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An Information Community Case Study: Washington, D.C. - Conclusion

August 5, 2010 |
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The Newseum in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Josh, "NC in DC"/Flickr)

While there are a number of intriguing innovations in media, government, and digital literacy in Washington, the impact of these initiatives on the people has not yet been seen. Geographic distinctions appear to create an unequal distribution of information across D.C., and information access follows the same patterns of racial and socioeconomic stratification that characterize other inequalities among Washington residents.

DC government has a number of innovative initiatives underway. Its municipal fiber network literally gives the city ownership of the broadband access it provides. However, the digital divide still persists, and broadband adoption rates east and south of the Anacostia River remain far lower than those in more affluent parts of the city. The public library system has increasingly worked on expanding access to digital information and computer and Internet training. Well-equipped libraries are not the entire solution, though: To ensure that the people who need these services the most are aware of and can access them, more initiatives that bring digital literacy training to people in diverse settings like schools and community centers are needed, such as Public Media Corps. It is particularly important that the government, community anchor institutions and other groups continue to take a proactive role in encouraging Internet use and broadband adoption, given the cuts in traditional media coverage and growing number of online information sources.

Additionally, the city government values transparency and has sponsored and continues to encourage opportunities for the public to create information tools from government data. However, these valuable initiatives do come at some financial cost, and uncertainty facing the city’s budget does not ensure the sustainability of these initiatives. It is also vital to ensure that new tools for transparency are implemented in a manner that allows their use by all citizens (not only via smartphone applications that reach a relatively exclusive few).

Local media also show transformations that emphasize the value of hyperlocal information and deliver information in multiple media. The District is home to two metro daily newspapers, one of which frequently merits the attention of a national audience, along with vibrant public radio and television stations that benefit from their location in the nation’s capital with their political news coverage and commentary. As print media across the country have seen their resources decrease in recent years, The Washington Post still has vastly greater resources compared to the city’s other newspapers and easily dominates its medium in the city. When it comes to covering news at the hyperlocal level, some print newspapers still cover specific neighborhoods, but much of this coverage is moving online. However, as our discussion of D.C.’s hyperlocal blogs may have suggested, many of these outlets sprung out of their founders’ interest in their neighborhood’s development, which may lead to coverage that boosts the area’s image and lacks the same critical rigor of legacy media outlets. Media catering specifically to ethnic communities, on the other hand, have mostly maintained dual presence in print and online. Although specialized media help fill information gaps left by mainstream media outlets, their proliferation runs the risk of creating information silos that further segregate different populations within Washington, instead of uniting them as one public.

In broadcast, both television and radio would benefit from covering more hard news subjects at the local and hyperlocal level to complement the soft news and regional focus that often drives their programming. Public stations generally provide significantly more news than commercial stations; even within public radio, the majority of news programming originates from NPR affiliates. Both radio and television broadcasters serve broader audiences than residents of the District alone; consequently, their coverage is often regional in scope to meet the needs of the greater Washington area.

Despite a wide variety of media serving the city, D.C.’s media outlets have not been immune from the fiscal uncertainties that have threatened news organizations across the nation. The city’s second major metro daily, The Washington Times, has felt the effects of newsroom cuts especially acutely, but it is far from alone. Our estimates suggest that media outlets that cover local news in Washington, D.C., are supported by approximately 2,642 journalists, though this number includes the full complement of the 784 journalists of The Washington Post, many of whom do not do local coverage, and a number of web based writers many of whom are likely unpaid.

D.C.’s media ecology cannot rely on the volunteers who power many of the newest entrants to the field, such as blogs; more sustainable models are needed to encourage continued innovation in the District’s news coverage. As outlined above, many of the hyperlocal blogs rely on the interest of a single person, interest that will surely wax and wane. Identifying ways to sustain and grow the output over time is something urgently needed. Some will successfully find a business rationale but those in less wealthy parts of the city where the outlets are most needed may require a different approach,.

D.C.’s vibrant neighborhoods and wealth of intellectual capital support the creation for a strong information ecology. However, while Washington has varied sources of media, not all outlets serve the information needs of the entire populace. Like D.C.’s neighborhoods themselves, information silos often segregate information according to racial, socioeconomic, and other characteristics. New initiatives are expanding the potential for informed democracy in D.C., but Washington cannot be considered an exemplary information community until information access and news coverage are equally distributed across all its varied communities.

A Note on Scope and Methodology

This case study has been developed by a small team in Washington, D.C. Much of the initial data were collected via a scan of local websites, subsequent to which a targeted set of interviews was undertaken alongside limited content analysis as described in the text. Our intent has been to be inclusive and acknowledge and identify the role of all media producers, well beyond those considered traditional journalism, such that the analysis provides the best understanding possible of the Washington, D.C., information community. To that end, we have also attempted to calculate the number of journalists working in the city, an undertaking fraught with multiple complications. First, it should be noted that our calculations of working journalists may include unpaid reporters, particularly those contributing to Internet media.

Second, our research sought those listed on outlets’ websites as staff contributors in editorial roles; such calculations may exclude freelance contributors and may include others who are not explicitly involved in newsgathering. Because not all media outlets made this information public, some may have been left out of the calculations entirely.

Additionally, as the nation’s capital, D.C. is home to many news bureaus and headquarters for national and international publications. Because these outlets are so numerous and do not uniquely serve the local market, they were excluded from this study. However, their presence should not be overlooked as a source of employment for Washington-based journalists; note that the number of “journalists on the ground” in Washington reported in here excludes numerous reporters for national outlets and bureau correspondents from regional and local news outlets across the U.S. and around the world. In choosing to include local outlets located outside the District’s borders, this study included only broadcasters and other media outlets that explicitly serve a Washington audience.1

We are eager to expand our preliminary research and welcome further feedback regarding additions, omissions, or corrections. Please send suggestions to Kara Hadge at hadge@newamerica.net

[1] Angelica Das, “Informing D.C.: A Guide to the Washington, D.C. News Media Landscape,” M.A. Capstone Project, American University School of Communication, April 2010. Available online at http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&vps=1&jsv=259e&oe=UTF8&msa=..., Accessed 26 July 2010.

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