Why Newspapers are Crucial in Rebuilding Local Communities

By: Brad Buchanan | bbuchanan@newzgroup.com

In a world constantly bombarded with presumably irrelevant information, it is becoming increasingly important to rebuild our sense of local community by focusing on homegrown, physical relationships. Globalization is becoming ubiquitous through access to internet connectivity, mass transportation, the intermingling of financial markets, and multinational corporations whose reach spans the globe. This can cause concerning perceptions of the current state of affairs, or at the very least, be mystifying to the average human being. With such a growing complexity and seeming uncertainty of the future, building strong local communities can be a vital tool for clarifying issues and shepherding a vision for how a better future could play out. The best place to start is in our own backyards.

In a speech at the inaugural Communities Summit in 2017, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg laid out an ambitious plan to overcome the world’s ills through the creation of online communities. This may be wonderful for people living in far-flung places who share broad common interests, such as cute cat videos or political ideologies. Nevertheless, how does this help us on a local level? How can this address issues we face at home every day?

Zuckerberg correctly points out that the world is becoming more fragmented and factionalized due to the disintegration of communities. Yet I am skeptical of Facebook’s ability to create intimate groups focused on hometown challenges. Community issues have traditionally been addressed through local newspapers. Publishers are in the best position to offer platforms for interaction, discussion, and direction in solving local problems. This can also help solidify newspapers’ market position as the information nexus for their towns and cities.

Online interaction through local newspaper forums and comment sections could help foster personal, face-to-face communication between people. Facebook cannot match this competitive advantage, and more often fuels trolling behavior. Online “friends” pale in comparison to close neighbors and loved ones that can bring you a casserole or offer emotional support when a someone passes or deliver chicken soup when you are home sick in bed.

It’s been made patently obvious that the Facebook solution can lead to more polarization of society rather than less. By creating online common interest groups, Facebook and social media can match up people who share the same interests and opinions but has proven time and again it can do very little to bridge social divides.

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On the other hand, a local newspaper comment section about hometown events can improve public discourse by giving people a chance to get to know each other more fully, not just their opinions on specialized subjects. Local citizens who love the high school football team may meet on a newspaper comment section, and decide to travel to an away game together, despite their ideological issues on a litany of things. When we connect face-to-face with people over local happenings, it is much easier to discuss points of disagreement without becoming contentious.

One reason social media has become so popular is its ease of use, the promise of interconnectivity and mainstream mass appeal to users of all ages. Most people have cameras on their smartphones and essentially live their entire lives on social media with the ability to share it with anyone who will pay attention. They can capture most anything they witness in real time and post it online to elicit “hot takes” from their followers.  However, quality matters. Who is more qualified to take good pictures and file compelling stories than a trained journalist at the local paper?

Social media encourages people to spend more and more time online, which mean they have less time to spend on personal interactions with their friends and neighbors. While online newspapers can help link people, the ultimate goal should be to encourage offline activities, going to local events, joining civic groups, shopping at downtown stores. Our interconnected world makes it easier to talk to a sibling living abroad, but may make it nigh impossible to talk to someone who is busy staring at a tiny screen.

As discussed in a recent blog post, as local newspapers continue to move toward formats such as online e-editions, they should include a focal point for common interest forums and message boards, from city council decisions to high school sports and clubs, festivals, concerts, fairs, new restaurant openings, and other community events. This hyperlocal focus should be an integral part of any local newspaper website. That is how we can help rebuild local communities, and no one is better suited to the task than community newspapers. Newz Group’s success is built on the foundational excellence of local newspapers and the communities they represent. With our comprehensive media monitoring coverage, we are all united in helping you find you.