Because newspapers have been at the forefront of community building, we cannot talk about the precarious condition of the published word without considering this primary function of nurturing the sense of togetherness. As we look at the decline of the newspaper industry, we also see the fragmentation of relationships in communities.
While the development of community becomes more and more difficult as the size of cities becomes larger, the weekly newspapers are in a more advantageous position to foster a sense of community because intimacy already exists.
So what is this community that newspapers nurture? The word “community” has been used so recklessly that its true definition has become meaningless and we have used it to skit along the surface like a pond-skimming bug that never looks down.
Fabian Pfortmuller of the Together Institute has been troubled by the lack of an accurate definition and to purify use of the term he offers a few comments to clarify the definition.
He alleges that the absolute core of a community is that the people care about each other.
“When people care about each other, they develop trust and trust unlocks collaboration, sharing, support, hope, safety and much more,” Fabian claims.
Feeling they belong: “Communities address one of the most fundamental human needs; we want to be loved, we don’t want to be lonely and we want to know we belong somewhere.”
Without a sense of community, one is only one. When we have community, two is more than two.
Together: “A community gives people a sense of shared identity. This shared identity matters, because it takes the group beyond the individual.”
With this definition, local newspapers are a means to an end, the end being a sense of togetherness in which residents can pursue the greater goals of human life.
In North Dakota, we do not have the community fragmentation found in many cities in which the newspapers must play the role of peacemaker by bringing diverse groups together on the news pages. Our cities are fairly homogeneous, consisting mostly of staid Scandinavians and Germans, leaving play to minorities of fun-loving Irish and Czechs.
A community that cares where people belong together is the one that newspapers build whether they know it or not. If it can be achieved, it is worth pursuing.
This means that the local newspaper is not just a business but it is a force that ties all of the community strings together. Most weekly newspapers are works of love rather than money. Otherwise weekly editors would not be working 70 hours a week to eke out enough money to keep the community message going.
In recent years, we have lost weekly papers in Walhalla, New England, Hettinger and Killdeer. The New England and Hettinger papers were rescued by Jill Friesz, publisher of Grant County papers, but Killdeer, with a population greater than most newspaper towns, is operating without a newspaper.
So how is Killdeer doing without a newspaper?
In a conversation with City Administrator Matt Oase, we found that the city and schools have turned to Facebook where all sorts of local information appear to replace the Killdeer Herald.
While Facebook is “making do” for a newspaper, we agreed that it still had some limitations, especially in relation to school activities. Many a high school memory book has clippings from the local newspaper to document the prowess they will claim in 50 years. There will be few clippings without the newspaper.
It appears that students in school activities and community building will be the greatest losers in the closure of weekly newspapers.
In spite of the decline in economic, educational and social activities, communities with surviving newspapers should make it official business to defend and promote the wellbeing of their publications. That means an official committee of the city to address this ongoing crisis.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.