I was standing in the barn doorway the other evening, talking to the farm’s manager. A cold wind was pulling blond tendrils from her ponytail, whipping them across her face as we relaxed and talked about horses, until the beauty of the moment caught my attention.
“What a gorgeous sky,” I said, looking west. The manager turned and looked up at the crescent moon. A planet sparkled, just to the left. The fresh wind on our faces, we began to guess the planet’s identity.
“I used to get the Kent County News,” the manager said, referring to the local weekly. One of her former teachers, she went on, wrote a column for the paper, telling everyone what they would be seeing in the night sky. She missed reading the column. She missed reading the paper. “I feel disconnected,” she said.
The Kent County News is still published here. But, as with many in the community, the barn manager’s life has become complicated and busy. Her subscription has lapsed.
“WHEN men are no longer united among themselves by firm and lasting ties, it is impossible to obtain the co-operation of any great number of them unless you can persuade every man whose help you require that his private interest obliges him voluntarily to unite his exertions to the exertions of all the others. This can be habitually and conveniently effected only by means of a newspaper; nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment.” —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Not so today. Today, we have a president who is using a social media platform, Twitter, to drop his 140-character thoughts into the minds of millions of people at the same moment.
He does not control the distribution channel. He does not control Twitter. If our president-elect were to become a true despot, a danger to our nation, would the managers of Twitter shut him down?*
Ah, but then what if he bought a majority interest in Twitter — what if he did own the distribution channel?
Our traditional newspaper business model, literally, puts everyone on the same page, enabling all readers within a given community to share a common base of knowledge.
Another benefit of the original model, though, and one that’s sorely lacking now, is that it was robust enough to finance standalone monopoly newspapers, individual businesses, successful one-town, one-city, one-region papers.
It is the existence of thousands of independently owned and operated newspapers that helped keep our democracy strong up until now. A Donald Trump would have had to buy ads in every paper in America to try to achieve the reach he now has, for free, on Twitter.
I’ve recently begun asking new acquaintances how they get their news. So far, I’ve asked three. The responses were Twitter, Twitter, and Facebook and Twitter.
It is readily apparent that developing new, sustainable news models won’t be enough. The news product that the models produce must be so good that, as my husband once wrote, readers can’t afford to miss it.
Our task is not one, but two: Build the water tanks and fill them, and then convince the horses to drink. So that we all may be — safely — reconnected with each other and our communities.
*UPDATE: Well, well, well. On January 12, The Verge published a story saying that the employees of Twitter have, indeed, discussed the idea of banning Trump’s tweets. See “Inside Twitter, employees reckon with Trump.”