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

August 5, 2010 |
New America Panel

From the New America Panel - Digital District: Local News and Online Media Access in Washington (July 28, 2010)

Washington ranks first out of the country’s largest designated market areas in terms of households that possess a computer with 82.9 percent of adults in the metro area claiming computer ownership, and again in terms of Internet access, with 80 percent of adults having accessed the Internet in the past 30 days 1. Online news outlets are defined in this study as news of general interest within the local community. All the mainstream media news outlets have also established an online presence. WashingtonPost.com attracts 10.6 million readers across the U.S.2  The Post’s website hosts regular live chats between readers and contributors and is also home to 107 blogs. Some have created or partnered with websites that supplement their primary medium to fill a different niche, such as TV station WUSA’s “Metromix Washington, DC” entertainment guide, which caters to a younger audience than those who tune into the station’s news broadcasts.3 The website of the Washington Post republishes content from area bloggers in “All Opinions Are Local,” selections from which are published again in the Sunday print newspaper.4 The Washington Post Company also owns WhoRunsGov.com, a wiki that allows the public to create profiles of government decision-makers across the country.

With its distinctive neighborhoods, D.C. has a built-in audience for hyperlocal news outlets, most of which have sprung up online. This study counted 61 online-only local news outlets in Washington (independent of news outlets that primarily operate in other media), the majority of which were blogs. There are approximately 431 contributors to D.C.’s online-only media, but few are paid for the work.5 The city’s oldest local blogs that still command an audience began to spring up in 2003. Among the original few were JDLand, founded in January 2003; DCist, owned by Gothamist LLC and founded in August 2004; Prince of Petworth, founded in November 2006; and In Shaw, which dates to 2003.

DCist has the largest readership of the blogs with 1.7 million page views per month.6 The site is owned by Gothamist LLC, a New York-based media company that owns 14 online titles in cities around the world. DCist has approximately 32 contributors. The editor in chief is the only full-time, salaried employee, and the two weekend editors are compensated as freelancers; the majority of contributors are unpaid but often cover regular beats.7 The blog averages 15 to 20 posts daily and includes a mix of original reporting, commentary, reader-submitted media, and news originally published elsewhere. Its focus encompasses the entire city, but editor Aaron Morrissey said of its scope, “We’re a conduit between smaller hyperlocal blogs...that focus on one neighborhood or a street or a corridor, even,” and larger media outlets.8

DCist has evolved a certain tone and niche in DC’s media ecosystem over the last six years. “People come to DCist and feel like they get a nice cross-section of the city,” Morrissey said. Unique among Gothamist-owned titles, DCist also has active commenting on posts, referred to by staff as “The Commentariat.” Morrissey said content is often chosen with the readers’ preferences in mind, based on feedback from website analytics, comments, and e-mails. Morrissey also explained that DCist often takes advantage of opportunities to sit down and talk with government officials and other community leaders, especially when they are offered access, but that such meetings are always taken with a mind to preserving DCist’s tone and objectivity.9

Although Morrissey only recently took over as editor in chief during the summer of 2010, he has contributed to the site since 2007. Going forward, he anticipates adding more original reporting and more multimedia features. Morrissey described DCist’s growth as having occurred at a “natural” pace. However, he emphasized that with a part-time staff, the site only has capacity for so much reporting. “We can’t cover everything, as much as I wish we could,” he said.10

JDLand, one of the oldest local news blogs, grew out of founder Jacqueline Dupree’s curiosity in seeing her neighborhood in Near Southeast DC evolve over the course of the past decade. A few photographs of development in the area that would later house the city’s new baseball stadium and later still begin to see the construction of luxury apartment buildings marked her incipient interest in 2000; her efforts grew into a full-fledged blog in 2003. In 2009, Washington City Paper called JDLand the city’s second-best local website, and in 2008 the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism named the blog winner of its Citzen Media Award.11 In addition to publishing an average of one to two blog posts daily, Dupree also maps upcoming and in-progress development projects in the neighborhood and crimes, as well as publishing an events calendar and recently awarded public space permits, building permits, property sales, and service requests. While Dupree has no training in urban planning, Veronica O. Davis, PE, is an urban planner by day and blogs at Life In the Village (a condominium complex) and the adjacent Hillcrest neighborhood in Southeast D.C. in her spare time, in light of her observations in both her personal and professional lives.12

Greater Greater Washington (GGW) is another blog that takes an interest in urban development, and while its founding editor, David Alpert, is based in D.C., the blog encompasses the entire metro region. The blog was founded in 2008 and publishes approximately five posts per day, many of which critique a perceived bias in mainstream media towards suburban automobile-oriented perspectives and instead praise improvements that make D.C. a more walkable or bike-friendly city. Alpert aims to leave readers "more informed [on transportation and urban planning issues[ than they would be reading general purpose media" and also sees an advocacy role for the blog in "activating [people] to push for policy change." The blog was founded in 2008 and publishes approximately five posts per day.13 At an event held in a makeshift “pop-up lab” in the up-and-coming neighborhood of H Street (NE) Corridor during Washington’s Digital Capital Week 2010, Alpert proposed that blogs “not only convey information, but they help people interested in a particular area...convey what they believe....A blog can get a lot more people to be participants.”14 Although GGW has 33 contributors, none are paid, and the blog generates no profit (and in fact, includes no ads). Instead of growing the blog financially, Alpert is more interested in using it as a vehicle to create a sense of community, online and off: He encourages readers to contribute blog posts on relevant subjects and also to attend local government meetings. A May 26, 2010, blog post on proposed eleventh-hour city budget cuts that would eliminate funding for a new streetcar project galvanized readers to call DC City Council in protest; the funding was later reinstated in the budget.15 Most of the reporting is original and local, although Alpert sometimes includes press releases from government agencies or relevant national news stories.16 Alpert’s posts have been picked up by The Washington Post’s “All Opinions Are Local” online blog network. He hopes to expand his group of contributors to include more female bloggers and people of color and more content covering subjects such as education and art and communities in Prince George’s County, MD, and south and east of the Anacostia River in Washington.17

Like Jacqueline Dupree, Dan Silverman was also inspired by development in his neighborhood, and what he perceived to be a corresponding lack of coverage in the mainstream media, to start the blog Prince of Petworth (PoP) in 2006. The blog has since expanded from its focus on the Northwest DC neighborhood of Petworth to include 34 neighborhoods across the city. Like other local bloggers, Silverman professes to bring “a true curiosity” to his work and to blog about subjects that interest him, including dog parks, bike routes, gentrification, crime, neighborhood identification and boundaries, and development, among other subjects. Devotion to the subject of the blog is essential for local bloggers, Silverman said, because the financial rewards are so low. Before becoming a full-time blogger, Silverman’s training was in international affairs, and he worked for a time as a D.C.-based researcher for a Japanese newspaper. The sole contributor to PoP, Silverman, who blogs full-time, has only recently hired someone to sell ads on commission for the site. In what is certainly a unique situation, most of PoP’s ads have previously come to the site unsolicited from local businesses.

Rather than focus on his business model, Silverman has put much of his energy into building a sense of community among his readers with his focus on neighborhood living. “You have to build a trust with your readership,” he said, something that only happens over time. While larger, mainstream media outlets may intimidate and confuse readers who are not sure whom to contact with questions, Silverman suggests, as a one-man entity his blog seems accessible, and he makes an effort to reply to all of the 50 to 100 emails he receives daily. By acting as “more of a facilitator than pontificator,” Silverman serves as a conduit between readers who email him with questions and the larger readership that might hold the answers to them, posting inquiries and soliciting feedback in the comments section. He estimates that 5-7 percent of readers comment.18

Continuing the trend in urban development spurring interest in hyperlocal news, David Garber founded And Now, Anacostia in July 2007 before buying a house in the neighborhood. Growing up in Northern Virginia, Garber only had a stereotypical impression of Anacostia as “all [housing] projects.” As he began reading other local blogs about developing neighborhoods such as Shaw and Petworth, he recognized the ability to bring positive information about communities to people outside them who knew little about their daily life; Garber had this in mind when he started learning and blogging about Anacostia three years ago, just before moving there. His blogging interests are informed by his former career in real estate and recent work in historic preservation and restoration of Anacostia’s buildings. He co-chairs the Historic Anacostia Design Review Committee and also serves on the board of ARCH Development Corporation, self-described as a “not-for-profit community based organization that believes arts and the creative economy can be employed as part of a comprehensive, synergistic approach to community revitalization in the Anacostia community of the Washington, DC.” He described himself as “active in the community” and known to many of its members. Garber moved out of Anacostia in the summer of 2010 due to his living situation but remains involved in restoring properties there.

Garber’s involvement in the Anacostia community coincides with his motivation behind And Now, Anacostia. Before he started blogging, he noticed, “There wasn’t a lot of great information coming out of the neighborhood,” with most of the city’s news organizations reporting only negative things about the area, and all of the good news confined to local publications, such as the newspaper East of the River, which is not distributed in other parts of the District. He said finds the majority of the material for his posts “pretty organically from going to the meetings in the neighborhood,” but if other news outlets carry stories about Anacostia, he may reference them. “A lot of my vocational goals have to do with bringing DC back up via neighborhood renovation,” he said, especially encouraging people and businesses to move there and changing long-held stereotypes of the neighborhood. He does not know the specific demographics of his readers but believes most of his audience does not live in Anacostia. The blog receives 5,000 page views per month.

Running the blog is not his first priority, and it is not a source of profit. He occasionally runs paid advertising or sponsored blog posts (the nature of which he discloses to readers), but most of these are unsolicited, and he also runs ads gratis for local businesses. The blog also features advertising provided by Google. Garber’s posts average one per week, although that is subject to variation. Garber also acknowledged, “It’s nice to be a source for people about the neighborhood,” providing what he described as politically neutral information that is nonetheless “tilted toward making Anacostia look better.”19

The newest entrant to D.C.’s digital media scene has yet to launch at the time of this report’s publication. TBD.com, supported by Allbritton Communications, which owns two Washington television stations (WJLA-ABC 7 and News Channel 8, now TBD TV)and newspaper/website Politico, will cover local news and has been slated to launch in the summer of 2010. The venture attracted talent from Washington’s more established media outlets: Publisher Jim Brady used to edit WashingtonPost.com, and editor Erik Wemple previously edited the City Paper. In addition to online local news, the venture coincides with the rebranding of News Channel 8 as TBD TV. In August 2010, TBD and WJLA ABC 7 alongside sister site News8.net announced a merger between all three online properties. The sites will all redirect to TBD.20

Online, TBD will also feature an extensive network of local bloggers whose content will be linked to from the site. TBD is working in conjunction with GrowthSpur, which provides advertising consulting, to find local advertising models that will benefit the local blogger network that contributes. TBD’s staff includes a “Community Engagement Team” who began networking on Twitter months before the site’s launch. The site is slated to included a mix of original reporting and aggregated news stories, which will be geocoded so that readers can personalize the news they see based on their ZIP code, with an emphasis on transportation, sports, politics, arts and entertainment, and crime stories.21

Legacy media in D.C. are putting online tools to use in innovative ways. The Washington Post recently published a three-day series that is the culmination of two years of investigations into American counterterorrism and national security with an extensive multimedia package in which all parts of the project--article, data visualizations, publicity for a live chat with the reporters, tweets, video, press about the project, a letter from the editor, and a blog--were presented together on one page (new for The Post) in a reader-friendly format that promoted the most substantive material in the Internet equivalent of “above-the-fold.” WashingtonPost.com is also home to DataPost, a collection of databases produced by the Post and other organizations. PostLocal.com, the Post’s local news site, has a new feature called “The Daily Gripe” that utilizes data-collection tool SeeClickFix to allow readers to report an issue requiring government attention, which will then be instantly communicated to agency officials. The Post then follows up the most pressing concerns with an investigation into their cause and the government’s solution (or reason for not taking action). Justin Jouvenal, web editor of PostLocal.com, observed that when it comes to publishing news in multimedia formats, “The content dictates the form,” leading to such popular features as photo galleries published during the region’s 2010 snowstorm.

Social media and information hubs and mobile applications complement the online journalism that serves DC’s information needs in more traditional ways. DC has a presence on news aggregators and local forums such as American Towns, City-Data.com, CitySearch, Craigslist, hundreds of Facebook groups, numerous Google Groups, more than 2,500 Meetup.com groups, Yelp, and miscellaneous groups such as Hub DC and HacDC. Community-oriented news platform Patch is also reported to be launching a D.C. site. Two interactive media projects with a local focus in DC have recently been granted funding, as well. The Knight News Challenge awarded funding to a project called Tilemapping, which will help create hyperlocal maps for bloggers and local media outlets’ websites. The Mobile Black History Project, which received a McCormick Foundation New Media Women Entrepreneurs grant, will create a smartphone app that shares historical information about sites significant in black history using augmented reality.

Other hyperlocal projects publish their work online but cross multiple media. For example, the Columbia Heights Media Project is a new initiative described as “part documentary, part participatory journalism, part community activism.” Begun in summer 2010 by Julie Espinosa, the project will document stories about the Columbia Heights community on film, encouraging community engagement throughout the process. The project is funded by BloomBars, a non-profit that funds community-based artistic endeavors and provides a space for performances and exhibitions. Projects such as this, along with D.C.’s proliferation of neighborhood blogs, seem to reflect the District’s interest in hyperlocal and community-oriented media.

[1] Washington Post Media, Market Book, p. 7, http://www.washingtonpostads.com/adsite/_res/files/managed/2010%20Market..., Accessed 19 July 2010.

[2] Washington Post Digital Ad Center, http://advertising.washingtonpost.com/index.php/audience/page/audience_p..., Accessed 21 July 2010.

[3] For a full blog directory, see http://voices.washingtonpost.com/, Accessed 21 July 2010.

[4] See http://dc.metromix.com/, Accessed 19 July 2010.

[5] See http://voices.washingtonpost.com/local-opinions/, Accessed 19 July 2010.

[6] In addition to calculating contributors listed on individual websites, as in calculations for the other media in this report, this number also reflects information from the following source: Dan Zak, “Young Turks,” Washington Post, 27 Oct. 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/26/AR200910..., Accessed 25 July 2010.

[7] Gothamist, LLC, Media Kit, http://www.gothamistllc.com/mediakit/titles/dcist.php, Accessed 23 July 2010.

[8] Aaron Morrissey, Phone Interview, 23 July 2010.

[9] Aaron Morrissey, Phone Interview, 23 July 2010.

[10] Aaron Morrissey, Phone Interview, 23 July 2010.

[11] Aaron Morrissey, Phone Interview, 23 July 2010.

[12] “JDLand.com: About the Site, and About JD,” http://jdland.com/dc/about.cfm, Accessed 19 July 2010.

[13] See http://fairfaxvillage.blogspot.com/, Accessed 19 July 2010.

[14] David Alpert, Phone interview, 18 June 2010.

[15] David Alpert, “The Art of the Blog” discussion, H Street (NE) Pop-Up Lab, Digital Capital Week, 15 June 2010.

[16] See David Alpert, “Breaking: Gray cuts streetcars (now restored),” 26 May 2010, http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=5967, Accessed 19 July 2010; and see David Alpert,

[] “Social media enabled instant organizing for streetcards,” 27 May 2010, http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=5982, Accessed 19 July 2010.

[17] David Alpert, Phone interview, 18 June 2010.

[18] David Alpert, “The Art of the Blog” discussion, H Street (NE) Pop-Up Lab, Digital Capital Week, 15 Jun2010.

[19] Dan Silverman, Phone Interview, 21 June 2010.

[20] See http://www.archdevelopment.org/about.html, Accessed 21 July 2010.

[21] David Garber, Phone interview, 21 July 2010.

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