To clarify why Byers was interested in The Great Good Place: he was picking up on Oldenburg's observation that many people live in one place, work in another, socialize in another, and feel connected to none. This poses a dilemma for the community newspaper in the bedroom community where these people live. How to figure out how to serve them, to reach them? Byers understands social capital. He understands social networking. But his solution—for the news staff to be sure to circulate in the community—stops just short of actually engaging with these diverse communities through their online voices.
The next paper in the community-building symposium, by Maria Raicheva-Stover of Washburn University, struck off in a different direction from Putnam's work. Using his definitions of social capital as a starting point, she wrote a dissertation that tried to figure out whether mass media is contributing to the decline of social capital or to its improvement.
According to her research, consumption of hard news corresponds to increased levels of social capital, while consumption of soft news corresponds to decreasing levels. As an example of the latter, a survey respondent might say that she only reads the arts section to figure out which movie or art exhibit to go to (by herself). On the other hand, consumers of hard news are people more likely to be active in politics or other activities involving lots of people acting together. Most interesting, I think, is her finding about the watchers of sit-coms and reality TV. She found that viewers of those kinds of shows had a high level of social capital. I'm greatly oversimplifying her paper and not doing it justice.
Many of the papers I'm writing about, including hers and Byers', are part of a special "community building symposium" that is going on within this NNA program. It's the 10th annual symposium sponsored by the Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media at Kansas State. If the past is prologue, this year's papers will be online eventually.
Later in the day, Raicheva-Stover noticed my copy of We, the Media and took down the name. I asked her why it seemed that the folks at this conference weren't too interested in blogs. She said it was a good question, and that she herself was going to be incorporating them into her teaching very soon.
Because the subject of potential advertiser control over journalistic content came up at the Piedmont Blog Conference, I paid special attention to the presentation by Lori Bergen (co-authored by Soontae An) of Kansas State on "Advertiser Pressure on News Contents: The Dilemma between Business and Editorial in Community Newspapers." The most interesting finding of this research is not that such pressure exists—that is no surprise—but that small, independently owned papers are less likely to give in to such pressure than are large, corporate-owned papers.
Her concluding remark was sobering: "Media companies will not have trouble staying in business, but the challenge will be staying in journalism."