Reinventing the Newsroom

A Newspaper Challenge: Bridging Online and Real-World Communities

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Going Local by reinventingthenewsroom on March 23, 2009

It’s become a generally accepted truth that Americans’ traditional social bonds are withering, with community participation declining as we retreat more and more into individual pursuits, such as watching TV and using the Web. The idea — a distillation and expansion of one theme in Robert D. Putnam’s 1995 essay “Bowling Alone” and his 2000 book — has underpinned concerns about the rise of online communities that aren’t limited by geography.

On the one hand, online communities are great: Whether you’re a pregnant mom or a gay teen, a woodworker or a car customizer, an anime fan or an antiques collector, the Internet will give you a place to go and feel accepted where in the real world you might have been alone. (It’s less great that terrorists, identity thieves and Nazis get online clubhouses of their own, but the Internet never delivers the good without the bad.) But what happens when these online communities prove so compelling that people withdraw from real-world communities? Do our real-world bonds decay even further? Do we wall ourselves off in echo chambers of the like-minded, rarely hearing from people who think differently and challenge our ideas? What does that do to our society and our democracy?

I’ve always felt this scenario misses something important: the rise of online communities that are based around neighborhoods and towns, and that reinforce and strengthen those real-world communities. These online communities are still relatively new and a place of rich experimentation, and I think their potential is far from being fulfilled. The uneasy question, for this old newspaper guy, is who is going to deliver on that potential.

I’m a New York Mets fan and a Star Wars dork who loves technology, writing and storytelling, and in every respect the Web has made my life richer, offering me communities where I feel at ease and letting me make acquaintances and then friends I never would have had. None of those communities is rigidly based on shared geography (the Mets blog I co-write has regular readers from as far afield as Azerbaijan), and you could certainly argue that my screen time spent in those communities has come at the expense of my own neighborhood. But that ignores other things I do online — I regularly check in at two sites concerned with my own little slice of New York City — Brooklyn Heights Blog and Brownstoner. I’m not a tremendously active member of those sites, but I read avidly and comment occasionally, and because of those sites I’m aware of what’s going on in my neighborhood in a way I wasn’t even five years ago.

The difference between those online communities and blogs dedicated to, say, Star Wars or technology is that online relationships can easily become real-world ones — Brownstoner’s readers meet up regularly, for instance. Those real-world relationships represent exactly the kind of social capital that we fear is disappearing. And they’ve been brought into existence by the Web that supposedly furthers our isolation.

It’s interesting — and heartening — to think about where this will lead. Once the local Web becomes as robust as the global Web, online communities will be the starting point for how many people participate in their real-world communities. Sometimes this process will seem almost accidental: A person will start off too busy to make real-world commitments, but eventually some neighborhood question or concern will lead him or her online. There, an online community will be waiting. Like all online communities, it’ll be easy to get involved with, with periodic visits and comments becoming regular visits and comments. Until one day, it’s a drink with an online acquaintance at the corner bar, or a quick drop-in at a site meet-up, and online involvement has become real-world involvement. (Maybe our newly engaged person even joins a bowling league.)

But here’s the disheartening part for this newspaper veteran: Who will create that online community? Neither Brooklyn Heights Blog nor Brownstoner is connected to one of New York City’s metro newspapers. They certainly link to articles from those papers and comment on them, but they’re separate entities that generate a considerable amount of news on their own. From a community perspective that’s fine — heck, it’s wonderful! — but from a newspaper perspective it’s the stuff of heartache.

Newspapers could still be the hearts of these rapidly forming local communities — they were for generations, when things were simpler, communication with readers was principally one-way and papers had a hammerlock on production and distribution. None of that is true now, but papers still have considerable local presence and residual social capital they could build on. The question is if they will — and maybe it’s if they can. For newspapers, such local engagement isn’t a lost opportunity quite yet. But their chances are rapidly slipping away.

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