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Bzzzzt! Wrong! Community should be job #1

Submitted by yelvington on July 11, 2008 - 12:27pm

Paul "Newspaper Death Watch" Gillin claims newspapers "can’t do much and they shouldn’t even try" to build community.

This is just thoroughly, thoroughly wrong, utterly self-defeating.

Failure to build community is one of the many reasons so many newspapers are in so much trouble right now. Yeah, the Internet this and the economy that and television blah blah blah, but don't overlook "failure to lead." Far too many newspapers have either intentionally abandoned or simply lost interest and wandered away from the mission.

If you actually do research -- something that is depressingly rare in the world of Internet punditry -- you'll discover that in pretty much every American city there's a deep need for social connections that isn't being met for a lot of folks. It's especially true among recent transplants and stay-at-home mothers.

Human beings are pack animals. We don't deal well with isolation and we crave connections. It's the real reason most churchgoers show up on Sunday mornings. It's not to hear the religion story (most of which they know by heart) but to experience the interaction.

Publishers and editors should be community leaders, not just ad salesmen and journalists. And historically they were, because they came from the community.

One of the many negative effects of the consolidation of newspapers into giant, faceless corporate chains has been to strip away the local leadership role. Not long ago my wife sent a complaint to a publisher of a chain-owned newspaper. He was on vacation, and his auto-reply exhorted her to "Sell, sell, sell!" Obviously that was intended for internal consumption by the ad sales staff, and not for the public, but it illustrates just how shallow we've become.

Newspapers can and do feed community, but it works both ways. The newspaper very much draws its sustenance from that same process. In communities that score well on other measures of social capital, newspaper readership tends to be high.

Community doesn't scale. I've previously written about the Dunbar Number. Each of us has hard-wired limits, so don't go looking for nationwide "USA Today" community around general news. That's clearly the wrong place to look.

Because of the scale issue, community flourishes in the niches, and geography happens to be one. But as I've said before, this whole notion of "hyperlocal" seems to be sailing over most journalists' heads. Or beneath their noses.