in a civic sense. People see it as a “space” that is theirs to inhabit, and deliberate over important issues facing the community.
We recently decided to make a significant shift in how we approach Rockville Central, and this has (surprisingly to us) generated a fair amount of national news.
Put simply, we are shifting from a “blog” model to a Facebook model for Rockville Central. We will no longer be posting items on our standalone website, but instead will be posting them on our Facebook page. We made that announcement on Wednesday morning.
We decided to make this move due to a variety of factors, including the fact that we know that more than two thirds of our readership are Facebook users, a number of local news outlets have sprung up in town so there is no shortage of local journalism (in part driven by our example), and because Facebook is a better mechanism for social interactions than a blog-and-comment model is.
That last point is critical. Our goal with Rockville Central is to foster interaction, not to attract eyeballs — so felt it important to go where people are and engage with them on their terms, not try to drag them over to our website.
This move has stimulated surprising national news coverage, as we appear to be among the first significant local news sites to move to Facebook-only.
Harvard University’s Nieman Lab was the first to cover the move, which we announced Wednesday. Future Journalism Project picked it up, too shortly afterwards. AOL’s Patch covered it a bit later (that one has a good interview with me). Mediabistro picked it up. The influential tech site The Next Web also mentioned the move in a piece this morning.
And, late last night, the Huffington Post ran an item.
Also, as I understand it, our move was debated on Wednesday night at an event focused on the future of online news held at the New York Times.
Among Rockville Central readers themselves, I would characterize response as trending positive. Many loyal readers are willing to see where this move leads (we hope it will lead to deeper connection and more interaction). Others simply hate Facebook and think this is the worst idea ever, and are telling us they won’t be reading anymore (a reaction we expected and were prepared for).
For people in the democratic participation space, as many of my friends and colleagues are, I think what is interesting to look at is how we are trying to decouple the idea of being an “institution” or “organization” from being a community hub. We are saying that you don’t need to build something standalone to fulfill the role of community hub, you just need to open up a space with certain sensibilities and norms.
This is not a move that many organizations can make. We have no profit motive, nor do we have an imperative to continue surviving in the way most organizations do. So we are free to make a move like this without worrying about whether we will attract enough readers to keep going. However, we hope others will watch and maybe pick up some of the excellent community tools that are embedded already in Facebook and used every day.