Good news arrives in many packages. The most startling and heartening moment I’ve seen lately arrived during the Liberty Theatre gala in November.
As state Sen. Betsy Johnson asked the crowd if anyone would give to the theater, a man sitting near the front raised his hand. Handed the microphone, he said: “My wife and I moved here one year ago.” He expressed gratitude for how welcoming Astorians had been to them. He pledged a gift of $1,000 to the theater’s restoration campaign.
Jennifer Crockett, the theater’s director, said more than 260 people attended the gala, contributing more than $1,100 in donations, $11,000 in ticket sales, $18,200 from auctions and raffles, and $269,000 to a special appeal by Johnson.
The hero in this story is the town — more precisely, the people who reached out to this man and his wife. It is a symptom of a healthy community.
I recognize that this couple’s experience has not necessarily been everyone’s experience as a newcomer. But it does make a point about the ingredients of a community. This is especially timely, because there is widespread hunger for community across America at a time when it is easy to feel anonymous.
Arthur C. Brooks recently wrote a penetrating op-ed on this topic titled “Loneliness is Tearing America Apart.” Brooks’ thesis, published Nov. 24 in the New York Times, is that America’s “epidemic of loneliness” makes a vast swath of the nation susceptible to the extremes of the political spectrum whose advocates populate the Internet and cable television.
The antidote is community, wrote Brooks. More specifically, he quotes Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who has written that the key is “to intentionally invest in the places where we actually live.”
Building community is what this newspaper is about. And it is what the other newspapers of our company are about. When people ask me about the future of newspapers, my response is that as long as people value community, they will value a news source that reflects that community. Decades ago the iconoclastic newspaper and magazine editor Clay Felker explained his latest creation, New York Magazine, saying that it would hold up a mirror and show people themselves.
The startling phenomenon I discovered while serving as the Astorian’s editor was the people who did not want to have human contact. Some would hide behind email addresses. But one of my frequent antagonists, who used his real name, resisted all my attempts to have conversation in person. It struck me then as an unhealthy attitude, and I see it in what Arthur Brooks has described.
In the book “Grit and Ink,” author William Willingham writes about how our sister newspaper, the Blue Mountain Eagle, responded when a sect of the Aryan Nations out of Idaho sought to create a homeland in Grant County. Led by Publisher Marissa Williams and Editor Scotta Callister, the newspaper convened a community meeting to talk about the prospect of becoming the home of a nativist, white nationalist community.
It was a remarkable and long discussion, and it drew the national press. In my favorite moment, Callister chewed out a Wall Street Journal reporter for talking loudly on his cellphone while citizens were addressing the group. In that brief encounter, an authentic local editor lectured a self-important national newsman on the meaning of community.