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?
The media’s future will rely heavily on people passing around stories and less on them sifting through major engines such as Google or Bing, analysts say. A new Pew Research Center study reveals that Facebook is joining Google as one of the most influential drivers of traffic to news Web sites.
While publishers struggle to make real money within the social media site’s ecosystem, industry leaders and media analysts say news organizations have not yet fully exploited Facebook for its total worth.
“There should be a way for news organizations to figure out other ways to derive value on Facebook, other than to say, ‘We need Facebook because we need that traffic source,’ ” said Rourke, who runs a firm that focuses on civic engagement, social media and public research. Rockville Central’s blog hasn’t made money on Facebook, but a few months into the venture, traffic appears to be up, its owners say. Plus, they save the $200 it cost annually to maintain the old site.
Jeff Jarvis, the director of the interactive journalism graduate program at the City University of New York, said some hyperlocal news sites might follow Rockville Central’s lead. He said media organizations need to think more broadly about how they use Facebook to build sustainable revenue streams.
“My dream would be that news sites looked at Facebook not simply to put content on there but so they can be a better platform for their community,” Jarvis said. “What newspapers should be selling is service. What they should be doing is going to the advertisers and saying, ‘Did you know there’s this Facebook thing? I’ll fix your Facebook page, and tweet out your coupons, and sell your ads.’ ”
Some analysts think users who “like” a company’s brand on Facebook have inherent monetary value. Reggie Bradford, chief executive of Vitrue, a social-marketing software firm that works with Fortune 1000 brands, said his company concluded in a study last year that each person who “likes” a brand is worth $3.60 — essentially the price of reaching that person through advertisements.
In many cases, major corporations are seeing higher traffic on their Facebook pages than their elaborate Web sites, according to a study of Fortune 100 companies by Adgregate Markets.
“As far as dumping your entire dot-com on Facebook, I don’t think you’re going to see that trend,” Bradford said. “But Facebook can be a savior of the newspaper industry because it allows newspapers to be where the majority of people are spending more time. Think, if you have 100,000 likes, you’re able to message to people who like you several times, but with coupons.”
News organizations such as The Washington Post, Boston Globe and Charlotte Observer have experimented with special Facebook applications and separate Web sites — requiring the Facebook log-in — to sell their own ads. (Facebook does not permit anyone to sell ads on traditional pages).
But these experiments — typically focused on local news — have not attracted a critical mass of users or ad revenue, according to Jeff Reifman, president of NewsCloud, which received funding from the Knight Foundation to build those sites for the newspapers. In most cases, the news organizations have not promoted the NewsCloud sites on their own Web sites, thus limiting audiences and the apps’ advertising revenue, Reifman said.
Steve Gunn, the Observer’s director of strategic products and audience development, said his newspaper shut down the NewsCloud-designed Facebook app and Web site in May because the paper’s investment wasn’t getting a good-enough payoff.
Now, Reifman, who has received a $190,000 Knight Foundation grant, just rolled out a cheaper and easier version of NewsCloud’s community Web site and Facebook app technology. He said he even wants to reach out to Rockville Central, whose Facebook move he criticized on his blog.
At Rockville Central, Rourke and Cotte Griffiths say that more readers are interacting with the blog’s stories — through comments or “likes” — than they were when the blog was a stand-alone Web site. They also believe that more people are seeing the stories, though they don’t have precise metrics to compare the traffic on their old and new sites.
For instance, Facebook posts that promote Rockville Central stories and flow into readers’ news feeds are netting nearly 2,000 “impressions” each, according to figures supplied by Facebook. With the old site, the traffic was about 600 views per article per month. On a monthly basis, the Facebook posts have attracted between 120,000 and 174,000 views, compared with about 24,000 page views a month at the old site.
Cotte Griffiths’s chief complaint about the move to the social networking site: It’s hard for readers to find old stories using Facebook’s search engine.
Occasionally, the blog breaks news. On June 13, just past 5 a.m., the blog posted an alert on Facebook:
“Major disruption at Rockville Metro. Police everywhere. Station closed. Head to Twinbrook Metro to go south. Trains returned to Shady Grove. People are reporting a bomb threat.”
Readers wrote back, relaying tips and their gratitude.
“Thank you for reporting this — you all were way ahead of major news pages in getting the story out!” Marilyn Opitz wrote.
But Rockville Central is hardly a journalistic threat to the county’s established players.
The Gazette owns several weekly papers targeted to parts of Montgomery County, with a total circulation of about 250,000; the weekly Gazette for the Rockville and Aspen Hill areas reaches nearly 30,000 homes and businesses. The Gazette Web site — the main hub for all of the paper’s editions across Maryland — has about 500,000 unique visitors a month and 1.6 million monthly page views.
“Honestly, I haven’t given [Rockville Central] a lot of thought,” said Lloyd Batzler, executive editor of Post-Newsweek Media, a division of The Washington Post Co., whichowns the weekly Gazette papers in Maryland. “The big question is, how do you monetize sites these days? Do you charge for content?”
Rourke and Cotte Griffiths, a professional event planner and social-media consultant, said they are still deciding whether they want to turn their blog into a moneymaker.
“I think a Facebook application might work, with a subscription of $1 per month, using Facebook credits, ” Cotte Griffiths said, referring to the social media site’s virtual currency.
“If there were a substantive reason to make money and a credible way for Rockville Central to do it,” he said, “I wouldn’t [rule out] the idea.”