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The Guardian/UK

Newspapers Aren't Dying, Our Democracy Is

Dan Kennedy

A new survey about public attitudes toward newspapers gets it precisely backwards. Supposedly most people don't think civic life would suffer all that much if their local newspaper shut down. But it's not that they don't care about their newspaper - they don't care about civic life.

The report, released last Thursday by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press, found that merely 43% of Americans believe civic life would be hurt "a lot" if their local paper ceased publication, either in print or online. Only among those 65 and older did a bare majority (51%) agree with the proposition that their local newspaper is essential.

But before you respond that newspaper publishers deserve their fate - that their thin, typo-riddled, semi-literate products are dying because they have ceased serving their readers - you should stop and think about what these findings really mean.

Next time you vote in an election in which Barack Obama's name is not on the ballot (that is, if you do), take a look around. You may see a few young parents guiding curious toddlers into the voting booth with them. For the most part, though, you'll see the middle-aged and, especially, the elderly, doing their civic duty, as they have for decades.

Or try taking in a city council or planning board meeting. In all likelihood, the only young person you'll see is the twenty-something reporter from the local daily or weekly, trying to make sense of commercial tax rates, overlay zones and other municipal arcana. Everyone else will be 50 or older. You'll see a few younger faces at a school board meeting, but that's the exception.

Which brings me to what is by far the greatest challenge facing local newspapers and websites today. Serving the community isn't enough. If journalists don't succeed at expanding the community of people who are interested and take part in civic life, then they are facing what will prove to be a hopeless battle.

Call it the Bowling Alone syndrome. In 2000, the Harvard University scholar Robert Putnam wrote in his book of that name that we have become a nation of loners, not joiners. His paradigmatic observation that we now bowl by ourselves rather than in leagues was, if anything, too optimistic. Most likely we're home watching American Idol.

That has enormous consequences for civic life and, thus, for journalism. Putnam found that young adults were far less likely than older people not just to read a newspaper, but also to attend religious services, sign a petition, go to a public meeting, write to an elected official or serve as an officer in a local organisation. "Newspaper readers are older, more educated and more rooted in their communities than is the average American," Putnam wrote.

Digital news sources such as community websites and the online editions of local newspapers offer the infrastructure for civic engagement in the form of comments, electronic bulletin boards and, in some cases, an open invitation for anyone to set up a blog.

That's fine as far as it goes. But just because you can blog about traffic problems on your street, or the industrial zone encroaching on your neighbourhood, or the convenience store that's been selling cigarettes to underage teenagers, doesn't mean you want to.

Howard Owens, a veteran of digital journalism (if there is such a thing), puts it this way: "[L]ocal community news is currently only a niche product. Entrepreneurs need to think about not only 'how am I going to appeal to the people who care now, but how am I going to get more people to care about their community so I can grow my audience?' "

Owens, who recently left the GateHouse Media newspaper chain, is trying to answer that question as publisher of the Batavian - an online paper in Batavia, New York, that he launched for GateHouse last fall and acquired from the company upon his departure.

This coming Saturday, my wife and I will attend our town's annual pancake breakfast, put on at the high school by the Kiwanis Club. Politicians will line up outside, seeking our vote. We'll connect with friends and neighbours, some of whom we haven't seen in months.

And though there will be some sort of entertainment for young families with kids, for the most part we'll be in our 50s, 60s and 70s. This is the generation that will miss newspapers when they're gone - not because we have some sort of disconnected love affair with them, but because we care about what's going on in our community.

No question newspapers could do a better job. But maybe what really ails them isn't a failure of journalism so much as it is a failure of democracy.

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Longtime media critic Dan Kennedy teaches journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and blogs at Media Nation

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