You know the Nextdoor websites.
They’re a nationwide series of local social networks that I personally like because I’ve never once seen anyone post a picture of their brunch with a caption that says “Awesome latte!”
Most Nextdoor posters are asking about a good restaurant for an anniversary dinner, or an honest contractor for a roof repair. Maybe they saw a black and white dog running loose in Brookrace. Sometimes they post pictures of stuff they want to sell or give away.
All this is, in fact, Nextdoor’s mission, outlined right on their mission statement website.
Absent from that website, though, is promotion for one of the site’s most engaging features: its subtle humor, which I feared might exist only in my own inappropriate imagination until I was talking with a friend who said he enjoys the same thing.
My friend’s favorite recent post was someone who asked whether there’s a Mayo Clinic in our area. Since our area is Northern New Jersey, the answer was, uh, “No.” That makes the question no less amusing.
My recent favorites include a poster offering to let any interested party remove a fallen tree from his yard, no charge. The nominal opportunity for the remover was, I suppose, firewood. The opportunity for this generous poster was to save a couple of hundred dollars in tree removal charges.
My second favorite recent free-to-good-home item was “a pile of rocks.” Hard to resist.
I confess to also enjoying the responses when someone posts a picture of a harmless spider or snake and says, “What is this?” It’s a lock that at least one poster will shoot back, “OMG! Call a SWAT team immediately or your whole family will be dead by daybreak!”
People are so funny.
But that’s not why I bring up Nextdoor. I bring up Nextdoor because for too long I’ve been resisting an unsettling truth.
After six decades getting my local news from my local newspaper, I now find myself getting some of my local news from Nextdoor.
That’s not a knock on Nextdoor. (So to speak.) It’s more a side effect from the whiplash of trying to get plain, basic local news anywhere today.
True, the Internet and technologies like streaming have given us a thousand times more “sources” of information than anyone in history has ever had.
Trouble is, no single one offers the simple, straightforward, comprehensive, user-friendly aggregation of relevant information that used to be available daily in a 25-cent newspaper that also had comic strips, Ann Landers and movie listings.
I don’t mean to romanticize local newspapers, then or now. My first paid newspaper job, 47 years ago, was with our local paper, the Daily Record, and while I loved the gig, I complained as much as any other self-respecting employee about what we did and didn’t do.
Still, we got it right a lot more than we got it wrong.
Then and now, local newspapers almost all have this in common: They are staffed by people whose job is to gather and report information. As in any other profession, they do this with varying degrees of skill. But in the end they almost always deliver the relevant facts, like who, where, when, why and how.
Reporting is less fun than tweeting opinions. It is more important. Trust me here. It tells us how our elected officials are setting our taxes. It tells us how the schools are spending those taxes. It tells us whether new apartment buildings have been approved. It tells us who the police have arrested. It tells us how the local high school sports teams are doing. It tells us how a local woman has published a unique book. It tells us who died and who is getting married. It tells us that a hundred trees are being cut down by the roadside because of the Emerald Ash Borer.
In my part of New Jersey, we no longer have a local paper that can do all that. The Daily Record still exists. But where we had dozens of reporters, photographers and editors, the newsroom today has a staff of less than half a dozen.
They clearly work hard, and I suspect they’re often frustrated by how much they can’t do. But the paper some years ago was absorbed into a “regional” Gannett chain that created “synergy” by essentially merging a half dozen papers into one regional product that doesn’t cover much of anything. Half the news is picked up from other Gannett papers, meaning we get “local” news from four counties away. Thanks a lot.
The Daily Record is what’s known in the newspaper biz as a “ghost,” a wispy shadow of its one-time self.
I shouldn’t be whining here. Unlike many communities, we still have a local weekly. We also have a regional paper, the Star Ledger, though the Ledger too has some ghost in it. Among other things, it no longer covers local news.
I recently drove past what was clearly a major renovation of a vacant storefront at a local shopping center. Absent a local newspaper to have reported on the genesis and progress of that project, my only option was to pull over and try to get the attention of a crane operator. I did not do that.
And then, somewhere between the question about a good hair colorist and a warning about parking tickets in Puddingstone Heights, someone on Nextdoor said hey, didja know that store is gonna be a Trader Joe’s?
Mystery solved. And who doesn’t like Trader Joe’s?
The point, however, is that Nextdoor, this folksy website where people complain about bad driveway paving and fear that a garter snake will trigger a pandemic, has become one of my fill-in sources for local news.
It’s not like journalistic dumpster diving, exactly. But again, this is not Nextdoor’s mission. Nextdoor is for sharing the news about a good thin crust pizza, not keeping us updated on proposals to merge high schools.
Getting local news on Nextdoor is like overhearing random conversations from people waiting for their two pounds of egg salad at the deli counter in Shop-Rite. Most of the time it’s probably mostly right. It’s also likely to be fragmentary.
I understand the grim financial realities of publishing a newspaper today, particularly a print edition.
I also know the importance of local news has not declined in proportion to the number of local newspapers that provide it.
I’m not sure we need basic accurate news today “more than ever.” We certainly needed it during the Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression, World War II and the 1960s. But we don’t need it any less than ever, and it would be nice if we could once more find it in one convenient place.
Which is not between posts on the wolf spider and the pile of rocks.