By Peter W. Wagner
Being part of a community – be it a town, neighborhood, church or social/service organization – was just about everyone’s desire when I was growing up as the youngest of two boys in a traditional family of four.
A dozen years later, when my wife and I were starting our first paper, I came to realize every town needed five things to exist: a locally owned and managed bank willing to support civic endeavors, a local school system with programs and sporting events that brought the people together, a community newspaper to create consensus, at least the semblance of retail stores offering a good selection of the everyday basics from groceries, clothing, auto parts to greeting cards and finally, because I live in Northwest Iowa, a locally owned and managed cooperative elevator.
But the times are changing. Everything is becoming multi-location and regional. Few small-town banks are still locally owned and managed. Most large corporate banking organizations are less interested in supporting local projects such as the rebuilding of the aging baseball field or the use of their lobby for a charity bake sale.
Local K to 12 schools have been integrated with other nearby school districts and the “hometown” football team has disappeared. The excitement of Friday Night Lights has drifted down the road and so has the weekly gathering of fans and the exceptional local spending that went with it.
Entire main streets have gone the way of the earlier mentioned local school. In many small towns only a bar and a convenience store/gas station exist for the purchase of essentials such as milk, bread and a six-pack of beer. Many small communities are simply thankful that a new Dollar Store recently decided to build on the highway at the edge of town.
What were once local cooperative elevators have merged and remerged over the last 10 years to eliminate even the hint of competition.
And the nation’s newspapers, with no community to support them, are disappearing. It is reported that 1,800 have closed in the last 15 years. Newspapers reflect the vitality of the community they serve.
The problem with all of this is the buyers, at least for the moment, depend more on the internet rather than local suppliers for everything from prepared boxed meals to on-line college degrees to buying a new car. I can understand the magic and power in all this online buying, but it will surely lead to a smaller “community”.
There was a time when shopping for groceries or a new dress was a social experience. Two shoppers would bump into each other while working their way down aisle three or headed for the dressing room and stop to catch up, share a recipe or two or plan to meet for coffee.
Just a few years ago there was a time when a trip to the elevator included a visit with the counterman about anything and everything from the weather to the upcoming election. Now everything is ordered from the elevator by email.
Once, when a family thought it was time to buy a new car it was the center of every conversation. They’d discuss the pros and cons with extended family or those gathered around the table at the local café. Now it’s possible to order the car on the internet and have it delivered to your door just a few days later. In many cases this and other factors have left entire counties without a single car dealer to provide the follow-up care or service.
Bookstores have all but disappeared and so have “record” shops.
The abundance of streaming services are cutting deeply into the working capital of bigger city television stations.
As for newspapers, they were the first writers of local history. Newspapers were, and still are, the original social media.
The local paper disseminated news of the happy and caring times from births to who had Sunday dinner at whose house to weddings. They were the source for the weekly update of who was ill, where the fund-raiser was going to be that weekend and what exciting new things there were to see, do and eat.
More importantly, the local paper delivers balanced, credible news and shopping opportunities to the majority of the community, not just the few that are friends on some store’s Facebook list.
If we can bank on-line, order any piece of clothing on-line, get an education on-line, vote on-line, order our groceries, insurance and new car on-line what happens to our community?
Will we, as a society, all look back one day and see social media was the start of the decline of society and not beginning of a “brave, new world”?