Friday morning, I got up, took our enormous lobster pot down off its high shelf, filled it and began boiling water for the dog.
No, he doesn’t start the day with gallons of English Breakfast. I was boiling water for the dog because here in Washington, the local water utility experienced a mite of trouble with its system Thursday night, and half the city — about 34,000 businesses and residences — was warned to boil water from the tap before drinking or using it in cooking. No contamination had been found after a pressure drop caused by a pumping station malfunction, but city officials were still being cautious. And they wanted D.C. residents in the affected areas to be careful, too.
As I settled down to work, something kept bothering me. Perusing the news, I realized what it was: I wasn’t sure my mother knew about the water warning.
I had seen the news on Twitter, but my mother regards the Internet with suspicion — for the first 10 years or so that I was writing online, she referred to my readers as “the web people,” as if they were a separate race, and perhaps another species. I had also gotten a notice from work, but my mother is retired. And while it was all over the local news, my mother no longer takes a newspaper, and she gets her morning news from CNN rather than the local broadcast.
Retirees are exactly the sort of people who are most vulnerable to bad water, so I raced to call her. And indeed, she had no idea (though fortunately also hadn’t had a drink from the tap). It turns out that Washington does use robo-calls to send alerts, but the system is slow and the city doesn’t have numbers for everybody.
I was glad I’d called. But as I got off the phone, I thought: What happens to other people like my mother whose children don’t live in Washington or didn’t think to call? And then I wondered what happens to everyone as local news disappears.
The days are gone when virtually everybody read a local newspaper or watched a local broadcast as they stumbled through their morning routine. Now news is becoming nationalized. Newspapers in a handful of urban areas are reaping economies of scale by drawing in readers from all over the country; their smaller competitors in smaller places are closing. The new online outlets are clustering around the national winners in markets such as New York and Washington, the better to find talent. Meanwhile, cable television has siphoned off millions of people who used to watch the broadcast networks; the viewership of network evening news programs has fallen by half since 1980.
That may not matter too much if you happen to live in one of those urban bubbles. My local paper had excellent coverage of the outage, including a handy map. But if you’re a thousand miles away from The Washington Post or the New York Times, there may soon be no one to tell you what’s happening in your community.
This has been remarked upon before. But the focus is usually on the shrinking bubble from which our news emanates, or else on what local politics may look like when there’s no one to dutifully report what was said at the latest school board meeting. Less attention is given to simple questions such as how people are going to find out about local emergencies when the nearest reporter is half a continent away.
Social media can probably pick up some of the slack. But not necessarily as much as you might think. Yes, I found out about the water warning from Twitter, but I live in the very media bubble that is not reporting on the city council meetings of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Tuscaloosa, Ala. The people in that bubble are far more likely to be on Twitter than the residents of most communities.
In other places, many people will never see a tweet from the water authority. And other forms of social media are even less conducive to those sorts of communications. Facebook? Instagram? Snapchat? Better to rely on the kindness of neighbors.
It’s probably too late to preserve the local media hegemony that performed such valuable services. That means it’s time to talk about what to put in their place for situations such as Washington’s water alert. And it’s never too soon to begin thinking about who might not have gotten the message, and who you might be able to reach with old analog technologies like your feet and your voice.