Bluffton Today, ten years later

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of Bluffton Today, a hyperlocal newspaper whose evolution reflects many of the major forces operating on journalism in this country. Originally conceived as a free-circulation home-delivered 7-day daily tabloid, it has gone through several cycles of change including an attempt to convert to paid circulation, a hybrid paid-free system, and the current configuration of twice weekly broadsheet publication, free and home-delivered.

It's been buffeted by the financial collapse that hit the entire country, the financial upheaval and managed bankruptcy that struck its parent company, major staffing reductions and turnover, and renewed competition, yet it's emerged fat and full of ROP advertising and has become a solid success.

What about the website? When we created Bluffton Today in 2005, it made no sense to build the website around news when everybody in town got a copy of the morning paper for free. That led us to take a step that for the era was bold: build the website around interactive community conversation in the form of a shared blog stream that was open to all. We got a lot of attention for that, including some national awards and a huge amount of publicity. I was asked to speak about it from Stockholm to Macau. I hope that in that process we contributed to a changed understanding of the online world: it's not a printing press, it's a network of people.

The term "citizen journalism" got applied to what we did, and honestly I was never happy about it. Years before, in a London speech, I had used the phrase "a new kind of people's journalism," describing the informal sharing of words and images that was emerging on the Internet. That's not the kind of journalism where citizens go "cover" the "news."

So what has happened since then? Many changes, but overshadowing them all is Facebook, which barely existed in 2005 as a private, closed system for Harvard students. Facebook has conquered the community conversation.

It would be tempting to say that local media can't compete with the likes of Facebook on the technology front, but I think that mischaracterizes the situation. It's true that Facebook significantly advanced usability, particularly in the area of photo-sharing, with its smart use of Javascript, JSON and client-side page manipulation. Bluffton Today, meanwhile, languished with only one major technical and design upgrade between 2005 and today.

But Facebook's real advantage is not technology, but rather network effect or Metcalf's law. The Facebook that you use for your neighborhood conversations (and my Savannah neighborhood has a fairly active group) is also the Facebook that you use to share pictures with your family and close friends and also the Facebook that you use to keep up with friends from childhood, grade school and high school, and also the Facebook that you use to connect with former co-workers from a newspaper that died in the 1980s.

Facebook isn't invulnerable in this era of brand volatility, but that network effect is pretty darned hard to counter.

In the last several weeks we have re-ignited the staff of Bluffton Today on a mission of building the digital side of the business, and with some basic execution of fundamentals have tripled the Web traffic. One significant change: We have adopted Facebook commenting. I have resisted that for years and in 2006 wrote a defense of the use of pseudonyms for Nieman Reports. I haven't changed my position on the value of pseudonyms in terms of protecting the ability of vulnerable individuals to speak truth to power, but I am recognizing the reality of the social network. Doing journalism today is a matter of engaging in the social network (or networks) as a fundamental part of the process. That's the big change.