This column first appeared in Newspapers & Technology in June of 2008.
“Teach me, like you, to drink creation whole. And casting out, myself, become a soul.” — Richard Wilbur, 1961.
I think the biggest threat to the newspaper industry today resides in the possibility that, in many communities, the local paper is in grave danger of losing its soul.
As we have standardized process, and streamlined technique, and adopted best practices, we have somehow lost sight of what it means to be a unique voice helping communities to become individual, exceptional, distinctive and one of a kind.
And that is part of our job.
For local newspapers, it is crucial that they encourage their communities’ rare elements to survive and to help the matchless aspects of their neighborhoods to thrive and prosper.
None of us really wants to live in the town down the road.
None of us wants to pick up a paper in that distant town and say to himself, “This is exactly the same paper I read this morning in my own town.”
We can’t afford to become fast food. Even the idea of a concept restaurant is out. We won’t survive — long term — in any other role other than as an individual provider with a strong menu of local color and flavor.
We need to produce an extraordinary, singular experience as we serve our readers, sources, advertisers and ourselves.
If we are not able to create such an experience, we are doomed. Readers and others will find it elsewhere, the Internet being only one option.
Yet how do we offer such a singular experience? How do we continue to nurture that soul? How do we build on years of doing just that?
I think the answer might be found in the same manner as the local, and not chain-owned, restaurant. Soul comes from the people who work there and the community itself.
It lives in the kitchen, with a chef that won’t compromise on ingredients. It comes from the wait staff that cares about how customers are treated, or even the dishwasher who takes pride in how even the mundane tasks are performed.
Soul also survives and grows in the customers — the regular who eats there every night and the “special occasion” diner that could think of no other place as appropriate for such a celebration.
It is in the music that is played, and the sights, and sounds and smells. There is soul in the beer that is served, and in the tall, cool glass in which it magically appears.
Keeping it intact
That soul is, of course, in the capable hands of the responsible owner who knows and worries that all of it — everything — can disappear if careful attention is not paid.
For newspapers, the first step in keeping their souls intact is to recognize they’re in danger of losing them. Then reach for that individual experience with local texture, color and flavor.
As novelist, poet and short-story writer Charles Bukowski once observed, “If you are losing your soul and know it, then you’ve still got a soul left to lose.”
Now is the time to try to save what we can.