By Sean Patrick Norris
Thursday, March 10, 2011; T19
Brad Rourke had to make a choice, continue shepherding people to his local-news blog, Rockville Central, or follow his audience.
On March 1, Rourke and co-administrator Cindy Cotte Griffiths took the dive, eliminating updates to their stand-alone site and using Facebook as their exclusive platform.
"It became clear that people were engaging and interacting in all the ways we wanted on Facebook, in a natural way, rather than in an artificial way on Rockville Central," he said. "The kind of comments you see on Facebook are much more measured when it comes to how people express critical views."
Rourke and Griffiths built their audience steadily starting in 2007 and peaked at 30,000 page views in October 2009, just before Rockville's city elections. But, the two weren't satisfied and brainstormed on how they could expand their reach.
"It was like a big light bulb came off in both of our heads," Cotte Griffiths said. "I'm very excited its growing steadily."
When their Facebook site existed in tandem with the stand-alone, it received about 600 "likes." A "like" is how a Facebook user shows appreciation for a Facebook entity. One week into their experiment, Rockville Central's "likes" went to more than 1,000, Rourke said.
For him, the point of Rockville Central was to foster an ongoing conversation about the city. He started the site with a photo of his trash can. At the time, Rockville City Council members were discussing reducing trash service from twice a week to weekly, and he thought it odd that the issue was so hotly debated. Rourke and Griffiths began offering a bit of news and a bit of opinion, but the site's focus was on generating reader feedback.
Rourke owns and runs the Mannakee Circle Group, which helps nonprofit groups with social media strategies.
"I focus on civic engagement in my professional life, so I wondered if there was a way to create a community sense out of a blog," he said. "It was never designed to be a news site; it was designed to be a connection site."
Ronald A. Yaros, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, credited Rockville Central's move to Facebook, but he also said it raises a concern.
Will the new Rockville Central leave some active civic participants out?
"It used to be called the 'digital divide' - certain parts of the population may not access Facebook," Yaros said. "I like to call it the 'participation gap.' We do have the Web available, but will those folks use Facebook? How do we engage those other segments of the population?"
Ruth Hanessian, 71, was a frequent contributor to Rockville Central and says, "It was much more personal than Facebook, which seems to be all over everywhere. I have not yet completely comprehended Facebook, and I probably never will."