Today, another technological tremor is shaking the world of journalism, as the local news blog Rockville Central becomes a Facebook-only site. It may be a tiny blog, but the potential results of this experiment are humongous.
"We think this is a pioneering -- and gutsy -- move," write Rockville Central's editor and publisher.
Gutsy, yes. Some commentators have also called it brilliant. But the word I'd use is risky -- because right now there are some very serious institutional problems with using Facebook as a news platform. And it's a wake-up call to Facebook to change if it really wants to move into news.
Rockville Central is a micro-news blog covering Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C. It's been around since June 2007, becoming a hub for its readers with a mix of news, opinion and community service posts.
But last month, after increased competition from other micro-news sites covering the same town, the editors of Rockville Central announced that they were taking all new posts to their Facebook page, starting today.
"Facebook is where people, by and large, have decided to go for their first-stop online community activities," explain the editor and publisher in a posting. "Which begs the question: Why have a separate site, and try to drag people away from Facebook? Why not go where they are?"
They have a point. But, as lots of other writers have pointed out, the move to Facebook creates huge financial issues. Only Facebook sells ads on its pages and doesn't share the money with content creators, meaning Rockville Central just lost its ad revenue. That's obviously a big problem in the long run, especially for news operations that aren't part-time labors of love.
What I'd like to focus on is something else -- the way the move to Facebook weakens Rockville Central's news product. As the great media critic Marshall McLuhan pointed out, "The medium is the message." And moving to the medium of Facebook seems to be watering down the Rockville Central message in two key ways.
First, on its Facebook page, it's now harder to find the news than it was. The news that's there is mixed in with posts from readers, meaning one has to discern what's news and what's opinion. Yes, you can easily click to see only the postings that come from Rockville Central's writers, but along with the news you also get their questions to illicit reader responses like, "Who's watching the Oscars? and "What are your plans for the day?" The overall effect is to dilute the news.
Second, the amount of each news posting that you can see without clicking for the full story is shorter on Facebook than on the original Rockville Central site. For the few stories I was able to compare before the site went Facebook only, the original site had more than 25 percent more content visible before jumping than the Facebook version.
Having less content visible on the main page may make it less likely readers will be interested enough to click for the whole story. And it means that people who only read only the tease will know less when reading on Facebook than they would have on the original news site. That also dilutes the content.
Of course, this echoes two larger, very worrying trends in journalism today. The first is the melding of news and opinion that started on cable news and has expanded to the media at-large. The second is the move towards lighter and tighter journalism, where fewer media are willing to invest in long stories or complicated subjects.
Don't get me wrong. I love Facebook. As a way to stay in touch and spread information amongst friends and acquaintances, it can't be beat. But it can only house a useful news site if readers can find news easily, and if the content remains strong and factual.
People are already suggesting that the struggling mainstream media can save itself by moving over to Facebook. I'm doubtful it can happen unless two things occur.
In the short run, sites like Rockville Central have to learn to make the most of Facebook as it's set up now, to try to highlight the meaningful content. If the site only shows about 40 words before you need to click for more, then make those 40 words count.
Then in the long run, Facebook needs to change its financial arrangements with content creators to share revenue, and redesign pages to make them work better as news platforms. News organizations need different features than private citizens do.
The content, its delivery and the financing will have to be right for Rockville Central to make it as a news pioneer. And that won't happen unless Facebook helps.
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