Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, October 13, 2017

One more blow against community media: Washington Post drops Thursday "county" news special sections

"In the old days," metropolitan newspapers were known for publishing special zoned community news sections one or two days per week. 

The idea was that more locally focused news of less interest to the entire metropolitan area would be featured as well as provide an opportunity for smaller, local businesses to advertise.

With the precipitous decline of the newspaper industry co-terminate with the rise of the Internet over the past 20+ years -- most major newspapers have less than half the circulation they had back then, for example the Washington Post distributed close to 800,000 papers daily, now it's about 350,000 -- newspapers have been cutting back.

And that includes special zoned community news sections.  The Louisville Courier-Journal and the Detroit News eliminated their special weekly community news sections more than ten years ago, the New York Times about five years ago, the Boston Globe consolidated their five zoned editions to three, eliminating the special Boston city section as part of the changes.

The Washington Post kept its sections but in those areas where it published twice/week it reduced frequency, and a couple years ago, stopped including locally relevant "copy" specific to the edition, although each section retained its local community calendar, which was still an important service and one of the only "mass media" ways to communicate local events to a wider audience. 

It became more of a "Home Life" section, but with the local calendar.

From the Post description of the purpose and value of the section to students:
Every Thursday LOCAL LIVING combines Home and community news with local entertainment, family and health features that readers want. The result? A convenient weekly resource covering Washington life from family room to community room.

LOCAL LIVING provides news and features about the community, profiles of neighbors and neighborhood organizations, coverage of local government agendas, zoning and school board actions. 
LOCAL LIVING offers a wide range of educational opportunities and strategies. A few simple examples will help to introduce students to LOCAL LIVING.

Articles and advertisements provide illustrations, headlines and vocabulary that lead to concept development, so necessary to reading a story with success. In articles, features and photographs, a particular area of the Washington metropolitan region is covered. Students can learn much about the locations in and geography of their area and surrounding areas through LOCAL LIVING.
Now the Post has dropped this section, called "Local Living," and the county-specific calendar-events feature.  (The New York Times dropped its Thursday Home section about two years ago.)

Suburban weekly networks.  Some newspapers, among them the Chicago Sun-Times (although later they sold out those newspapers to the Chicago Tribune), the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Baltimore Sun, and the Los Angeles Times, constructed networks of suburban-focused weeklies distributed separately from the main newspaper but with the same idea of providing locally relevant news and advertising.

The Washington Post didn't do that in quite the same integrated fashion, but had such weeklies in Frederick, Montgomery, Prince George's Counties in Maryland and in Fairfax County, Virginia.  A couple years ago they shut down the Maryland weeklies and sold the Fairfax edition ("The ongoing tragedy of dying print media, the latest being community newspapers in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, Maryland").

It's been a blow for nonprofits and cultural organizations in Suburban Maryland ever since, in terms of being able to communicate to a wider audience.

Now that blow has been extended to the entire circulation area of the Washington Post newspaper.

If in the Internet era one of the true distinctions and reasons for reading a "local" paper is locally relevant news and features, then sadly the Post is becoming less relevant.

The negative effect on civil society. Most research on citizen involvement in local civic affairs finds a strong positive association between reading the local newspaper and the level of engagement. Research on newspaper closures finds that there is a negative impact on civic engagement and involvement as newspapers close or shrink.

From the journal article, "Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement," published in Political Communication:
Using data from the 2008 and 2009 Current Population Survey (CPS) conducted by the United States Census Bureau, this article assesses the year-over-year change in the civic engagement of citizens in America’s largest metropolitan areas. Of special interest are Denver and Seattle, where the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer closed during the intervening year. The data from the CPS indicate that civic engagement in Seattle and Denver dropped significantly from 2008 to 2009—a decline that is not consistently replicated over the same time period in other major American cities that did not lose a newspaper. The analysis suggests that this decline may plausibly be attributed to the ewspaper closures in Seattle and Denver. This short-term negative effect is concerning, and whether it lasts warrants future attention.
As mass print media ceases to be a mass medium, the quality of participation as well as the amount of participation declines.

Also see the discussion on media within the past entry, "Voting vs. civic participation | elections vs. governance."

Existing community media networks in DC and Northern Virginia.  In Northwest DC, the Current Newspapers still publish, although the shutting down of the Gazette Newspapers fatally damaged a once extent newspaper supplement distribution network, cutting the revenues of the Current group.  The Capital Hill Community News group publishes monthlies for Capitol Hill, center city DC, and East of the River.

Virginia has a couple large community weekly networks, the primary being the Connection Newspapers.

Calendar features.  It happens that the calendar-event section of the Current Newspapers is probably the premier such section in the metropolitan area, but it lacks the reach and positioning possessed by the Post.  The calendars in the Capital Hill Community News publications are quite good as well.  And the Washington City Paper, the city's alternative weekly, publishes a calendar as does the Post Weekend section, although the Weekend section focuses on events and showings, not lectures and such.

In Cincinnati, the arts organizations have banded together to create a digital calendar called ArtsWave with an associated ArtsWavePass that provides discounted access to events.

The Post could still publish a community calendar page in the regular paper.  Ideally, the Post could continue the community calendar function by dedicating one page, perhaps in the Thursday Style section.  There could be a DC/Maryland page for DC and Maryland and a Virginia page for the Virginia editions of the paper.

Opportunities to create digital community information networks.  In various writings, I've described how community-district information systems could be distributed at the sub-city/sub-county level, by "district."  Working with "calendar engines" like the Current Newspapers, it is possible to create such networks, perhaps in conjunction with the distribution of district-specific transit information.

I describe such a network, focused on Silver Spring, in an article series on Silver Spring. as item #10.  The basic outline is relevant regardless of specific place.


Create a digital community and transit information network for Silver Spring, employing kiosks and mobile applications.  For at least 15 years, I've been thinking about how to create and deliver a city- (county-) wide digital nonprofit and cultural communications feed, with sub-feeds for neighborhoods/districts.

Now, with real-time transit information feeds like TransitScreen, you can use transit information applications as a foundation/the engine but add other information feeds to the engine.  That's how the digital information kiosks work (called CityPost, produced by Smart City Media) alongside the Kansas City Streetcar.

From the Digital Signage Today article "Meridian deploys outdoor interactive kiosks in Kansas City" :
The interactive kiosks, located at Kansas City Streetcar platforms and throughout downtown, enable travelers to check the arrival time of the next streetcar, offer Kansas City locals and tourists access to city services, and display information about local restaurants, activities and events...
Kiosk users can sync their smartphones to the kiosk with a mobile app to save and share information. For example, Kansas City Streetcar travelers might see an ad for dinner at a local restaurant. They are then able to pull that information onto their mobile device to access again at their convenience.

There is also the LinkNYC program, delivered by Civiq Smartscapes, but these systems tend to be more focused on delivering advertising rather than useful community-specific information.  I have similar concerns about a program done separately by the New York MTA transit agencies.The feed would be multi-stream instead of a single advertising feed or a single transit information feed.

Take (1) the digital ad feed presented in bus shelters and transit stations; (2) add transit and mobility information like the TransitScreen application; and (3) create and deliver a separate "community information feed" promoting  nonprofit and public sector organization, events, public meeting notices, etc.  (Note that Outfront Media is doing (1) and (2) on screens in Metrorail stations.)

There is great need for systematically delivering community information in public and visible ways in many places, because community media outlets are going out of business because of how the Internet has changed the business of media and advertising.

TransitScreen mobility information display, Silver Spring Civic CenterIn fact, Montgomery County does a form of delivering community information digitally at the Silver Spring Civic Center, where they have two digital screens side-by-side behind the information desk. 

One presents the TransitScreen info (pictured at right), and the other cycles through "ads" for Montgomery County Government agencies and services, and community events.    (Libraries frequently have community bulletin board-like digital screens presenting such information also.)

The idea is to create content in a way that works at two scales: (1) a city or county; and (2) at the sub-city/county scale, by neighborhood/ transit district.

The stream would be device independent, so that it could be displayed on screens and kiosks as well as received on a digital feed. 

Besides delivering this digital network in kiosks at transit stations and key "crossroads," in bus shelters, and civic buildings and sites, ideally, places like coffee shops, office and apartment buildings, etc., would put up screens and "subscribe" to the feed as a service to their customers/tenants--many do this with transit information already.

As another example, recently I came across the Pitt Smart Living Project, but it seems to focus only on delivering area-specific transit information.

-- Pitt Smart Living Project TransitScreen for Sennott Square

To create and deliver the community ads and event content, I'd set up an "advertising and design curriculum" as part of the School of Art and Design at Montgomery College, perhaps with the involvement of the journalism program of Montgomery-Blair High School, which very actively markets its Silver Chips student newspaper to the community beyond the school. 

A way to extend the community and educational value of the program would be to create an equivalent of the teen graphic design program of Boston's Artists for HumanityArts on the Block, based in Kensington, could participate too.    The firm handling advertising in Montgomery County's bus shelters would be another partner.

Currently the MC Media Arts & Technology program is located at the Rockville campus, but in keeping with the presence of Discovery Channel in Silver Spring, perhaps this academic program could shift to the Silver Spring campus.

-- Smart City Media video showing the program in Kansas City

An issue is whether or not to include "for profit" ads.  I would in part to defray costs, but outside of bus shelters, perhaps ads should be limited to businesses based in Silver Spring, potentially the Silver Spring retail trade area (which includes parts of DC and arguably, part of Prince George's County), and Montgomery County outside of Silver Spring.

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At 10:23 AM, Blogger John M said...

Thank for posting about this, Richard.

Local news is disappearing.

Thanks for your work.


At 11:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Local rags and blogs are better at this kind of reporting anyway.Let them at it

At 12:51 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

anon -- there is a difference between mass media, community media, and micromedia.

It is the rare blog that gets a large readership, even if the readers "are quality." I SHOULD KNOW...

And many communities have no local community media to speak of.

Montgomery and PG Counties have one community newspaper which isn't particularly distinguished and mostly exists because of requirements to publish legal notices.

Big swathes of DC lack any community media coverage. That is true of many cities.

Plus in terms of maintenance of the historical record, metropolitan newspapers are recorded and saved, while most other local media is not.

E.g., it is a fluke that the Washington City Paper has been digitized, and that is because a Yale University professor wanted it, and his university agreed to pay for doing it.

How many cities can count on a national university caring enough about their local media to digitize it?

At 5:32 PM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

The screens are interesting, but a) very few people actually interact with them, and b) that does nothing to solve the business model problem for actually generating the local news content you seek.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

1. I am definitely torn about digital kiosks -- less about regular old bulletin boards. Generally only one person can use them at a time, so I don't think they're super useful.

They have two ways of accessing: display or interactive; I am thinking more of the display elements.

2. And I am not focused on generating "news content" in this kind of application, more focused on delivering information about events of all types, not just "entertainment."

In fact I've been thinking about this for 15 years.

3. What matters is the "engine" and I see how by using the engine created by apps like Transit Screen, you can create a way to deliver event information too, in a geocoded fashion.

It can be displayed on screens but also accessed via an app.

Likely the app would be the most used and accessible.

I've tried talking to TransitScreen about this but they don't get it. I haven't reached out to the Pitt project yet.

One of these days maybe I should just break down and code.

4. WRT the economics of micromedia, for the most part they aren't there. The markets are too small to be able to generate enough revenue through advertising to be able to support paid writers/journalists.

I wasn't writing about that in this particular piece (or the Silver Spring one), but I think pulling together high school and college students and interested residents in networks is a way to provide some coverage.

But it needs to be supported as a network.

The Arabianranta district of Helsinki was an early innovator with digital information systems (more than the old pre-Internet BBSs) and HafenCity has supported the creation of a newspaper (I never saw a copy, it's probably comparable to the Southwester, which I should have mentioned) and I think digital info media too, but not quite at the scale of a community info network like NextDoor in the US, which is probably comparable to the Arabianranta effort.

IMO, NextDoor too is too micro to be able to work as a revenue generating medium. Most neighborhoods lack a strong enough base of indigeneous business to be able to be tapped for advertising. Plus they probably don't need to advertise anyway because they are known. And the specialty services -- furniture mechanic, upholstery, lawn mower repair, etc. aren't large enough to want to advertise.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


which reminds me of the separate Helsinki initiative Forum Virium Helsinki which is far more interesting and creative than I can think of vis a vis DC.

It's a smart city initiative before the term smart city was used.

At 12:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Washington Post acquired the Gazette (suburban weeklies) in 1993.

At 2:10 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

and shut them down in 2015.

For whatever reason, they didn't integrate them into the metropolitan newspaper "network" in the same way that similar suburban weekly networks were created in other places (Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, etc.). Likely that would have saved them, had they done so.

At 10:07 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Berkeleyside newspaper, Berkeley, CA does "direct public offering"

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

a piece on the history of DC community newspapers:



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