Our big world of small worlds

Not long ago someone suggested I might be an isolationist, based on something I had written about the fading role of world and national news and the rise of hyperlocalism in newspapers.

Marta in London
I took my wife and my youngest daughter to the airport Monday, where they turned a hundred thousand of my frequent-flier miles into a trip to Europe. We will spend our Christmas holiday separated by thousands of miles because we believe it's that important for young people to get a broader view of the world than they can get by staying home.

Except for a weekend in Canada, I didn't travel internationally until I was over 40. Now I can't get enough of it, and everyone in my family is collecting visa stamps in their passports.

One of my great frustrations is that, like most Americans, I can't carry on a conversation in any language other than English. I had to turn down a potential gig in Madrid the other day because my Castellano is fit only for ordering una cerveza, por favor. My relationship with half a dozen other languages is similar.

There is, however, an isolationist streak in American culture, and when it collides with the reality of a rapidly shrinking world the results can be ugly. You can see that in the anti-Hispanic immigration backlash being exploited by the crass TV demagogue Lou Dobbs, but equally in the ignorant arrogance that has led to the bloody chaos in Iraq and the downfall of America as a world leader. I don't want my kids to grow up so handicapped.

So I'm a bit of an internationalist. But at the same time I recognize that we all live simultaneously in multiple worlds.

I have a work world, a family world, a neighborhood world, a number of worlds of special interests, and in each of those worlds I have different needs for current and persistent information, connections, and commercial interaction. Some of those worlds are hyperlocal; others may be hyperspecialized.

The problem faced by "general" news organizations is that they fit poorly into a matrix of specialization. American newspapers in particular are poorly suited to specialization. They evolved in an information economy (and entertainment economy) of scarcity. In the 19th century a daily printed product was an exciting breakthrough in bandwidth; in the 21st it's a puny little trickle.

Yet most American newspapers continue to operate on the omnibus model, dumping onto the doorstep (or, more often, throwing into the driveway) a mashup of local, regional, national and global news, sports and business coverage. It is a stew suited to an earlier era, one that is consumed not to satisfy needs but rather to satisfy a fading habit.

I believe American newspapers need a complete restructuring of journalism priorities and processes. When I advocate hyperlocalism, it's not because I lack interest in global topics; it's that I believe newspapers must specialize to survive.

The local and hyperlocal spaces in which we all live are full of unmet and poorly met needs in the areas of information and connectivity/communications. Those areas constitute opportunities. Who will focus their resources on them?