Is the death of local news unavoidable? That’s the question that’s on the tongues of many who follow the business of journalism at a time when many small town newspapers are shuttering their doors for the last time. We wrote recently about the demise of the Journal in International Falls, just the latest in a string of such stories in Minnesota and elsewhere in recent months.
It’s ironic that in the Information Age, the best, and often only, sources of information about what’s really happening in small towns all across the country, are struggling to survive like never before. The situation has prompted plenty of calls for action from newspaper publishers to members of Congress.
But what if none of the ideas proposed by would-be saviors of small town newspapers will really make a difference? What if the reason that community newspapers are struggling is that the traditional sense of community as we used to know it is disappearing?
We used to define community largely in geographical terms. You were part of the same community if you lived within the same city limits, or perhaps the same school attendance area or some other physical boundary that could be identified on a map.
Being part of that community gave one the incentive to understand its workings. In political terms, that meant understanding how we govern ourselves and how daily life unfolds in our communities, subjects that have long been the raison d`etre of small town newspapers.
Yet, for many of us, the definition of community is evolving as the social media silos many of us have created for ourselves have taken us away from our physical communities. This process was undoubtedly accelerated over the past year as the pandemic canceled the face-to-face gatherings that have long served as the glue of small town life. Community potlucks. School fundraisers. Friday night basketball. Bowling night. These were the regular reminders of our place in a larger whole, one that mattered to us. The faces we saw at these events helped to define our community. We understood that those who attended were our people and we recognized our common cause. We’ve probably all heard that traditional small town social life has been on the decline for years. The pandemic only helped speed along the continued disintegration.
At the same time, social media and the evolution of other forms of media have consumed our time and drawn our attention elsewhere. As of last year, the average American spent just over two hours a day on social media, and that statistic means that many of us are spending much more time than that. Add in the time we spend in other online pursuits and it’s easy to understand how the computer and the online world it spawned are reshaping the way we see the world and our definition of community.
The political polarization we’ve experienced at the national level in recent years has further driven a wedge into our traditional communities, where such differences formerly didn’t matter. In our online world, we can easily isolate ourselves into far more comfortable communities where we can block or unfriend anyone who doesn’t agree with us. Such communities become self-reinforcing bubbles that can easily leave us isolated from those actually around us.
While many prognosticators have bemoaned the death of newspapers for years, there has long been a belief that small town newspapers could weather the seismic shifts posed by the Internet because they were, literally, the only reliable source of truly local news. If you wanted to know what the school board did this week, or if the city council was spending too many of your tax dollars, there was only one place to turn for the real story. That’s as true today as it ever was. This thought pushed many newspapers, even in large metropolitan areas, to shift toward “hyper-local” coverage, in an effort to stay relevant and timely in an era when readers often had instant online access to national or international news.
But what happens if nobody cares about local news anymore? As our attention is increasingly drawn away from our physical communities into often more titillating online alternatives, when do we have time to devote to local news? Perhaps more importantly, when do we have time to engage as actual citizens devoted to the hard work of building community?
These, of course, are questions. If only we had the answers.