Farewell, Rockville Central

As many of my friends and colleagues know, in June 2007 I founded a local blog called Rockville Central. Within a week or two [correction: the first day] my friend and colleague, Cindy Cotte Griffiths, joined me and we co-managed the blog from that point forward.

Over time, it grew to be the second most-read local blog in Maryland and was on the forefront of a number of innovations. In March we made national news by moving entirely to a Facebook publishing platform.

Even with all the success, keeping Rockville Central going was a non-trivial undertaking and after more than four years today Cindy and I announced our decision to cease publishing. Rather than let the community whither, we diecided to make a clean break. So, today is the last day of publication for Rockville Central.

Here is the note we released this morning, in full:

It is with mixed feelings that we are announcing that, after more than four years and four months of continuous existence, as of today Rockville Central will cease publishing.

Cindy Cotte Griffiths and Brad Rourke of Rockville Central

We began Rockville Central in June 2007 and are proud that we have continually been on the forefront of local online community-building. We look around at the new online spaces devoted to aspects of Rockville and we are proud of the role we have played. Whether it is the coverage of Rockville’s elections that began with the 2007 election and continued through a groundbreaking candidate forum we produced, the many, many contributor opinions and notices of special events, or our recent shift to all-Facebook publishing — we look back on our work with pride.

We view our move to Facebook as having been successful. We have appreciated the members of our community posting photos, questions and links on Rockville Central and seeing other people respond. We’ve also been pleased to have first-hand news accounts from the people with their cell phones. Our active users have increased by over 500%. We’ve gone from about 24,000 hits a month on the website to 100,000 post views a month on Facebook. A single post on Facebook typically gets over 2,000 views.

Even with all this interaction, comments have remained civil. People have participated with thoughtful and full opinions about the issues. We’ve been able to provide a place for public discussions about Rockville based on the many news sources in our region. All these outcomes are gratifying.

However, the simple fact is that it takes a great deal of energy and time to support the online community in the way we feel it deserves. We do not make money off of Rockville Central, and never intended to. It is a labor of love and devotion to Our Fair City. We don’t feel we can devote the kind of energy it deserves and so, rather than let it whither, we decided to make a clean end.

Thank you so very much to all of our readers — both early adopters and new friends. If you are interested in following Cindy and Brad to see what else they are up to, please do so. You will see us all around Rockville and we will continue to be involved in the civic life of our City.

Farewell, friends. We’ll see you around.

~Brad Rourke and Cindy Cotte Griffiths

I definitely plan on continuing to be active in local civic affairs, and some new ideas are percolating in my head, so no condolences are necessary. This is a good move and it frees up energy and time for the next chapter.

Thank you to all who have supported Rockville Central over the years.

Featured On Page One Of Washington Post's Sunday Business Section

I was away on vacation and so was not there to bask in the glory, but I was given a heads-up by the reporter and knew it was coming: On Sunday, June 26, me and my colleague Cindy Cotte Griffiths were featured on the front page of the Washington Post’s business section. The story, by Ian Shapira, was about our decision to move our successful local blog, Rockville Central, to a Facebook-only platform.

As of March 1, we have been publishing entirely on our Facebook page (which is open and so viewable by anyone, even those without a Facebook account). No new content is published to our web site. The results have been largely successful and our traffic and levels of interaction have both gone up.

The lede:

When the Rockville Central blog wanted to increase its readership, the owners looked to Facebook — now topping 750 million members — and thought: Let’s move everything there.

In March, Brad Rourke and Cindy Cotte Griffiths stopped publishing new content on their Web site and began posting to Facebook. Just like that, rockvillecentral.com was cast aside. The blog’s new site is theirs and Facebook’s: www.facebook.com/RockvilleCentral. Even in this era of Internet experimentation, the move was unusual.

With news organizations nationwide slashing staffs, this all-volunteer blog covering a city of 61,000 poses an intriguing possibility for the future of journalism: Is using social networking media such as Facebook a better way to reach a wide audience and still make money?

Go here to read the whole thing.

Reactions To Moving A Community Hub To Facebook

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.

And, in the Twitter universe, there was response ranging from “Wow. News. Facebook-only. That’s a step.” to “Very interesting idea” to “I get it. But I don’t like it.

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.

Moving A Local Blog To Facebook-Only

This morning we announced that our highly successful local news blog, Rockville Central, would be shifting focus. We will no longer be updating Rockville Central’s website, but instead will shift 100% to Facebook.

We think this is a pioneering — and gutsy — move. What allows us to make this move is that Rockville Central exists to engage people, not to make money or drive traffic. So, we are able to make decisions without having to worry about whether we will be able to find a revenue or traffic model.

This move is gaining some attention in the “hyperlocal journalism blogosphere.” That was not our intention, but it is sort of cool. Other hyperlocal experiments are watching to see what comes of this. To our knowledge, Rockville Central is the first local news hub to make such a move.

Here is the article as we ran it on Rockville Central this morning:

We are excited to let you know of a new development here at Rockville Central.

Since we began in June 2007 (here’s our first post), we have always stressed the community aspect. We aim to be an open, fair, and civil space in which to share views about what’s going on in Rockville. That means this site has always been about you, the participant. That focus has spurred very gratifying growth and we have remained in the top five local blogs in Maryland for a number of years.

However, traffic and readership has never been the most important measure of success for us. We are far, far more interested in knowing things like:

  • How many people entered public life who had not participated before?
  • How deep and robust were comment exchanges on key articles?
  • How many people were sending article contributions and adding their voices?
  • What other community web sites were getting started?

These measures, too, have been very gratifying as all of them have come true. Especially that last point. As new friends like Patch have gotten started and the Gazette and even the City of Rockville itself have implemented features we pioneered, and as current friends like Rockville Living have continued to grow, we are excited that the online community in and around Rockville is on its way to being vibrant and alive. The community is well served by this ecosystem of news, opinion and information.

Now, it is time for us to move to the next chapter in the life of Rockville Central.

Some time ago, we initiated Rockville Central’s Facebook page, and this has grown to become its own robust space for comments and participation. What’s more, in examining our traffic logs, it is the most important source (after Google) of traffic to the rockvillecentral.com site.

We believe that this suggests that Facebook is where people, by and large, have decided to go for their first-stop online community activities. Which begs the question: Why have a separate site, and try to drag people away from Facebook? Why not go where they are?

For entities and organizations that are trying to turn a profit, or have other institutional or organizational reasons to have a separate identity, it can make sense to have a separate web space. But Rockville Central is different and, as we thought hard about it, we realized we could find no compelling reason thatRockville Central needs to exist as a separate rockvillecentral.com site.

And so, as of March 1, all new Rockville Central content will be found solely on our Rockville CentralFacebook page. We hope you will join us there. Everything you have come to know and love about our articles will also exist in Facebook. You can comment, share, and interact — all with more ease and in one place. We’ll no longer have conversations in two different locations.

One thing that will change is that we will do less duplicative reporting. For a city its size, Rockville is well-covered, journalistically. We don’t need to duplicate the efforts of our friends. (How many recaps of the Mayor and Council meetings can you read, really?) We will focus instead on trying to build community and providing content and services that are different and not currently offered by others.

We don’t know necessarily what that will look like, but we are excited to see it emerge!

This is a bold step for us, and, to our knowledge, there are no other Facebook-only hyperlocal community hubs such as ours. It is our next step in trying to blaze a trail.

The existing rockvillecentral.com will continue to exist, and all current content will remain. Old links will still work. But, after February 28, there will be no new posts on that site, and all commenting will be closed. We invite you, instead, to post on our Facebook page.

Thank you for your loyal readership all these years, and we hope you will continue along with us as we embark on this next phase of our life.

We’ll see you over on Facebook.

Your friends,

Cindy Cotte Griffiths
Editor

Brad Rourke
Founder and Publisher

Bully

Boy, I feel for Abigail Pardou. Why? Here’s how Washington Post’s Marc Fisher sets the scene:

As much as any elected official in Washington, Harry “Tommy” Thomas, the D.C. council member from Ward 5, carries himself like a good old-fashioned machine politician. Son of a council member, Thomas is a cheerful and omnipresent face in Northeast, a ward-heeler who prides himself on bringing home the bacon in the form of park facilities, schools and other city projects.

Abigail Padou is the editor and proprietor of Brookland Heartbeat, a bimonthly newsmagazine about the neighborhood near Catholic University. The paper, mailed free to 10,000 registered voters in the area, is a non-profit run entirely by volunteers and supported by a small group of local advertisers.

Last week, for reasons Padou cannot fathom, Thomas posted on his web site a letter to the editor and to all Ward 5 residents accusing the Heartbeat of salacious headlines, biased reporting and a conflict of interest. Thomas was so angry about a story that ran in the paper last July that he demanded a retraction and threatened to go after one of the Heartbeat’s most important advertisers, the Long & Foster realty company. “Long & Foster will be held accountable for its role in underwriting the Brookland Heartbeat,” Thomas wrote, “as well as the businesses that support the publication.”

The article that got Thomas’s goat is a nicely reported, fully sourced, and utterly unsensational story that examines what Ward 5 gets out of Thomas’s position as chairman of the Council’s committee overseeing libraries, parks and recreation. The story’s conclusion: The ward gets very little.

I can relate. To read Fisher’s piece, Thomas is bullying Padou unfairly.

Here in the little town where I live, there are from time to time controversial issues that come up and in my community blog, I try to write about them. I don’t hide my opinions (nor do any other contributors to the blog), but over time as the site has grown people begin to view it much like a newspaper. So I have started to get angry emails (and hear about angry tirades in meetings) about the site’s (and my) supposed bias. These are the same kind of notes that any editor of any newspaper gets, and when I am properly detached I view them as evidence that I am probably on track.

Let me be clear: I never set out to write slanted coverage, and I make a point of trying to lay out my own biases (if any) in any article. This feedback is more a byproduct of the fact that there are controversial issues on which people disagree deeply — not because of anything I have actually done.

But, I am also a neighbor, and so when I am in another frame of mind, such emails can hurt. I don’t have a thick skin.

These kinds of notes can push me to back off, because it feels more trouble than it’s worth to cover some issues. However, I know that I need to lean against that — otherwise the angry cranks become bullies.

Still, sometimes it can be a drag to keep one’s positive attitude. It can be harder than it looks to stay in today’s public square! You become a target.

Looking For Mr. GoodBlog

My friend Adam Pagnucco, who writes a blog on Maryland Politics called, natch, Maryland Politics Watch, had a fascinating post just the other day.

Actually, it wasn’t by him — it was by his wife, Holly Olson. In it, she chronicles the history of her husband’s involvement with MPW and blogging, and announces there are going to be a few changes. Seems the two have a bun in the oven, and Adam’s been asked to scale back a few of his bloggiest traits.

Holly ends the post with this: “[T]his would be a great time for all of you wanna-be bloggers to step up to the plate and start providing guest posts. There are plenty of insightful, witty, and thoughtful readers out there who could offer a post or two a month. So let’s keep MPW alive and active — but let’s do so as a community endeavor. After all, I know that you all will continue to need your political fix — baby or no baby.”

This struck me because in mid-2007 I started a blog about my town called Rockville Central. It’s a sort of civic experiment, trying to open up new spaces for people to communicate on local public issues. It’s been successful (at least along most of the the measurements I care about) but it has fallen short in one aspect: not as many other people have followed suit as I suspected might. There was one other Rockville-based online information source called Rockville Living when I started (a very good site by the way). There are other info sources for the county, and some arts-related things, but not many new sites have cropped up that are just centered on the city.

I think there should be more and I have hoped that folks would emerge with their own blogs, looking at various aspects of what’s going on. But it hasn’t happened to the extent I’d like to see. At least not yet.

Now, to be fair, I have not been explicit about that hope the way Holly is in her post. I will be watching to see how other individuals respond to her call. So far, though, I have seen a small uptick in “outside contributions,” but it doesn’t look like Adam is working any less hard.

Maybe, over at my end, it’s time to start suggesting the idea to certain people directly!

"Hyperlocal" Journalism And Community

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.

In any case, I thought you might be interested to read an excerpt from the conclusion:

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 f
    la
    ttery, 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.