Tag Archives: community

The End Won’t Be Televised…Or Reported

In January, the New Yorker ran an article focusing on one of the (many) issues that keep me awake at night–the disappearance of local news media.The title was: “What Happens When the News is Gone?”

I’ve shared the statistics before, and they’re grim–and getting grimmer. Last Tuesday, Axios  reported 155 layoffs at Vice, 80 at Quartz, 90 at the Economist, and 100 at Condé Nast , with furloughs at others. And that’s just at national publications, which continue to be comparatively healthy.

Cities and towns, however, continue to bleed the sources of information that are absolutely essential to local self-governance and the sense of community. The linked article begins with an anecdote that is all too telling: at a public meeting in the small town of Pollocksville, North Carolina, the subject was a proposed flood-damage ordinance. The mayor asked if anyone in the audience would like to comment on it.

Alice Strayhorn, a hairdresser in her late sixties who has lived in Pollocksville most of her adult life, raised her hand. “This flood-damage-prevention order,” she said. “How are we supposed to know about that? You can’t make a comment on something you don’t know about.”

Pollocksville’s newspaper was one of the estimated 25% of newspapers America has lost in the past few years, so the mayor had posted a notice in the New Bern Sun Journal, based in a neighboring county. Few people in Pollocksville read it. Surrounding counties with newspapers that do continue to publish–there are three around Pollocksville–are what the article called “ghost papers,” owned by the Gannett Company. Gannett (which also publishes what is left of the Indianapolis Star) controls more than two hundred publications nationwide.

The remainder of the New Yorker article focused upon the consequences of that news desert in Pollocksville, and the various attitudes about that lack of journalism expressed by the locals. (The mayor wasn’t exactly a fan of what we call “investigative journalism,” and tended to dismiss his constituents’ complaints about the difficulty of finding out what local government was doing.)

It would be difficult to overstate the effects of the last quarter-century’s dramatic changes to the way Americans get their information. The ability to occupy “filter bubbles” in which we consume only news that feeds our pre-existing prejudices–and the corresponding lack of trust in outlets reporting things we don’t want to know or believe–is only the most obvious of those consequences. The current media environment increases political polarization, exacerbates class and regional conflicts, and makes negotiation and compromise–essential for workable governance–incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

Those consequences are broadly recognized.

Less well understood is the way that the absence of common sources of information have fractured local communities and eroded the ability of city and town governments to function properly.

The problem isn’t the lack of information, exactly–it’s the fragmented nature of the sources of that information. Bubbles aren’t just an online phenomenon.

In Indianapolis, people who want to know what’s happening in education go to Chalkbeat; people who live downtown access the Urban Times; African-Americans subscribe to the Recorder; businesspeople and professionals read the Indianapolis Business Journal. There are several other specialized sources–papers for various neighborhoods and ethnic groups, websites devoted to the arts, etc. A great deal of information is available–to interested parties willing and able to seek it out.

The effect of this fragmentation– on politics, on government’s ability to communicate effectively with constituents, to any sense of community– is anything but positive.

As I have brooded about this, I’ve come up with an analogy: imagine that you live in a city with roughly equal numbers of citizens speaking fifty different languages, where each language group communicates primarily, if not exclusively, with others in that group, and where a third of the population doesn’t speak at all.

How do you communicate across those barriers? How do you connect to the others with whom you share an urban space?

Even in its heyday, The Indianapolis Star was hardly a symbol of great journalism; if we’re honest, we have to admit it was never a particularly good newspaper. It was, however, far, far better than it is under Gannett (it actually had reporters)–and the mere fact that it provided a common source of information to a significant proportion of the population was incredibly important–more important than most of us understood.

We once occupied a common information environment. Now, we don’t.

We were, as Mayor Bill Hudnut used to say, “citizens of no mean city.” Now, we just occupy adjacent real estate.

 

Civic Saturdays

It’s hard to ignore the cynicism and even despair that so many Americans express about the country’s current governance and future prospects. Partisan polarization, social media manipulation, filter bubbles…the list of impediments to genuine democratic deliberation is daunting.

An intriguing new initiative is hoping to avoid those impediments. It’s called “Civic Saturdays,” and in Indianapolis, it will be sponsored by Spirit and Place, a well-regarded community-building initiative that is part of the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, in partnership with the League of Women Voters and the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library.

It will be adamantly non-partisan–an effort to bridge political differences by revisiting shared civic aspirations.

Civic Saturdays are described as an effort to create “a shared sense of moral and civic purpose across all publics.” It’s the brainchild of Citizen University, a national organization that works to foster responsible and empowered citizenship. Civic Saturdays are best understood as brief dialogues–they last only one hour–  that invite citizens to reconnect with each other and with America’s foundational principles and documents.

Indianapolis is now one of 19 cities that host Civic Saturdays, and the first session will take place on April 28 at 10:30 a.m. at the Glendale Branch Library, 6101 N. Keystone Ave.

The flyers that have been produced to invite participation explain the concept.

In a time of deep political divide, we must create new approaches to fostering a shared sense of moral and civic purpose. Civic Saturday seeks to bring friends and strangers together to nurture our civic spirit.

Civic Saturday is a civic analogue to a faith gathering. But it’s not about, nor does it aim to replace, faith traditions. It’s about American civic religion—the creed of liberty, equality, and self-government that truly unites us (even as we argue over it).

We’ll hear poetry, sing songs, read great and provocative American texts, and listen to a civic “sermon.” We’ll also gather in Civic Circles to share thoughts and ideas on how we can show up and support each other in public life.

Civic Saturdays are one of several promising efforts popping up around the country that are trying to penetrate the “filter bubbles” and other tribal enclaves within which too many of us reside. The goal is to build community among people who may not agree on the preferred solutions to the issues confronting us, but who do agree on the rules and behaviors that enable civil, productive debates.

America won’t solve its problems if we don’t talk to each other, and those conversations are likely to be illuminated by reminders of our foundational aspirations.

If you live in or around Indianapolis, consider attending.

 

The Center Will Not Hold

I attended a conference on Media Reform last weekend, and came back pretty depressed. Although there were several thousand people in attendance who were determined to save journalism–not necessarily newspapers, or broadcast news, but the essential watchdog function that led our Founders to give Constitutional status to the press–it’s abundantly clear that right now, no one has a clue how to provide the public with the news democratic societies require.

In place of widely-read, credible news media serving the general public, we have “niche news” tailored to our personal prejudices and politics. Thanks to consolidation and corporate ownership focused on the bottom line to the exclusion of journalism’s social mission, we have more “human interest” and “self-help” stories and less real news; more “opinion” and less fact-checking. That we have ever-more dysfunctional government is not a coincidence.

In fact, America seems to be actively dismantling the institutions that create unum from our pluribus: those places in our society that knit individuals into a public.

I’ve written here often about our diminished constitutional literacy, and the likely consequences of that in a diverse country that depends for its very identity upon a common understanding of our form of government.

Add to that constitutional illiteracy the utterly ferocious attacks on public education we are experiencing. Whatever the defects in our public schools, they are and have been the institution that–as Benjamin Barber eloquently put it–is constitutive of a public. When we privatize education, we treat it as if it is a consumer good–skills we are “buying” so that our children can compete economically. But public education should be more than that; it should respect our diverse private identities while providing a common social umbrella.

When we no longer know our common history or political structure, when we no longer meet each other in public schools, when each of us gets our news from different sources operating out of different political and social realities, what will Americans have in common? What will make us a public?