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Everyblock shows how NOT to shut down a community site

by: Amy Gahran |

Today -- a pioneering project to gather and present local information, and enable community engagement around that information -- was shut down without warning by its owner, NBC News. The content that had been on the site (including posts by community members) is currently unavailable, with no word on whether archives might someday be accessible or exportable.

The Feb. 7 blog post on the site reads simply:

"We're sorry to report that EveryBlock has closed its doors.

"It's no secret that the news industry is in the midst of a massive change. Within the world of neighborhood news there's an exciting pace of innovation yet increasing challenges to building a profitable business. Though EveryBlock has been able to build an engaged community over the years, we're faced with the decision to wrap things up.

"Thank you for having let us play a role in how you get your neighborhood news. Thanks for the contributions, for the questions, and for allowing us to connect you to each other, in many cases to make great things happen in your community. Along the way, we hope we've helped you be a better neighbor."

Among the hundreds of comments to this announcement were many from frustrated Everyblock users. For example, user DaveP wrote: "Thanks for just turning it off with zero warning or notice. Thanks for letting us get contact information for friends we had made on the site. Thanks for letting us copy information and threads that we wanted to keep. This was handled extremely poorly."

In an e-mail to Poynter's Steve Sonderman, NBC News chief digital officer Vivian Schiller offered little insight into the sudden closure: "[EveryBlock] is a wonderful scrappy business but it wasn't a strategic fit with our growth strategy and -- like most hyperlocal businesses -- was struggling with the business model. We looked at various options to keep this going, but none of them were viable. It was a tough call to make."

With initial development funded by one of the first Knight News Challenge grants, in 2009 Everyblock was acquired by MSNBC. In 2011 it relaunched with a community focus. Last summer NBC News took full ownership of MSNBC's digital network, including EveryBlock. Just a month ago the site was still adding features, such as neighbor ads.

The original open-source code for Everyblock (prior to the MSNBC acquisition) remains available for reuse and further development. For instance, in 2011 the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication won a Knight News Challenge grant to use the original Everyblock code base in a project to help rural newspapers develop sustainable business models around hyperlocal news.

Today on The Verge, Tim Carmody noted: "From the outside, it's not clear whether NBC gave the project enough time or resources to succeed, or if the approach itself is inherently difficult to monetize. Only a month of selling native advertising doesn't seem like enough of a laboratory to tell one way or the other. Regardless, NBC News is moving on."

Even founder Adrian Holovaty was surprised that the service was shut down: "I left EveryBlock in August, after five years, as I was itching to make something new. I had no idea NBC News would be shutting it down (in fact, at the time, I said I expected it would be around for a 'long, long time'). The last time I talked with an NBC News representative, at a conference a few months after I left EveryBlock, he indicated that NBC was optimistic about the site's future."

What's clear is that a sudden, no-warning shutdown, with no archive access, is definitely the worst possible way to end a community engagement project. It demonstrates disdain for users and a failure to recognize the value of what the site offered during its lifespan.

When community members lose access to content they've contributed, contacts, news updates, and more, that's certain to spawn ill will and damage public trust in the site's operators. Any future community engagement projects from NBC News will certainly be viewed more skeptically by community members, in light of how poorly NBC News handled this shutdown.

Community news, information, and engagement can Indeed be a tough business. Many such projects don't live forever. So if your project ever needs to scale back or shut down, don't make this a surprise to your users:

  • Warn users via several channels, at least a week in advance -- but preferably a month or more. Have a pop-up that appears on the site, e-mail registered users, post repeatedly about the shutdown in your social media channels, and publish a post or article on your home page.
  • Give users options to save content they value. If your site tracks which content or comments were contributed by specific users, can they export their content? Can people archive specific discussion threads?
  • Leave the archives online. Change your site template so all pages mention prominently when the site was discontinued, but leave the content hosted online under the original domain for as long as possible.
  • Thank your community and contributors. Consider some final farewell features or packages showcasing the best examples of engagement from the history of your site. Acknowledge by name your most active, noteworthy or constructive contributors.
  • Where to go from here? If your project has had a social media presence (such as a Facebook page or group, Twitter account, Tumblr blog, etc.) will that effort be continuing? If so, let your users know where they can go to continue to engage with you. or recommend and link to other ongoing community projects that might interest your users.

Taking these steps is the key to not burning bridges with your community -- and to preserve your personal and organizational good reputation for community engagement in the long term. And also for preserving your funders' credibility for community engagement.

If you ever hope to revive your community project or start a new one -- or even if you just don't want to make it harder for others to do so in the future -- community members need to see that their involvement matters. Throwing all their efforts in the trashcan makes community members justifiably skeptical about participating in anyone's efforts to engage them.

To preserve community credibility and leave future engagement options open, you have to at least look like you care. So if you must exit this field, do so with care and respect.

Epilogue: There may be one potential upside to the demise of Everyblock for some community sites where Everyblock had gained a strong following. Patrick Boylan, publisher of the Welles Park Bulldog (a Chicago hyperlocal site), observed recently in a Facebook discussion (quoted with permission):

"For local sites, Everyblock scraped our content and they took our conversations. The conversation side of the site became larger and larger and more and more important. They were not a threat to small communities. It was too expensive to recreate in every suburb. But for us in Chicago, the survivors, this may be an opportunity to reclaim the conversation."

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Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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