Many of my friends and readers of my national commentary know that I am also the founder of a web site called Rockville Central, which is an example of what the Knight Citizen News Network would call “hyperlocal journalism.” Rockville Central is a citizen-produced, all-volunteer local blog that is intentionally designed to embody the kinds of participatory-democratic civic ideas that many of my readers share with me.
I am happy (and proud) to report that the National Civic Review, a well-respected journal on public issues published by the National Civic League, has an article about Rockville Central in the latest (Fall 2008) issue. While copyright restrictions forbid me from making the original available freely, if you simply email me (by responding to this note) I can send you the final draft version without restriction.
I set out with Rockville Central to engage in a kind of civic experiment. I wanted to see what would happen when an online space popped up that had a very particular set of sensibilities. In essence, I wanted to try to embody many of the approaches and ideas espoused by the civic sector.
I learned that, with just a small amount of care, such an enterprise can be successful in a small way. I doubt the ability of something like this to be commercially viable on a large scale. Indeed, insofar as Rockville Central has provided a new space for people, it needs to remain on a human scale; growing too big would kill it.
However, I can honestly say that I hope for the model to proliferate. I’ve pursued Rockville Central specifically with the idea in mind that others could replicate it. Whenever there was a free way to do something, as opposed to an expensive way, I chose the free way.
While it is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea to be a civic blogger, literally anyone could create something like Rockville Central. There are no special skills required and no training. It does not require access to capital or to fancy foundations.
So, for those who may have had their interest piqued by the story of Rockville Central, I offer this handful of lessons learned. They are things to keep in mind, if you choose to move forward.
- Impact and Scale are very different things. Based on grateful emails I get, the fact that almost the entire senior staff and governing officials of the City reads it, and from anecdotal stories of ordinary people choosing to take actions they would not otherwise take because of something they read in the blog, I am certain Rockville Central is having an impact. However, its “scale” is relatively small and I have no plans for it to grow simply for growth’s sake. Scale does not interest me. Impact does.
- Try little things, if you fail so what? The history of Rockville Central is littered with ideas that did not pan out. Our year of existence (so far) has been marked by quick attempts to try new things, followed by equally quick admissions of failure where they occurred. . . . There was the time I thought I would adopt an informal approach to a series of video interviews with City Council members. It was 100 days into the term and I wanted to follow up on campaign promises. My first interview featured me in a ripped pair of jeans. It caused such an uproar that I publicly apologized. People demanded a bit more decorum of me. Lesson learned! This was not the first, nor the only, time I have publicly apologized for a mistake on the blog. After each of these episodes, messages came in praising the change in course. People appreciate experimentation, and understand that mistakes may be made — and they appreciate forthrightness about it.
- You don’t need an organization to have an institution. Rockville Central is literally two people who just spend time volunteering. There is nothing official about it, no phone number to call, no office to visit. Its only real expense is its domain name — about $6 per year. Yet, it is enough of an institution that some members of the Mayor and City Council have chosen to release statements through it. In City Council meetings, office holders as well as citizens have spoken about something they have read in Rockville Central. While it is unorganized, it is still a community institution.
- People want fun — it draws them in and gives them a reason to return. Rockville Central’s most popular pages are shopping and restaurant reviews. This troubles me not at all. It’s important for us civic junkies to remember that we are oddballs: most people are just trying to live their lives, not “be better citizens” or “become more engaged.” I firmly believe that one of the most important aspects of Rockville Central is that it is not a drag. For instance, every weekday morning’s “Photo Of The Day” is sometimes dramatic, other times silly. I am very idiosyncratic about my choices with it. More than one reader has told me that it is the POTD’s that keep them coming back.
- People need reminding about the rules of the road. Every few months, someone begins posting anonymous, vitriolic comments. I typically delete them and post an article about what I have done. I welcome such episodes, because each one is a chance to reinforce the norms that Rockville Central is trying to promote.
- “Politics As Usual” will try to use anything it can. Prepare for candidates and community organizations to seek to use the blog as a way to gain advantage. . . . [S]ome office holders have begun to try to feed tips and ideas in order to generate articles that will further their objectives. None of this is really a problem — it is how politics unfolds in most places. However, a blog like Rockville Central is trying to stay aloof from such things while still being relevant. It is a fine line to walk and it takes a willingness to resist flattery, threat, and cajoling.
- You must earn trust. Shortly after I sent an initial email to all candidates for City Council, asking for an interview, I got a call from one. She was very skeptical of my motives. I explained I was just trying to be helpful. She didn’t buy it, and said she did not believe someone would put the time in that it takes to do this work for simply an altruistic motive (I am paraphrasing). She agreed to the interview reluctantly. Over time, through being dedicated about being transparent and fair, this person has come to trust Rockville Central and is one of its best friends. Her initial reaction, though, was completely correct. There is no reason anyone ought to trust my neutrality simply because I claimed it — I had to demonstrate it over time.
Come visit Rockville Central! And — more important — if you feel so moved, start something like it yourself in your own community. I would love to hear about it.