A tribute to Scranton's famous fictional company from NBC's "The Office." (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, tomdobb.)
Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Seattle, Washington, have little in common. Scranton is landlocked, tucked in a valley 120 miles away from the nearest major city in the Northeast, with a population of approximately 73,000. Seattle, three time zones to the west, is on the Pacific coast and has eight times the population of Scranton.
Scranton's population is half of what it was in 1940; the Seattle population has nearly doubled in that time. Seattle is younger and more ethnically diverse than Scranton, and its residents are higher paid. The cities’ economies are different, with a pervasive technology sector in Seattle – the Microsoft headquarters are in nearby Richmond – while Scranton has attracted logistics, manufacturing and service businesses. Seattle is operating on a $3.8 billion municipal budget (although mid-year cuts have been announced to reduce projected revenue shortfalls), and Scranton is run on a $78 million budget this year.
However, Scranton and Seattle share some basic characteristics: Both are urban; both have broadband access, at least one university, and a central public library; and in both cities traditional news media have been downsized recently. But looking at how communities in these places have responded to their shrinking news media, the differences return.
Three of us on the New America Foundation Media Policy Initiative team completed case studies this month on the Scranton and Seattle local news systems that provide a contrast in how news is created and consumed by communities that have access to similar tools.
Seattle lost its second daily newspaper last year when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer closed its print edition and went online-only, shedding dozens of newsgathering jobs along the way. The remaining daily newspaper, The Seattle Times, does not have the reporting reach it once had, as that paper’s newsroom staff has dwindled from 375 to 210 over the past five years.
While we note there is no “replacement” media today following changes at the two daily Seattle newspapers, a culture of new news initiatives has developed outside the traditional media framework. As we observed last week, up to 97 percent of the content on a sample of local blogs and community news sites was devoted to neighborhood issues, compared with 12 percent found on the two newspaper sites.
Other news and investigative sites, including InvestigateWest.com, Crosscut.com and Spot.us, the San Francisco Bay Area project, have begun covering pockets of Seattle.
Sensing a duty to remain relevant and useful to its readers, The Seattle Times has shown recent flexibility in this new news ecosystem with a Knight-funded project that partners the paper with some hyperlocal outlets in a content-sharing agreement. The P-I, likewise, links to a collection of other news sites and blogs to bolster its community coverage.
Seattle has benefited from city investment in digital programming and engagement. With public and private funding, the city operates the award-winning Seattle Channel public television station, and the city information technology department’s Community Technology Program was established to promote digital equality among residents. The program also comprises the Government 2.0 initiative, a blueprint for public access including social media policy, department blogs, community building through media literacy, and a youth-oriented site.
These policies are guided by the Citizens' Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board in collaboration with the city’s neighborhood development department. The Technology Matching Fund, which pays for the programming, was created in 1997.
Moreover, government transparency is a priority among officials and residents. The city adopted an ordinance in 2009 to enact the State of Washington Open Records Act, and the city website provides a comprehensive portal to government information. At the county level, the nonprofit Countywide Community Forums group has launched Public Data Ferret, an online government document retrieval system of local, state and national records.
As the media landscape changes, Seattle should be considered as an early model of online information sharing for its emerging plurality of news authorities and sources, from the commercial and nonprofit to the government sponsored.
In Scranton, much of the online news innovation has been driven by commercial traditional media outlets (on all platforms), which maintain popular websites with full multimedia and social media features. There are no known, independent neighborhood news sites that present issues on a granular level.
In 2009, major players in the Scranton news media market adjusted to the recession and falling advertising revenue by scaling back services. The regional newspaper of record, the Scranton Times-Tribune, reduced staffing costs through layoffs, buyouts and work furloughs, dealing a blow to local newsgathering after years of attrition.
The owners of the local CBS affiliate ended its regular newscast due to low ratings, laying off staff and replacing the news with syndicated television programming. And the local PBS member station, WVIA, received 90 percent less state funding in 2009-2010 than the year prior due to a state budget crisis.
Although traditional newspaper readership in Scranton remains high compared to other populations, there are some new news and information efforts in Scranton. Electric City Renaissance is a site devoted to Scranton arts and leisure; Doherty Deceit is a popular, conservative political information forum with high user-engagement, NEPArtisan.com is a space devoted to political commentary, mostly from a Democratic point of view, and regional bulletin board NEPABuzz.com launched this year.
The PEG station, run by Electric City Television, has ramped up programming, is in a new location downtown, and has formed a partnership with the journalism department at Keystone College.
Scranton has 20 neighborhoods, two universities, and a new medical college, and the population decline appears to be slowing. Also, the Pennsylvania legislature strengthened the state’s open records procedures, mandating better access to government documents across all municipalities and state government agencies. Residents, leaders and officials in the former anthracite coal mining city should begin considering their role in local media in the digital age.
The new news authorities in Seattle, combined with public and private interest in a healthy democracy through better information systems, are changing the expectations and the culture of news creation and consumption in communities. Government initiatives can provide a necessary spark, as in Seattle’s Community Technology program and Pennsylvania and Washington’s updated Open Records laws, to community information building. Efforts like these can set the level of engagement.
These case studies are not definitive; they are a work in progress. However, it is clear these two cities, facing different contexts, have responded in different ways. Neither study provides enough data for us to suggest that the next decade will see increasing civic engagement as a result of the emerging media ecosystem, but they do appear to show two alternative directions in which media environments can move.