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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Opinion: DCist is gone. Is more local DC journalism next?

WAMU-owned DCist’s recent shutdown puts D.C. at risk of becoming a news desert

DCist was once the central source of news for many D.C. locals. But on Feb. 23, WAMU — an NPR-affiliate station owned by American University, which bought DCist in 2018 — announced that it was shutting down the online news site and laying off 15 employees. According to the station’s general manager, this change was to shift its focus toward more audio production rather than digital news.

The closure of one of, if not the largest, hubs for local news in the district raises a plethora of problems and questions that concern journalists and consumers alike. Is local journalism in D.C. becoming obsolete?

The Washington Post’s metro section has been declining for years. In October 2023, the Post faced significant budget and staff cuts, disproportionately affecting the metro staff. “Among the areas expected to be most affected are the Metro staff where managers aim to trim a staff of 89 by nearly a quarter,” wrote Post reporters Elahe Izadi and Will Sommer. 

After losing a significant number of metro reporters and funding to the Post’s metro section, the elimination of DCist is a devastating loss of local reporting.

Margot Susca, an assistant professor of journalism, accountability and democracy at American University, described this change as short-term thinking.

“The WAMU leadership said that they wanted to focus on arts and culture,” said Susca. “I think that that’s a function of a station that’s trying to cater to an audience that is wealthier rather than the diverse audience that is representative of the demographics of this city.”

According to the Census Bureau, D.C. has a racially, ethnically and economically diverse population; the city is about 75 percent non-white, 13 percent of the population was born outside of the United States and 18 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home. Additionally, 13 percent of the population lives below the poverty line — a shocking number considering the median household income is over $100,000.

In a city with such a diverse population, it’s clear that D.C. has a cultural scene that other cities don’t possess. But that’s just one side of the story. And that story is not one that is representative of the majority of D.C. natives.

In 2023, D.C. saw crime spike 26 percent overall from 2022. There were 274 homicides in 2023 alone, a 35 percent increase from the year prior. Arson was up 175 percent, motor vehicle theft rose 82 percent and robbery 67 percent. How anyone can see numbers of this proportion and decide to shift their focus toward “arts and culture” is beyond me.

Crime isn’t the only issue facing the district. Susca listed numerous matters that concerned her, including the heavily urbanized and polluted Anacostia River, an average of 37 teachers leaving D.C. public schools every month and the astronomical cost of living, which is 45 percent higher in D.C. than the national average.

“It’s just outrageous to think that the most reputable digital news site to cover all of those issues was closed to focus on arts and culture,” said Susca. “It’s not what the city needs. The city needs reliable accountability journalism.”

The most worrisome thing about the DCist shutdown, however, is the possibility of D.C. becoming a news desert. A news desert is defined as “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”

According to the U.S. News Desert database, D.C. is not considered a news desert. I disagree. So much news flows out of D.C., but it’s largely national and world news. The most prominent news organizations in the world have offices in the District, so it’s hard to see D.C. as a place struggling to get reported on. But the local element has been lost over the years. So, although the database doesn’t define D.C. as a news desert, the DCist shutdown makes it seem like we’re on the way to one.

The number of people who get a physical newspaper delivered to their home in D.C. either weekly or daily has decreased by 53 percent between 2004 and 2019, and it’s fair to assume this trend continued past 2019. People, especially college-age students, don’t read print newspapers. We read online news, and DCist was one of those sites that all people in D.C. had access to for free, unlike the Washington Post, which is behind a paywall.

So, is local D.C. journalism in danger? I would have to say yes. DCist was a source that people could go to for all kinds of news, including the arts and culture reporting that WAMU claims it wants to focus more on.

Finding reliable sources and well-reported local news isn’t easy, and DCist was a fantastic place to read and engage with local stories. I’ll leave you with this tweet from @WeMakeWAMU, an X account of the plethora of people who have made WAMU and DCist great:

“If you believe in the power of local journalism to hold the government accountable, to bring levity to your day, or to tell you something new about the region you love, please consider emailing to save DCist. We rely on readers and listeners like you.”

Alana Parker is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and School of Communications and the assistant opinion editor for The Eagle. 

This piece was edited by Jelinda Montes and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis and Charlie Mennuti. 

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