Rockville Central on Facebook: A Step Forward, Back, or Sideways?

Rockville Central on Facebook

Six months ago, Brad Rourke and Cindy Cotte Griffiths moved Rockville Central from a standalone web site to Facebook to both go where most of their readers were and to allow for more convenient interaction among readers.  Founded in June 2007, within a couple years Rockville Central had become one of the top five local blogs in Maryland, but now that it’s moved entirely and exclusively to Facebook, how has it fared?

The move to Facebook has generated national attention, including the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Poynter, Media Bistro, and the Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.  The articles tend to be struck by the “Facebook exclusive” venture and it’s potential as a model for other community news organizations (e.g., “Industry leaders and media analysts say news organizations have not yet fully exploited Facebook for its total worth,” noted the Washington Post).  On the other hand, reader comments often raised concerns about the quantity and quality of news, the inability to earn revenue, that Facebook doesn’t appeal to everyone, and the inflexibility of Facebook’s look and feel.  Some feel the move to Facebook wasn’t newsworthy–so many organizations and activities already have a major presence on Facebook.  Here’s where I think things stand:

  1. It appears the level of interaction is about the same, although the comments seem shorter on Facebook.  Perhaps that’s because you’re more easily identified on Facebook and thus a bit more careful about what you say.  Perhaps it’s just the season and we’ll see an uptick as the Council elections approach (that always seems to intensify the conversations).  Brad Rourke seems to be satisfied with the response so far:  “We have been happy with the content and tone of comments appearing in Facebook. People who are so moved seem just as likely to comment long-form there as they did on our standalone website. We do have more one- or two-word comments and “Likes” from people, and these are people who were not commenting before, so this is good too.”  At some point, I’ll have to do the metrics and count the quantity and length of comments and number of unique commenters to get a better sense of what’s happening.
  2. Facebook may be popular but it is unstable ground.  It is continually making changes and tweaks, sometimes it’s an improvement, often an annoyance, and usually without notice.  Privacy is the ongoing hot concern but others issues are just as vexing.  Most recently, they changed their method for using RSS, so I can no longer read Rockville Central in my news aggregator and it no longer posts automatically posted on this blog (so, alas, that box in the right column will disappear until I can fix it).  This will be an ongoing challenge for Rockville Central and its readers as Facebook continues with various efforts to pull in members and advertisers in ways that are not always mutually beneficial.
  3. Rockville Central not only changed its platform, but also its editorial policy.  The quantity and quality of news is thinner but that’s intentional given the growing online presence of the Gazette and Rockville Patch (this blog is certainly no competition).  According to Brad Rourke, “There are now more (plenty) of online outlets for local Rockville journalistic coverage. We were filling that role in a small way, but it was not and never was our purpose — our purpose was to try to bring new people into public life and foster civic conversations.”  I’m not so sure I agree.  Rockville Central not only created a vibrant civic presence online but did it around community news and opinion.  And because the motivations are different (newspapers are primarily interested in selling advertising and subscriptions, Rockville Central is not), it provided a unique and important perspective.  So far, Patch and the Gazette haven’t been able to duplicate that and instead fulfill other community needs.  In a city of 60,000, how many news outlets are sufficient?

So Rockville Central has moved to a new house and some people seem pleased by the new location, and others not so much.  It doesn’t appear that they’ll be moving out of Facebook anytime soon (but life on the Internet is always changing; will Google+ become the next social media platform?).

One response

  1. theresa defino

    Max, I agree with your synthesis of what has transpired. I have said in other forums that I believe the move was a mistake in the sense that a a platform for civil and civic dialogue has been reduced to a simple group with updates found elsewhere. No worries, though, as there are plenty of others and with fewer restrictions. Much of the world-wide attention stems from the miscasting of RC as a “news outlet.”

    If the day comes that a true news operation, one with professional journalists, other paid staff and a defined media presence, goes off the Web and solely to Facebook (and without a print version), that may well be worth discussing.

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