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

August 5, 2010 |

A short study we conducted of three daily newspapers and four local and neighborhood blogs revealed differing patterns in local news coverage across media. For three consecutive mornings (July 6-8, 2010), we analyzed the entire print edition of The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and The Examiner and the previous 24 hours of content (corresponding material to be published between 9 am on the previous day and at the same time on the study day in question) published on the blogs Prince of Petworth and DCist, which aim to cover a large swath of and the entire city, respectively, and neighborhood blogs Life in the Village, about Fairfax Village, SE, and The Hill Is Home, a blog about the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill. The study tallied the regional scope of news stories, as well as subjects covered in each publication, derived from the Knight Commission Report’s information needs categories: local politics and government (defined as within the District), health, education, employment, social services, arts and entertainment, and transportation.1 The results of our findings appear in the table below.

Media OutletTotal Stories% of coverage dedicated to hyperlocal news% of coverage dedicated to local news% coverage serving info. needs categories

% original content

Washington Post3803%28%29%82%
Washington Times2160%2%13%41%
The Examiner2893%38%33%61%
Prince of Petworth5076%24%52%72%
DCist4524%73%73%78%
Life in the Village3100%0%67%100%
The Hill is Home1275%25%50%75%

There are two variables being measured here: scope of coverage and medium. The Washington Times, The Examiner and the Post are print metro publications. Prince of Petworth and DCist are online metro publications. Life in the Village and The Hill Is Home are online hyperlocal publications. Although there were significant variations in sample size, the results suggest that D.C.’s online media provide more news at the neighborhood-level than do print outlets that cover the entire metro region. With the exception of DCist, which covers more metro-wide news than neighborhood-specific, the other blogs largely focused on their particular niche, rather than duplicating the scope of coverage in the mainstream media. In terms of content, the blogs appear to provide more information on the subjects identified as crucial to sustaining democracy in the Knight Commission Report, mentioned above. The study also looked for stories on parts of the city with lower socioeconomic profiles and fewer information resources -- namely, Southeast and Southwest Washington. While there were remarkably few stories outside Life in the Village and The Hill Is Home on subjects specific to neighborhoods in these two quadrants, the study window was short enough that the exact findings might not be illustrative of the general coverage patterns of these areas.

In one notable exception, The Washington Post fronted a story on the “startling turnaround” of Sousa Middle School in Southeast, where 80 percent of students come from low-income families and both student behavior and test scores have vastly improved under the leadership of a new principal.2 Other publications have regular features that focus on community leaders not usually in the spotlight, such as The Examiner’s “3-minute Interview,” which profiled the president of the Alexandria, VA, Boys & Girls Club on July 7.3

Blogs were more likely than print media to provide information on ways to communicate with local government and participate in civic processes. For example, two posts on one day of coverage on Prince of Petworth solicited readers’ questions for the editor’s upcoming meeting with a mayoral candidate and crowdsourced contact information for local officials who could help a resident claim a tax refund.4 In another example, DCist posted a reminder that for a signature on a petition to endorse a candidate to count, the signer must be a registered D.C. voter.5 Life in the Village frequently posts step-by-step advice for contacting government officials with service requests and other local concerns.

DCist devotes a large portion of its coverage to the arts (21 stories out of the 45 coded in this study), many of which highlight local artists who are still up-and-coming, such as an interview with a young, local jazz singer performing at a renowned jazz club.6 Not all of its arts coverage features artists on the cusp, though: DCist also has an occasional feature called “Secret History,” which profiles classic music albums created by Washingtonians, and a regular feature profiling works in the permanent collection at the National Gallery of Art. Prince of Petworth and The Hill Is Home devoted similar amounts of coverage to local arts and entertainment stories, but the print outlets studied featured fewer stories and less local arts and entertainment coverage.

Coverage of other subjects serving the community’s information needs varied. The Washington Post carried the most stories on health during this study. All the print outlets published more education stories than the blogs. All the outlets in the study devoted more news coverage to transportation than to information on social services.

Expanding beyond traditional online news coverage, it is  also worth highlighting the information produced, distributed and shared by the nonprofit and advocacy media environment. Within this category are such nonprofit media groups as Investigative Reporting Workshop, the Center for Public Integrity and People’s Production House, among others. Focusing on both national and D.C.-related media and news, these organizations contribute local and investigative reporting and commentary. Moreover, D.C.’s vast advocacy community provides a plethora of social and political commentary. These additional voices serve to inform a local, national and international audience. Contributors  to this sphere include the Project on Government Oversight, Center for American Progress, Heritage Foundation, Brookings Institute, the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Note that this is not a comprehensive listing of all advocacy or nonprofit-related publications in the area, most of which publish online. While these groups promote issue-related news, the content serves and reaches communities inside and also well beyond the immediate D.C. area. 

While the study was limited in scope of outlets and in time, the results suggest trends towards variations in news coverage according to the geographic scope and medium of the outlet. Because the blogs lack the resources to cover the same news agenda as the print outlets, they appear instead to focus on their unique strengths: covering hyperlocal issues and encouraging community engagement. Their coverage complements that of the newspapers with information that is sometimes less wedded to the news cycle but important for educating residents about civic issues. Nonetheless, the online outlets are not yet (and may never be) a replacement for the city’s newspapers, which continue to have significant financial resources to commit to following a story, cover a broader agenda and take advantage of access to sources not yet granted in equal measure to online outlets.

Moreover, given the nature of D.C’s political industry, coverage of the Hill rarely focuses on the neighborhood itself with the exception of the Hill Rag. News focused on the Hill tends to skew heavily on issues concerning national and international politics and policy. This exporting of journalistic time and focus can be problematic when considering its influence on shaping local coverage as a whole. Journalists are then predisposed to approaching news from the same political perspective, limiting the breadth and depth of local coverage. 

 


 

[1] See Appendix 1 in Marissa Mayer and Theodore B. Olson, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute, 2009.

[2] Stephanie McCrummen, “D.C. principal’s hands-on tack transforms Sousa Middle but also ruffles feathers,” Washington Post, 6 July 2010, A1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/05/AR201007..., Accessed 20 July 2010.

[3] See Bill Myers, “The 3-Minute Interview: Rob Blumel,” The Examiner, 7 July 2010, p. 5.

[4] Dan Silverman, “Sensing the Frustration From Both Sides – Plus Requesting Reader Questions for the Mayoral Candidates?”, Prince of Petworth, 6 July 2010, http://www.princeofpetworth.com/2010/07/sensing-the-frustration-from-bot..., Accessed 20 July 2010; Silverman, “Dear PoP – My DC tax refund is missing!,” Prince of Petworth, 6 July 2010, http://www.princeofpetworth.com/2010/07/sensing-the-frustration-from-bot..., Accessed 20 July 2010.

[5] Aaron Morrissey, “Sign Here, Please,” 6 July 2010, http://dcist.com/2010/07/sign_here_please.php, Accessed 20 July 2010.

[6] Sriram Gopal, “DCist Interview: Lena Seikaly,” DCist, 6 July 2010, http://dcist.com/2010/07/dcist_interview_lena_seikaly.php, Accessed 20 July 2010.

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