Print can create 'community' without relying on the Net

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When the novelist E.M. Forster wrote "only connect," he couldn't have imagined the words would become the mantra for the Internet age. But the phrase has entered the lexicon as perhaps the most powerful explanation for why the ubiquitous global communications network has become so captivating so quickly: because it enables and reinforces community.

Largely absent from conventional media operations, this sense of connectedness surfaces on occasion in the unlikeliest of places--including The Wall Street Journal. The financial newspaper is not known for its, ahem, "social"-ist tendencies--except in one lovely place, its Friday wine column written by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher. They are showing that the medium of print remains a wonderful vehicle for the inculcation and maintenance of community.

Readers of this column know I enjoy reading about (and drinking) wine. I must admit, though, that for many months after the marvelous "Weekend Journal" section began publishing their "Tastings" column, Gaiter and Brecher's work repelled me. It drove me nuts how they insisted on quoting themselves. "As we wrote in our tasting notes at the time, 'Nutty! Mouth-filling!' "--that's how a typical passage would read. Yecch. Why didn't they just say what their opinion was, instead of telling us where they wrote it down?!

But the couple--they're husband and wife--grew on me. Much wine writing has an air of hauteur; their writing is so down to earth it often references their two daughters, their honeymoon and their kitchen The pair also initiated one of the great events I've seen a publication launch, "Open that bottle night," a model for participatory outreach.

Before I explain, let's return to that word "hauteur," for it actually describes much of conventional media. Not that they set out to be arrogant, but most media outlets do implicitly talk at and preach to their audience. The major media reflexively maintain a distance between themselves and their customers. Why? Because marketing has taught them to sell via aspiration, which itself implies a bridge one must cross to become better.

Internet chat groups, buddy lists and the like exposed the fallacy of this conceit, and show the deep yearning for community that exists everywhere. But only a rare few traditional media outlets have truly grasped this desire. Notable among them is Fast Company magazine, its phenomenal success predicated in no small part on its "Company of Friends" gatherings. It recognizes a principle about which my colleagues, strategy gurus Chuck Lucier and Jan Torsilieri, have been writing: that companies must invite customers inside their business boundaries. "Nobody wants to be an island," another leading strategist, C.K. Prahalad, said at last week's Strategic Management Society conference in Vancouver. Firms must allow "people to shape the expectations of the community and the company."

That's what Brecher and Gaiter have done with "Open that bottle night," initiated last year. They urged readers to gather loved ones for the express purpose of having a great meal, and opening that "special" bottle of wine we've all saved for so long we're afraid to pop the cork. Goaded by the Journal's columnists, on Sept. 16 thousands complied, and wrote the couple of their experiences. "We heard from people who opened their bottle on a sailboat on Chesapeake Bay, in a mountain cabin in Calaveras County, Calif., in an apartment in Florida while Hurricane Gordon threatened, and in front of television sets watching the Sydney Olympic Games," the two wrote. "Others hoisted glasses of their special wines in Italy, in the Canadian Rockies and at the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park."

The night, needless to say, has become their column's signature event; for its community, its defining characteristic. These wine writers have managed to accomplish something most journalists--hell, most businesspeople--can only dream of: creating a bond with their audience. Perhaps it will have no value other than to help the Journal sell wine advertising. But I suspect something more will grow from it. The columnists will know their readers; and they and their colleagues will learn how better to serve their needs. That's the benefit of community--and you don't need the Net to achieve it.

Copyright October 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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