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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Close-up on Seattle: Local Blogs and Community Collaboration

Published:  May 11, 2010
Photo credit: kethry (stock.xchng)
Photo credit: kethry (stock.xchng)

We’ve just published our first two information ecology case studies, which take a close look at the local conditions in Seattle and Scranton. When we started investigating these media ecosystems, we used the Knight Commission Report, "Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age," as our guide. Newspapers, television, and radio were all important to us, but so were residents’ access to education, broadband, government data, libraries, and other community institutions, as well as evidence we found that showed how citizens engaged with the information. The results were illuminating, and the two cities are an interesting contrast in showing the diverse resources available to today’s American communities.

Seattle, in particular, seemed to offer a preview of where today’s media landscape is headed. The case study covers a lot of ground, but what stood out in particular in Seattle was the role that online news start-ups have begun to play. As you may recall, Seattle went from a two-newspaper to a one-newspaper town last year, when The Seattle Post-Intelligencer became the nation’s first online-only metro daily. Even as the remaining print paper, The Seattle Times, tried to regain its footing during the transition, a number of hyperlocal, neighborhood-based online news sites were already springing up. I compared four of the blogs with SeattleTimes.com and SeattlePI.com and found some interesting trends.

With their focus on community news, Seattle’s neighborhood blogs have the potential to fill the gaps in local coverage by the city’s mainstream media outlets. And the numbers seem to back this up: When I examined the six news sites (SeattlePI.com, SeattleTimes.com, “Capitol Hill Seattle,” “West Seattle Blog,” “My Ballard,” and “Wallyhood”) for three days over a three-week period last month, the two newspaper websites devoted 11 to 12% of their news coverage to neighborhood issues, while the blogs’ coverage ranged from 81 to 97%. The blogs are devoting more space to announcements of City Council meetings and civic events relevant to their neighborhoods, and they’re covering more stories related to subjects identified by the Knight Commission as meeting community information needs (e.g, social services and education).

It’s not just what they’re covering, but how they’re discussing these subjects that merits a closer look. Let’s take a few days’ coverage on the “Capitol Hill Seattle” blog, for example. On April 21, posts featured on the homepage included news about the progress of the City Council’s streetcar proposal, City Hall’s plans for installing new green spaces in the neighborhood, an announcement for a public forum with a City Councilwoman to discuss plans for installing surveillance cameras at a local park, and four posts on government activity regarding transit and traffic concerns. There were two posts about events seeking citizen feedback in neighborhood development projects, which included a planned housing renovation in one instance and potential uses for property held by a local church in another. Another post made use of government data to create a map of designated heritage and non-heritage trees in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, as classified by the City of Seattle. Other neighborhood blogs function similarly, providing relevant information to the public while also encouraging neighborhood civic engagement offline. On an anecdotal basis, the blogs seemed to be covering subjects that were within the grasp of their resources that had not garnered much attention from the mainstream media, but to find the extent to which the blogs are really engaging in original reporting would require a deeper analysis.

That’s what’s happening on the ground in Seattle. Can you think of anything we missed? Which cities should we examine next? We’d love to get your feedback – let us know in the comments.

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