Discussion and Conclusion
“Vital cities have marvelous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties.” – Jane Jacobs (1961)
As Jacobs knew well, the urban environment faces unique problems compared with other kinds of communities, but it is also well equipped to sort those problems out. The hyperlocal media examined in this study need not be restricted to urban neighborhoods, but the urban neighborhood, with its dense and diverse population, is a suitable microcosm in which to study the effects of these media, especially as the global population becomes increasingly urban. The added effects of the state of flux in which the media industry has found itself in the twenty-first century creates additional incentives for understanding the roles of both the news media and new media in creating informed communities. Furthermore, in an economy that increasingly prizes innovative methods of knowledge production and the crucial role of social capital, it is vital to understand how communities can support knowledge-based development through the communication tools that their residents, organizations, and businesses employ.
This study has shown that in the context of today’s media environment, hyperlocal communication performs roles beyond the newsgathering of the mainstream press, and in the twenty-first century city, community engagement can be reflected in a variety of ways. If there is one overarching conclusion that can be drawn from these findings on the content of hyperlocal media, the connections among them, and their use by the public, it is that individual hyperlocal media sources are not a replacement for mainstream media or offline communication and activity. However, taken in the aggregate, hyperlocal media can be used to meet many of a community’s information and communication needs. In the process, they add layers of complexity to Lasswell’s (1848) model of communication: “Who says what to whom in what channel with what effect?”
The Future of Community Engagement and Hyperlocal Media in Columbia Heights
Despite the narrow focus of this project on a single neighborhood case study, the findings have shown a high degree of nuance and complexity. By employing three methodologies, I have discussed a number of findings that examine hyperlocal media from social, discursive, and technological perspectives—layers used previously in the scholarship of Button and Partridge (2007) and others. First, residents who are active contributors to hyperlocal media are more likely to be highly engaged in the community offline. Similarly, as both following and contributing to hyperlocal media increase, the likelihood that residents will be more engaged in the offline community rather than less engaged also increases. Not surprisingly, the study found that Columbia Heights’ hyperlocal media are most often followed by its target audience of that neighborhood’s residents. Additionally, these residents are not more likely to be highly engaged in the community until they have lived in Columbia Heights for 10 years or more.
A look at the content of these media found a few things that set hyperlocal media sources apart from their mainstream counterparts. First, some hyperlocal media provide more coverage of neighborhood politics than the website of The Washington Post. Overall, hyperlocal media provide more coverage of crime, real estate, and local events than the website of The Washington Post. Hyperlocal media in the aggregate also spur more conversation than coverage of Columbia Heights on WashingtonPost.com, although that conversation may come in brief spurts or unwind gradually over time. Finally, a spotlight on a selection of Columbia Heights-based Twitter users showed that that medium is characterized by passively “following” others more often than actively interacting with them, and more influential roles are held by those Twitter accounts that are associated with hyperlocal media and community organizations than those associated with local restaurants.
However, these findings leave a few questions that require further explanation. First, a distinction emerged between active contributors to and passive followers of these media; what is it about contributors’ online engagement that distinguishes them from their fellow readers? Second, how do the differences in content among media impact their individual roles in the whole of the neighborhood’s media environment? And where and when do these roles overlap? Finally, how do the demographics of the neighborhood’s population and those of this study’s sample compare, and how does this shed light on the findings? To answer these questions would require an even more in-depth—and likely more ethnographic—study than this one.
Although this study has shown positive relationships between offline community engagement and online hyperlocal media use, it cannot predict whether these patterns will hold. One major potential obstacle that looms over the future of community engagement is the digital divide. As discussed above, many of those involved in community and civic associations offline predict that communications outside of their in-person meetings will move online. Depending on the timing of this shift, residents who do not or cannot access the Internet could be less informed about community life as a result. ANC Commissioner Tony Norman observed that those who are online are usually more educated, and such populations exclude many people who have lived in Columbia Heights for a long time. Norman worried that the District government already relies too much on list-servs and online communication at the expense of sending physical mail (T. Norman, pers. comm.). Darren Jones of the Pleasant Plains Civic Association predicted the Internet would be the “predominant” way the Civic Association would reach people in the future, but the unique strength of the Civic Association, he countered, is that “it advocates for people who don’t have a voice through the new media.” Jeff Zeeman of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association took a different approach: “If people want to get their voices heard, they need to get online at some point,” he contended (J. Zeeman, pers. comm.). Dan Silverman, on the other hand, downplayed concerns about the future, saying, “Today, I think the digital divide is a problem…In the future, I don’t think it’s going to be as big a concern” (D. Silverman, pers. comm.).
Even if Silverman is right and access is not a problem in the future, how will residents who are new to the neighborhood (or even the Internet) find these hyperlocal media? Silverman pointed out that he does not market his blog to audiences that do not already read it and questioned, “How do you…give a list of resources that are available [online]?” (D. Silverman, pers. comm.). Even those who are aware of the hyperlocal media landscape may not be in future years: Specific media used for these purposes often undergo periods of change. Several of those interviewed for this study noted that they used to go to hyperlocal websites such as “Columbia Heights News” and “Inner City” for news about the neighborhood before those sites became inactive. For hyperlocal websites and blogs, in particular, maintenance is a time-intensive effort that is rarely financially supported and is usually the side project of its creator. “If you’re not getting paid and you’re just doing it for love of the neighborhood and a little bit of ego, what happens in two years, three years…It will be interesting to see who stays, who goes,” Silverman commented (D. Silverman, pers. comm.). The Heights Life, for example, showed very few updates over the course of this study. A post in March 2011 noted, “General busyness is preventing a regular posting schedule, but our Twitter account stays up-to-date” (Artbart 2011). When the hyperlocal media are powered by the hands of a few, there is no guarantee that their efforts will be sustainable.
Nevertheless, even if new media arise to take the place of the tools that currently power hyperlocal communication, their motivations for hyperlocal communication need not necessarily change. In Park View, a neighborhood adjacent to Columbia Heights’ eastern borders, ANC 1A commissioner Kent Boese published the history Park View as part of the Images of America Series of local histories in 2011. Boese also produces the monthly print newsletter Park View News, as well, which publishes reports on ANC 1A meetings, real estate sales, news about local businesses, crime reports, and other hyperlocal material. Rounding out his involvement as a public official and media chameleon, Boese runs the Park View DC blog. Across town in Northeast Washington, the block where former Mayor Marion Barry used to live, once symbolic of “African-American ascendance” (du Lac and Schwartzman 2011) in Washington, fell from a population that was 84% black in the 2000 census to one that was 44% and 47% white by 2010. In light of this change, some of the Capitol East neighborhood’s veteran residents published a pamphlet in 2010, titled the “Emerald Street Good ’Ol Days” to preserve that history (ibid.). How different are these motivations from the ones that encouraged the Columbia Heights Citizens’ Association to produce a pamphlet touting the neighborhood’s gifts and explaining its evolution—back in 1904?
As these examples demonstrate, in neighborhoods across Washington there are unique roles for community organizations and hyperlocal media to play. Even within Columbia Heights, different geographic areas cater to the traditions and concerns of varied sub-communities. Though some are very active in these associations, these people remain a minority in the neighborhood, and many of their less active neighbors come to local meetings of ANCs only when business requires them to do so. List-servs have become routine for certain kinds of use but still attract an audience for the occasional vibrant debate. Twitter permits a superficial level of attention to any number of topics, while Facebook groups facilitate communication among groups with specific shared interests. Blogs filter and prioritize news and set agendas for discussion. In the end, however, it takes an agglomeration of all these hyperlocal media as well as offline activities in order to meet the needs of everyone in Columbia Heights. The delicate balance at which online and offline engagement find their equilibrium point is difficult to determine, but in the remaining sections, I will explore why even trying to seek out such a dynamic matters by considering the implications of hyperlocal media for society at large.
The Benefits of Hyperlocal Media to Democracy
Walter Lippmann (1927) famously observed that even the most ardently engaged citizen cannot be omniscient. Rather than try to be informed on every subject, then, it is more effective for citizens to specialize in being informed on the subjects that matter most to them. Hyperlocal media do just this by allowing users to be informed about the issues to which they are most proximate, literally. Not only can citizens find and share specific information through hyperlocal media, but elected officials also can monitor the concerns of narrow communities that may account for only a part of their constituency with a high degree of specificity. Further, social media and list-servs increase the number of communication channels open between elected officials and their constituents. When ANC commissioners engage in dialogue with their constituents to sort out local concerns over a list-serv, or Councilmembers engage with voters on Twitter, local officials are able to reach those who might not have the time or interest in attending offline events that might have previously provided the only points of direct contact with their representatives.
That is not to say that hyperlocal media are most useful for their ability to move democratic participation into an online sphere. On the contrary, as this study showed, participation in online media is a good predictor for offline community engagement. What is especially interesting about this finding, though, is that hyperlocal media use only became a predictor of a high degree of community engagement when respondents fell into the highest levels of media use. On a six-point scale of hyperlocal media use, it was only those who fell in the four- to six-point range who were more likely to have a high degree of offline engagement. Does this bring us back to Norris’s (2000) idea of the “virtuous circle,” after all? Are people who follow and contribute to hyperlocal media already predisposed towards offline engagement? Does their online media use just bolster their offline behavior? Perhaps. However, the group of respondents who did not use hyperlocal media at all were also more likely to have a higher degree of community engagement than a lower one. It is difficult to disentangle the two behaviors, but it is nevertheless clear that contributing to and following hyperlocal media had a salutary effect on participation in the civic life of Columbia Heights in this study.
Even if hyperlocal media users do have a higher degree of community engagement, does their offline behavior actually have an impact on the democratic process? This study found that voting did not fit in with the other behaviors categorized as community engagement, which were characterized by participating in local organizations and attending public meetings. Measuring impact according to the traditional metric of voting, then, is not really feasible. Instead, it may be more accurate to see hyperlocal media use within the context of Tarde’s (1901) cyclical view of the participation in the public sphere, which begins with the press before progressing to public conversation and then the formation of public opinion, before finally leading to action. In this case, hyperlocal media focus on the first three steps without specifying the nature of the final step. But who is to say that hyperlocal media users desire political action as the outcome of their participation in conversation in the public sphere? As online media make it easier for the public to feel as though they are involved in support of a cause, these media also lower the required effort for participation. Therefore, while hyperlocal media can play a role in encouraging offline behavior in the community, it is important to remember that they can also fulfill other roles just by expanding the inclusivity of public discourse.
Creating Knowledge Neighborhoods
A broader context within which to understand the role of hyperlocal media is that of the knowledge city. As Chapter 4 emphasized, the last few decades have seen the increasing importance of the knowledge economy. Within this setting, smart and sustainable urban growth also needs to be powered by knowledge sharing and knowledge production. The knowledge city is the innovative city: the city that knows how to make the most of its intellectual and social capital to encourage constant learning in both the public and private sectors.
Why not apply the concept of the knowledge city to the neighborhood level? When cities undergo periods of revitalization, the entire landscape is not changed overnight. Rather, periods of revitalization occur one neighborhood at a time. To facilitate such development, the knowledge neighborhood would function as a densely-connected cluster of nodes with weaker social ties reaching out to the city at large. Hyperlocal media provide the tools to enable this kind of knowledge network by putting residents in contact with one another, publicizing positive growth to residents of neighboring areas, and providing a forum for the input of city residents in the urban development process. Finally, they encourage people to participate offline, as well, which would allow knowledge-based development to progress from knowledge sharing and knowledge production to the creation of new construction, new local organizations, and new businesses.
Are Hyperlocal Media Sustainable?
It is one thing to talk about the benefits of hyperlocal media in one specific case study, conducted over the course of a few months. It is another entirely to look at the role of a medium over a long-term period. Will we still be talking about hyperlocal media in 2025? What about 2050?
It seems unlikely to suppose that the hyperlocal media in use in Columbia Heights today will exist in unchanged form fifteen years from now. First, technological platforms change rapidly: While the “columbia_heights” list-serv begun in 1999 still exists today, since its creation, it evolved into an e-Group and now a Yahoo! Group. Second, the majority of hyperlocal media lack business plans, and few produce a profit. Their continuation is subject to their creators’ ongoing interest, resources, and residence in the neighborhoods they cover. Such circumstances leave a great deal open to uncertainty. One hyperlocal blog covering Columbia Heights could easily be replaced by a new one, for example, but given that length of residence in the neighborhood is a strong predictor for community engagement, such turnover could be detrimental to long-time readers who want the institutional knowledge and personal investment of a blogger who has been in the area as long as they have. Finally, a community’s needs change. Given that incipient gentrification spurred early participation in Columbia Heights’ hyperlocal media, when that process has run its course, the need for those media may also be altered.
And yet, while specific hyperlocal media outlets may disappear, it seems likely that the need for communication media with a narrow scope will persist. In the twenty-first century, the media environment has continually become more fragmented. We can even see this in the evolution of hyperlocal media in Columbia Heights, from the comprehensive early web portal of InnerCity.org to a proliferation of communications channels and outlets across the Web. Unless mainstream media find a new way to monetize local news and restore the local coverage that has been cut in recent years, there will still be a need to fill the gaps between the mainstream media and the neighborhood audience. In the meantime, the interactivity of hyperlocal media platforms have introduced new uses for hyperlocal media as more social communication spaces, rather than one-way news sources, so such a dynamic would also have to be reincorporated into any attempts to revitalize the mainstream media’s local reporting efforts.
Despite the swift evolution of technological platforms and the absence of strong business models for hyperlocal media, there is evidence to suggest that narrowly focused geographic audiences will find financial sustainability and persistent demand in the future. Social media mobile applications such as FourSquare and Gowalla have shrunken the focus of hyperlocal media even further by allowing users to constantly broadcast their current location not just in a neighborhood or on a city block but in the very building in which they find themselves. A music production company in the D.C. area has even begun producing “location-aware” music: Users who download an iPhone app can listen to a composition based on the National Mall that plays music specific to their particular location on the Mall (Bluebrain 2011). Consumers also embrace location-oriented websites and applications such as Yelp, which allow users to find reviews of restaurants and other businesses based on location. Companies such as LivingSocial and Groupon fill a void left by print newspaper advertising circulars by offering subscribers daily deals at local businesses. If hyperlocal blogs and similar media find a way to incorporate business models that utilize the strengths of their targeted audience in the same way that LivingSocial and Groupon do, they might have a chance at financial survival.
Policy Protections for Hyperlocal Media
While financial sustainability is an oft-cited concern for the survival of hyperlocal media, there are also a number of developing policy areas that could either aid or impair the future of hyperlocal media. As this study and others have shown, there still exists a digital divide among those who can afford Internet access and have the education to make use of it and those who do not. We have seen the opportunity for government and elected officials to use various kinds of online media to communicate with their constituents, but such advantages cannot aid democracy unless they are inclusive of citizens of all ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses. Similarly, while hyperlocal media use can bolster community engagement, the advantages of these media are lost to residents who cannot (or choose not to) go online. To revisit the three layers of a “communicative ecology” discussed earlier in Chapter 4, the digital divide impacts the social and discursive layers of use.
A second concern impacts the technological layer of the communicative ecology: Net neutrality, a principle that argues against the imposition of restrictions by government or Internet service providers on content, platforms, or modes of access to the Internet. Because hyperlocal media are by nature narrow in scope and in practice lack significant financial resources, they could be hurt by policies that favor access to certain kinds of content or particular technological platforms. In a defense for Net neutrality, independently-run media are the likely underdog against corporate interests. Therefore, policies that support Net neutrality can help to ensure the sustained use of hyperlocal media by all who want to do so.
The Scholarly Future of Hyperlocal Media
As mentioned in Chapter 4, scholarship on hyperlocal media is still scarce, and most new media scholarship continues to be viewed within a single disciplinary lens. To gain a comprehensive understanding of the uses, effects, and potential of hyperlocal media, academic research must take a broader, interdisciplinary perspective. As this study focused on one urban neighborhood, there is a need for future research on other locales to determine the universal qualities of hyperlocal media and the alternative roles they might have in other geographic areas. In doing so, other disciplines not considered in this study might also be brought to bear on the questions I sought to answer. Economic and public policy theoretical frameworks and their attendant methodologies would likely provide interesting expansions upon the sustainability of hyperlocal media, as well as their impact on governance processes.
There are plenty of questions raised by this study that invite future researchers to probe this topic further. First, what is the relationship between hyperlocal blogging and gentrification? The findings of this case study were influenced in subtle ways by the process of gentrification that coincided with the rise of hyperlocal media in Columbia Heights, but how do hyperlocal media differ in areas in which economic development or population size remains stagnant? Alternatively, in areas that are undergoing gentrification, how can knowledge-based development become a more inclusive, participatory process that engages all residents of a community?
Additionally, where scholars have in the past focused on the relationship between uses of certain media and political participation, it may now be time to look beyond the medium to revisit the broader uses and gratifications the public seeks from media in general and how these relate to engagement in their communities. What political outcomes or actions, if any, do hyperlocal media users expect from their participation in online public spheres? Research on uses and gratifications could also become more specific: for example, an experimental study of the kinds of messages that catch list-serv members’ attention—based on a message’s subject matter, number of replies, or form. A design that presented subjects with message subject lines from a daily digest of a list-serv and tracked which messages they read in full would be an interesting way to determine hyperlocal media effects. From a public opinion perspective, there is also room to expand on the definition of community enagement. I determined the behaviors that constituted community engagement by piecing together recent literature on the subject, but what does the term “community engagement” actually mean to the public today?
One of the greatest challenges of studying a developing medium is that it often evolves at a rate that outpaces academic scholarship. Nonetheless, there are some phenomena that will always become most apparent only in retrospect. For that reason, it is difficult to predict the future of hyperlocal media and community engagement. In the meantime, this study’s findings provide a glimpse of the unique roles played by various hyperlocal media in service of their community; the positive correlation between community engagement and hyperlocal media use; and the still evolving role for online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook in expanding from objects of attention to sites of conversation. Only by studying these dynamics further can we begin to envision what a networked neighborhood will look like when its residents are connected both online and offline.
 See http://parkviewdc.wordpress.com/, accessed 27 March 2011.
 See Table 6.5 for the reported findings.