In a recent commencement address offered to graduates of the San Jose State University department of Communication Studies, local newspaper columnist L.A. Chung asked an interesting question of our students: Now that you have been certified as someone who can communicate effectively, have you anything to say? Given the noise and tumult that passes for civic discourse these days, her message resonated with many members of the audience - though I could tell that a few were simply waiting to hear their kids' names called.
Even so, another thread that she wove through her remarks interested me even more. While exploring the value of what we say, Chung discussed changes in the media through which ideas are transmitted. She focused primarily on her own industry, newspapers. Recognizing her fortuitous position as a columnist paid to distribute opinions on pretty much any subject, Chung wondered aloud whether print-based newspapers will exist for long as central sites of public discourse. She's right to wonder.
I subscribe to my local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, but I do so only because I don't get wireless broadband on my morning commute. I also appreciate the Merc's decent collection of comics. And yes, several of the columnists help start my day in a thoughtful manner. But a few months ago I cancelled my subscription. You see, I discovered a widget for my Mac that aggregates a much better collection of comics than is offered by my paper, and I remembered that I can read those columns online for free. So I dumped the Merc.
Six months later I changed my mind, restarting my subscription because of that morning commute. I take a one-hour bus trip "over the hill" from Scotts Valley to San Jose on most weekday mornings. And I find that a physical paper helps occupy my time. Sure my fingers get stained with ink, but I get local news I'd otherwise miss. And yet now I'm thinking about abandoning my local paper one last time. Instead I may syndicate online newsfeeds onto my laptop before leaving the house. No more inky fingers, and no more glimpses of Mallard Fillmore. It's tempting, but is it a good idea?
Such is an oft-cited dilemma of contemporary life, the declining public sphere where strangers may mix and mingle with only tact and courtesy as social constraints -- where a confirmed Doonsesbury reader may still come across a Mallard Fillmore comic. Sure we may encounter genuinely bad ideas or crazy people (I'm writing this on a particularly illustrative bus ride, actually) but the newspaper presumably confronts us with more voices than we might hear among our smaller social circles. Consider merely one example:
A safely suburbanized soccer mom reads the Sunday paper and learns about the miserable conditions in some downtown hovel or distant slum. She pours a cup of coffee and commits to some ameliorative action. She will help people she never met. Will she visit the place or simply write a check? It's a fair question of comparative value (though few social service agencies will dismiss the value of a check). So we look to the newspaper to gather and integrate persons who might otherwise never mix. We hope newspapers help us identify with each other as human beings sharing the same planet.
But how genuinely public can any newspaper be? As more and more local papers get swallowed into vast media conglomerates one may fairly presume that corporate interests increasingly trump public interests. All too frequently it appears that the public sphere resides within militarized and monetized frontiers that affirm the privileges of a wealthy few, leaving everybody else to consume simulacra of meaningful public life: a darkened movie theatre, a mammoth amusement park, or a so-called "lifestyle mall." Other than sanctioned performances such as election day, or in moments of crisis like 9/11, where do we find public life?
The newspaper seems to offer an inadequate answer to this query. Given its various constraints -- page length being the least of these -- we find in our morning pages a mere trickle of public life, one that can hardly compare to the tidal wave of "content" streaming through decentralized media, forming digital empires of the ether, ubiquitous but decentralized. In spite of all this, Chung gamely affirmed the value of newspapers in her graduation speech. She reminded her audience of newspapers' ability to gather and report local news, as well as their ability to reflect traditional notions of a community simply by naming it as such.
I want to believe her, because I like communities. I'd like to live in a small town where folks know me by name. I'd like to buy lemonade from the kid down the street, even though I don't like the stuff. I'd like to invite my neighbors onto the porch to sit a spell in the gloaming. And yet, I can't help but remember: I do live in a small town, Scotts Valley. My family and I moved to this little town because we love the sidewalks, the Fourth of July celebrations, and the way in which folks go all out for Halloween. But day to day life, beyond the design and formalities, is less Pleasantville and more Office Space.
I've learned that far-distant strangers share more of my interests than most of my neighbors. I think that my preferred "community" -- and I say with some irony that I'm not "alone" in this -- is increasingly an ephemeral, customizable, widget-based collaboration of strangers who identify around common areas of interest, rather than the geography-based collective of strangers forced to become friends.
Such a community, one organized around self-interest, cannot possess the kind of "social capital" described by Robert Putnam in his well respected work on the topic. After all, one finds few consequences to departing such a community, few causes to work together long-term for the common good. When one such virtual community, one wiki-agora, no longer serves our needs we simply find another one, or we recruit strangers to join our own. Yet at the same time, the local newspaper as a conceptual map of community is too slow, too stagnant, and too beholden to its own small "community" of business interests to accommodate the increasingly fluid nature of our personal and social enclaves.
So I subscribe to the San Jose Mercury News -- today. I read the obituaries to learn about local folks, unknown to me, who served in World War Two or raised a fine family or started a respected local business or simply managed to survive a number of decades. I study the intricacies of local politics, trying not to view their debates as just another soap opera. I try to imagine that San Jose, the star around which my bedroom community of Scotts Valley orbits, is a place of consequence, a place that I claim as part of my character. I read the paper because the bus still hasn't managed to offer a wireless option. But I hear they may start a pilot project. When they do, shall I disconnect altogether, except to pay taxes and suffer traffic jams? Shall I claim to "live" in these places at all? Or shall I find my home entirely among the invisible tendrils of shared opinion and weak consequences?
June 30, 2007 Update: Community in the Post-Newspaper Age - Follow-up