Press Talk: A need to build community

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Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian's editor emeritus. His column of personal opinion appears the first Saturday of every month. Reach him at lounews1@gmail.com.

Where do we go from here?

I suspect most of us ask the question periodically, but the newspaper industry has been kicking it around since the 1960s. No kidding. That’s when the circulation slippage began. But today, what once was a trickle has turned into a deluge.

I thought about all this — again — when I spoke to the Clark County Newcomers Club/Men’s Club at the Cameo Cafe a few days ago. I used to do these speaking gigs a lot before I retired and I still do as editor emeritus. The price is still right, and, frankly, Mayor Tim Leavitt — the Rico Suave of the speakers’ circuit — simply isn’t always available.

Before getting to the cafe, I looked up the “Worst Jobs” list on CareerCast.com. And, once again, newspaper reporter came in dead last. Jobs like taxi driver and dishwasher beat us out. The criteria for the list includes hiring outlook, stress, income potential and hazardous conditions.

For the past several years, we were battling with lumberjacks for the last position. But this year, broadcaster beat out lumberjack for second-worst job. Welcome to our world, TV people.

There are plenty of reasons why we’re in the mess we’re in. Disruptive innovation is a big one. That’s when something comes along — like the internet — and disrupts the way things are done. Remember the telegraph? Telephones made that a bad business to be in. Wristwatches? Your phone will tell you the time.

But there’s something much deeper than disruptive innovation going on with newspapers. Something, in all honesty, that newspapers simply don’t want to talk about. It is the disintegration of our need for community.

Let me explain.

• • •

I was at an event about a year ago and sat next to a bright young guy who was recently married, just had his first child and had a very good job. It was a business-related job, so he was there to make contacts.

I told him who I was and asked him if he read The Columbian. He said no. I asked him why. He said there really wasn’t anything in a daily newspaper that would better his life. His life was centered around his family and his job , he said, and he could quickly find almost anything related to those topics on Google.

But, I asked, wasn’t he interested at all in the general community, the city of Vancouver, Clark County? He hesitated for a moment and said … not really. He was far too busy with other things. Later, he said, when his child was old enough to go to school, he might consider subscribing. But then, he added sheepishly, he was probably just saying that to make me feel better.

• • •

I used to think that strong newspapers were the driving force behind building local communities. And on some level, that’s still true. But what I came to realize was almost the opposite. Strong communities are the driving force behind building a local newspaper.

In other words, if everyone is invested in building a strong community, a byproduct of that will be a strong newspaper. Why? Because newspapers tie everything together. But if there is no sense of community, then, well … there is less need for a newspaper.

Dennis Stubblefield, one of the members of the newcomers club, asked what people might be able to do to help. I told him groups and organizations in the community are already on board. The problem is the other 80 percent of those who live here. If everyone was as involved as he was, I wouldn’t be talking about this issue. And those who are involved, well, they mostly hang out with the other folks who are involved. So you sort of have this inner circle.

Don’t get me wrong, this group would love to invite more people and make their circle bigger. But as the gentleman I sat next to at the business event noted, he has no interest.

If you look at Tuesday’s election, the disconnect comes into focus. Only 20 percent of those eligible voted. Most community members see no need to get involved. And if you look at who came out on top in the Vancouver City Council races, you see the other point I was making. The top vote-getters are all part of this inner circle. They are good people, to be sure. And frankly, most people would put me in that inner circle. But that 80 percent do not see themselves there.

• • •

So is there an answer? Clearly, it’s not an easy problem. But a strong countywide educational program needs to begin. That educational program would not only show the 80 percent how to get involved, but it would clearly explain the importance of being involved.

And if that happens, a newspaper resurgence will follow. And trust me, our community — and communities across this country — do not want to see a world without newspapers. So let’s get started.