Looking ahead, local will be the big media winner

Some people think the web makes the world bigger. I say, it makes it smaller.  Some people say the web makes us neighbors with people in Kenya or the Ukraine.  I say it makes us better neighbors with the family next door.

There was a time in United States history when newspapers served as a centralizing force for drawing communities together — and then came  television, and cable, and satellite — all the forces that did nothing to humanize communication, but made mass communication more mass and less personal.

The Internet brings back the possibility of human-sized communication.

At a time when too many glass-eyed Americans turn to network TV for their “Heroes” and get “Lost” in whatever flimflam Hollywood is dishing out this season,  the Web opens up new possibilities for people, local people, people who share a common interest in a common community, to partake in conversation and pursue change with conviction.

In 1995, I started a web site in eastern San Diego County called East County Online.  At the time, I would tell any number of colleagues in the newspaper business: “Mark my words, the web is the best thing that ever happened to local news; all the fascination now is with global communication, but eventually, people will look homeward and want to use the web to build better communities.”

I’ve never stopped believing that. I believe it to this day.

I’ve learned a lot about the Internet and how people use it since 1995, but the philosophy remains the same: Together, we can use digital communication to build better, stronger, more self-reliant communities.

A big reason I was excited to join GateHouse Media in Sept. 2006 was it would keep me involved in local journalism. The idea of building news web sites that help local communities prosper is still exciting to me.

With strong local web sites, maybe we can convince a few people to turn off the TV once or twice a week and visit a local art gallery, spend an evening  with the local theater group, or “root,root, root for the home team.”

And that idea is a major philosophical underpinning of The Batavian.

In a recent E-Media Tidbits post, Amy Garhan writes:

However, I question the Commission’s strong focus on geographically defined local communities. It seems to me that with the way the media landscape has been evolving, geographically defined local communities are becoming steadily less crucial from an information perspective. I suspect that defining communities by other kinds of commonalities (age, economic status/class, interests, social circles, etc.) would be far more relevant to more people — although more complex to define.

I suspect that clinging reflexively to “local” as the paramount criteria for “relevant” reflects a newspaper perspective that was never a good fit for most people, and that never really served most people’s information needs well.

I’m not convinced.  You can’t — as I have done — sit in the stands of a Batavia Muckdogs game and say local is no longer relevant.  There is no stronger bond than the ones you have with people you’ve known for many years and seen at their best and their worst and shared with them a common cause in boosting youth football or arguing whether the town council should tear down the old bank building.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across the argument that “local no longer means geography,” or “community is more about affinity,” but the position ignores the major impact local events and decisions have on both individuals and national affairs.

The assumption that local is irrelevant in a wired world ignores both history and human nature.

Here’s a question for you: Why do so many newspapers in foreign lands have much higher circulations and household penetrations than U.S. newspapers?

Here’s a possible answer:  The communities those papers serve are more stable, less mobile. You still have grandchildren living in the same neighborhood as grandma, and parents who socialize with the same friends they’ve known since 1st grade.  These communities are just as assaulted by Hollywood and Madison Avenue dreck (or a locally produced alternative) that hypnotize Americans, but homogenized culture hasn’t been as damaging to the local newspapers.

The big difference is mobility, or lack of it.

The United States has always had its Horace Greeleys exhorting its young men to go west, but true mobility — the true dislocation of families and disruptions to small communities — began with World War II, when troops were sent to coastal bases or abroad, and giant industrial war centers were built to employ those who stayed behind.

We’ve had now about 60 years of mobility, and over that time we’ve watched newspaper circulation fall of the shelf.

As I talk about in my “Reinventing Journalism” presentation (most recently given in Atlanta at SPJ’s convention), newspapers thrived when they were run by publishers/editors who paid close attention to changes in society and fashioned their newspapers to fit with their communities needs.

But starting in the 1920s or so, and accelerating after WW II, the professionalization of journalism separated the newsroom from readership concerns. Newsrooms became insular sanctuaries where such tawdry worries as to what readers really wanted from their news pages was too venal to discuss.

So while society changed — more mobile, more connected to electronic media — newspapers followed a singular path whereby newsroom personnel were free to indulge in delusions of knowing what was best for readers while ignoring the real needs of their communities.

If local communities are less coherent today than 60 years ago, well certainly mobility and network television play a role, but so do newspapers that fired their community correspondents, stopped covering eagle scout promotions and tea socials, concerned themselves more with the process of local government than the community impact of its decisions, and tried to be the only indispensable source for all the news of all the world, instead of the one indispensable source of Little League news.

If newspapers had done a better job of adjusting to changes in society, maybe their circulation troubles today would be less troubling, and our communities — and our democracy — would be stronger.

As for the future — I still believe in local.

Mobility is not the natural human trait. We are social creatures who crave connections with flesh-and-blood friends and family. Online communication is fun — and greatly expands our reach of friends and associates — but it’s no substitute for running into an old friend or uncle at the local coffee shop.

As long as I’ve been involved in online communities — approaching 14 years now — I’ve observed the overwhelming desire for people to want to meet their digital friends at local bars or industry conferences.  It happens over and over.  We depend on those real connections.

Unfortunately, seeing an industry colleague once or twice a year — no matter how brilliant he or she is, nor how much you like that person — is no substitute for a weekly breakfast at the local diner or impromptu backyard bar-b-ques with a trusted friend.

And at it’s heart, that is what local is all about. Those family bonds and friendly affiliations is what enables and enlivens a community’s civic life.

And for 150 years, newspapers played a vital role in helping communities remain connected and strong, but then we lost focus. We no longer wanted to write about Mrs. Sterlings embroidery class or the 50-year-going bridge club. We wanted to win prizes by uncovering scandals at City Hall (that’s not a knock against watch dog journalism, but a note about a loss of purpose) and dream of our bylines in the Washington Post or New York Times.

The beauty of the web for local news is not only does it give us a new chance to refocus on true local news, but it makes it easier to enable the strong civic engagement that only comes when people talk with each other. Through comments and blogs and UGC video, we have a chance to pull people away from “American Idol” and into a real dialogue about the issues that matter most to their home towns.

We see all the time on The Batavian people who have known each other for years (and we also see this in the comments on stories of GateHouse newspaper sites), who still meet up at social events, getting deeply engaged in conversations online.  An online news site extends the conversation. It doesn’t replace it. And by putting it out in an open forum, it invites other people who may not have been as engaged previously to participate.

That sort of engagement can and should have a powerful impact in a democracy. If our local communities are ever going to disentangle themselves from the tendrils of federal unfunded mandates and overarching intrusions to homes and businesses, then it’s going to take more people, people who care about such things, involved at a local level.

And here’s my prediction: Rather than increase mobility, digital communication will increase stability. Over the next couple of decades, we’re going to see more and more people seeking out small towns — good places to raise families (even some families returning to their ancestral rural communities), live less hectic lives, escape crime and smog, and control living expenses. And the same communities that are so perfect for families are also the best places to start or relocate businesses, for all the same reasons.

Digital makes this easier, but concerns over the environment and oil consumption will also play a role.  In rural communities, you consume fewer natural resources, can get better — locally grown — food and can more readily help others in need.

Smart people, and smart companies, are going to move out of the big cities — necessary in an age when cooperative communication, information dissemination and physical commerce was hard — and back to mid-west and rust-belt towns.

It will take time, but as these once-displaced people settle down, they will put down roots as surely as they plant tomatoes and apple trees and invite neighbors over for some pie, coffee and conversation.

The future is local, and that should be good news for anybody looking to build local news businesses.