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Facebook gets it. Bummer newspapers didn't

For all its stumbles, Facebook has shown a willingness to experiment and become transparent. The same can't be said for the staggering newspaper industry.

Today the Rocky Mountain News publishes its final edition after nearly 150 years. Elsewhere, newspaper publishers everywhere from San Francisco to Philadelphia face equally grim prospects.

The reasons have been well chronicled by others like Poynter Online and I won't waste time rehashing familiar arguments and analyses. But one complaint about newspapers is that they increasingly are out of step with their readers, who for too long were ignored at the bottom rung of a one-way hierarchy which defined their relationship.

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg: "Openness and transparency isn't an end state. It's a process to get there."

It was only a coincidence, but the Rocky Mountain News announcement came on the same day that Facebook declared that it would embrace a community-driven process for governing. Responding to a controversy earlier this month over changes to its terms of service, Facebook said it will henceforth put any proposed modifications to its membership up for public debate in a "notice and comment" forum.

Not everyone was impressed by the announcement. Marshall Kirkpatrick posted a scorcher over at ReadWriteWeb, dunning Facebook's management for losing its grip. But if I read Marshall correctly, he's not slamming the company for its bid to be more transparent. Rather, he's arguing that Facebook still hasn't fully absorbed the real reason behind the flap.

What's delusional about the company's position? Multiple company officials on the call today said that the controversy showed how much of a sense of ownership users have over Facebook and that they wanted a sense of participation in its governing. (You complain about us because you love us!) We'd argue that it is pretty clear people have a sense of ownership instead over their content and want Facebook to keep its hands off. Ownership of content, not the lack of input on policy, was what people were upset about.

Fair enough. And voting may not be the best idea out there. Still, I think Facebook deserves credit for at least trying. Listening to the conference call on Thursday, I found myself wondering whether some of the very decades-old newspapers now going through a horrid time might have fared had they found a way to similarly engage their readers once the Internet went commercial. How long, for instance, has it taken for newspapers to let its reporters begin blogging? How about the inclusion of reader comments--let alone taking feedback on how to make coverage more relevant to the community's needs? Or reader blogs, for that matter? (There still aren't many of the latter.)

There are obvious differences between Facebook and a big city newspaper and I'm not suggesting that the cure here is simply to sprinkle some Web 2.0 fairy dust and everything will be as it was 25 years ago. But Facebook is also a media company and as Larry Magid smartly writes, its 175 million users are the ones who supply the content. Giving them a voice in policy making, whether to quell a brewing storm or to get out ahead of the next one--that's less interesting to me than Facebook's willingness to experiment.

It's not a perfect system and there doubtless are going to be rough spots ahead. Still, I'm going to cut them a break. It's easy to be cynical about the motivations but if Facebook has found a way to offer up more transparency and yes, even as Marshall suggests, participation over governing, then the company has hit upon a formula that will keep it relevant. Wish The Rocky Mountain News and its industry cohorts would be able to say the same. Sigh.

Update, 12:33 p.m. PST: A Brooklyn blog reports that The New York Times next week will begin neighborhood blogs. Thanks to a pointer from TechCrunch, where Jim Schachter, the editor for digital initiatives at the Times, confirms the pilot program. Schachter also asks the following:

Can we create a combination of journalism, technology and advertising that people who don't work for us can adopt? How much or how little oversight by us would be needed to keep the quality high? Would people pay to be associated with us? Would there be enough revenue that some split between us and a non-NYT blogger would work? I'd love to know what readers here think.