At a CommonGood lunch meeting today, I asked Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark NJ, if the decline of the mainstream media has made it harder for him to engage with his community. He responded that while he felt that journalism was very important to democracy and society, its recent decline has had little impact on him since he has been able to use social media technology such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to build direct, personal and often real-time connections with his constituents.
Today, although Newark NJ has fewer than 300,000 citizens, Mayor Booker has almost a million followers on Twitter, almost 17,000 supporters on Facebook and 550 subscribers to his YouTube channel. Booker regularly posts status updates to both Facebook and Twitter and has uploaded 75 videos including a regular "Week In Review." He regularly posts updates to his schedule, links to speeches he's given, quotes from things he's been reading, calls for participation in "Night Patrols" of Newark's streets, and kudos to local organizations whose work he admires.
Mayor Booker's comments reminded me that at the recent FTC Workshop on the future of journalism, Matthew Gentzkow of the University of Chicago presented research on "The Effect of Newspaper Entry and Exit on Electoral Politics." His research, which spanned the period from 1869 to 2004, indicated a fairly weak connection between the health of newspapers and electoral participation. He concludes that "monopoly paper closings may cause small to moderate declines in local [electoral] participation" and that there was "no evidence that newspaper closings will affect party vote shares or incumbency advantage." This evidence, combined with the personal experience of Mayor Booker, may indicate that communities are much more robust in their ability to obtain the information needed to sustain political and community engagement than some may be suggesting. Perhaps, just as on the Internet where we tend to "route around" anything that impedes the free flow of traffic, communities also find ways to route around forces that would otherwise limit discourse. Thus, it may be that rather than assuming on faith that it is vitally important to prop up and sustain the existing newspaper businesses, we should be seeking instead to determine what other tools and/or media best provide the platforms for discourse and engagement that we need.