As Newspapers Fade, Journalists Are Finding New Ways to Cover Local News

 

Until January 2019, reporter Tim Swarens had devoted his entire 35-year career to journalism—the last 15 years spent as a reporter and editor at the Indianapolis Star. The end came as a shock. “I did not expect to end my career by being walked out the door by security,” he told me over coffee.

His work had earned him awards from numerous prestigious bodies, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship for Editorial Writing. He loved his job, and assumed that his reputation would allow him to do it until retirement: “For me, there was never any alternative to being a journalist.” 

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, the number of newsroom employees at U.S. newspapers declined by nearly half between 2008 and 2018, from about 71,000 to 38,000. In some cases, contractions or shutdowns at major-market outlets (such as the Chicago Tribune) receive coverage in other publications. But the situation is even more troubling in smaller markets that are served by few local media. Newspapers such as the Star in Indianapolis are facing challenges because the traditional business model they relied on for much of the last two centuries—advertising, paid-classifieds and subscriptions—has collapsed. Moreover, unlike the Washington Post and other elite publications that are read nationally and internationally, regional publications are selling content into a limited local market.

Newspaper circulation is now lower than it was in the 1940s (when the number of households was a third the current level). Ad revenue—which peaked, in inflation-adjusted 2014 dollars, at $67 billion in the late 1990s—fell below $20-billion in 2014. According to a report commissioned by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, overall U.S. digital ad revenue in 2018 was over $100 billion, which sounds like good news. But newspapers have been able to access only a small part of this market (only $3.5 billion in 2014), as Facebook, Google and Amazon have captured at least half of all digital ad buys.

Thanks to the steady stream of sensational political stories generated by Donald Trump, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have enjoyed considerable gains in digital circulation. But high-profile successes such as this are few in middle America, where a single local newspaper may be the difference between accountability and impunity for politicians. Less local reporting means less transparency, less informed voters, and lower levels of civic engagement.

The weakening of local newspapers means that public discourse has become increasingly nationalized, which has contributed to political polarization and social fragmentation. Instead of focusing on local and regional campaigns that invite effective citizen mobilization and activism, such as ensuring the quality of schools, roads and utility networks, Americans increasingly treat politics as a subject of national-level gossip and entertainment.

Randy Shepard, a retired Justice on the Indiana Supreme Court, has taken to counting the local stories the Indianapolis Star covers each day. “The most common number of locally written stories in a given [edition] is five,” he told me. “Six runs a respectable second. Every once in a while, there are just four, not counting sports.” The rest consists of syndicated content.

Good regional reporting often is the key to breaking important national stories. For instance, the Jeffrey Epstein case was all but dead until Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald breathed life into it with her in-depth reportingThe Boston Globe spent years investigating sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests, a project that inspired journalists in other cities to do their own digging. A series of articles by Brian M. Rosenthal at the Houston Chronicle unveiled massive and systemic issues in Texas, with special-needs children being denied education services.

As for Swarens, he was on the edit desk when the Indianapolis Star broke the Larry Nassar sexual-abuse scandal—a project that consumed the efforts of two reporters for five months. In another era, it was routine to devote editorial staff to this kind of story. But today, it’s rare. And a world without this kind of reporting is a world in which the disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor might still be molesting teenage girls.

The challenge for experienced journalists such as Swarens is to find new outlets for their work. And in this respect, there is some good news. The same Pew report detailing a 47% decline in newspaper editorial employees between 2008 and 2018, from 71,000 to 38,000, also found a large uptick in employment in “digital-native” newsrooms, from 7,000 to 13,000.

Many of these new workers are filling the local-news void. Patch, founded in 2009, is an online-only network of platforms owned by Hale Global that, as of mid-2019, operated over 1,200 news websites. Block Club ChicagoVoice of San DiegoMinnPost, the Texas Tribune and the  Colorado Sun—founded in 2017, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2016 respectively—are examples of digital native outlets that have adopted a non-profit, subscriber- and donation-based online model that operates at relatively low cost and focus heavily on a defined local beat. (And not all new ventures are abandoning print. This includes the Provincetown Independent in Massachusetts, which serves the Outer Cape Cod areas of Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham.)

Typifying the young journalists who are pioneering these new experiments is Mónica Guzmán, co-founder of the Evergrey, a hyper-local daily newsletter that began serving Seattle in 2016. When the city’s Post-Intelligencer closed in 2009, the 146-year old newspaper still had 117,600 readers. Guzmán observed changes in her community that she believes could be traced to the Post-Intelligencer’s demise, including declining civic engagement and morale.

The Evergrey is one of several new local outlets started up through WhereBy.Us, a self-described “platform for community media businesses.” Revenue flows to the publication directly from subscribers and from ads embedded in the newsletter. The hyperlocal nature of the publication makes it attractive to clients looking to promote events. Sponsors such as the Seattle-based Gates Foundation also have committed to supporting the Evergrey, and their contributions are noted through the display of corporate logos—though the supporters do not have any editorial say in the selection or content of the associated articles. (This is important, because the line between legitimate editorial content and “branded” or “sponsored” content has become the source of controversy in some areas of the industry.)

A larger revenue stream originates with so-called client-created content, such as the material prepared for Vulcan Inc., a network of organizations and initiatives founded by philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen (1953-2018). The Evergrey created content dedicated to commemorating Allen’s legacy, and produced videos featuring local “catalysts” in Seattle, such as a venture capitalist who invests in entrepreneurs of diverse backgrounds, and a resident who started “Civic Saturdays.

One common characteristic of these newer digital-native operations (including Quillette) is that they operate with lean staffing. The Evergrey, for instance, has just three full-time employees and one part-time manager. But they are supported by centralized WhereBy.Us staff who offer assistance in video production, illustration, event planning and other specialized support services. The Evergrey doesn’t yet have the capacity to dedicate itself to in-depth investigative work. But it does provide an outlet for daily local news reporting.

As for Swarens, he’s leading a group of journalists who are studying all of these models, looking for one that would be right for Indianapolis. They haven’t gotten a name yet, but the above-described precedents show us what the outlet’s defining properties likely will be: timely online content delivery, a flexible revenue model built around subscriber engagement and corporate partnerships, a specialized focus on local news, and lean staffing. “It will take time to build a sustainable institution,” Swarens told me, “but this is [an] important project for our city, state, and country.”

 

Alexandra Hudson, an Indianapolis-based writer who has been published in TIME, The Wall Street Journal, Politico Magazine, and others outlets. She is a 2019 Novak Fellow currently writing a book on civility, civil society and civic renewal. She Tweets at @LexiOHudson. To read more of her work, visit www.alexandraohudson.com.

 
 

Somehow, Larry David teaches us what community means

Some weeks ago, my husband and I were walking to church when we observed a peculiar scene: a man in a white Mercedes paused at a stop sign, blaring his horn and yelling at a couple in the car in front. Unwilling to let this man’s impatience disrupt Sunday worshipers, my husband approached the man in the car and demanded he hush. Of course, the curmudgeon turned his ire on us, telling us precisely whose business we could mind. But he did stop honking.

Something worked.

It’s easy to imagine a similar scene occuring in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, of which its tenth season debuted last week. Everyone’s favorite misanthrope, Larry David, certainly would have likely been a bit more invective than my husband in scolding the stop sign offender, but such incidents make for good—if slightly awkward—television.

But with a more critical watch, “Curb” is good for more than just a laugh. It unmasks something crucial in our society: Our desperate need for accountability.

A recurring scene in “Curb” involves LD confronting a person for something selfish—someone cutting in line at a buffet or taking up two parking spaces. He’s become famous for giving voice to what viewers are thinking. Often, bystanders in the show come to LD’s defense, affirming the reprimand of the selfish citizen.

There are some superficial similarities between the way that Larry David operates and the soft, overly-sensitive culture that has sprung up these days as a result of leftist relativism. You might even call Larry a sort of “social justice warrior,” though one with a very particular definition of both “social” and “justice.”

But there are crucial differences at play.

David is a staunch defender of near-universally accepted norms of etiquette that affect people on a day-to-day basis. The principles he invokes are not about controversial and divisive political ideals, but rather, he usually confronts someone because their selfishness has inconvenienced others in a practical way. His call-outs aren’t empty posturing about social politics or a signal to his friends of his self-awareness. He just doesn’t like thoughtlessness, and none of us should.

He just doesn’t like thoughtlessness, and none of us should.

Unlike the knights of social justice raging on Twitter today, Larry David’s confrontations are nearly always in-person, too, which is better for the simple reason that face-to-face scoldings are less likely to happen. The transactions costs are far lower in shooting off a sarcastic tweet than in confronting a real person in the street. So, then, they’re much more likely to happen only when they’re warranted—not at slight and unforeseeable offenses.

It seems that while the angry and political get caught up in the outrage mob, we’ve forgotten all about the most basic niceties that come with being human. We have lost an important respect of the social infrastructure we erected in order to co-exist in the first place. It’s worn down our own understandings of what is necessary to live together in community. The result is a much more fraught society that makes living together unnecessarily difficult. It’s not surprising that, as a people, we are rather divided.

We’re forever trying to rid ourselves of the concept of “norms,” but cultures throughout time and place have had them for a reason. Of course, the mere existence of norms has never been enough to stop people from breaking them. When we do shrug them off, we do so for bad yet widely-accepted reasons. We break them to make a political statement, such as women forgoing bras in the name of social and gender equality. We break them because our selfish impulses overpower our desire to maintain conscientiousness behavior. (We’re rude to a cashier because we’re having a bad day or we fail to hold the door open for the woman behind us at the cafe because we’re too busy thinking about work.) And, ultimately, we do these things because we know that selfishness is the way of our world—and we’ll encounter no objection.

But we need objections from real people, because we ought to be taken to task when we’re actively squashing the community we so desperately need.

That kind of accountability doesn’t need to come from our formal institutions. Yes, our federal, state, and local governments were established to limit the negative consequences of people’s selfishness. Our formal institutions protect us from, and deter, thieves who might want to rob us and companies who might want to defraud us.

Larry David, though neurotic and obsessive compulsive, is on to something.

Yet formal institutions alone are insufficient for a fully flourishing society, because they only address the most egregious examples of human selfishness. Informal institutions and norms, then, ought to take care of the rest. And that’s the way we want it keep it, lest we bring upon ourselves something akin to China’s horrifying Social Credit system. An acerbic Larry David-type is infinitely preferable.

We are individuals, but we’re more than that. We’re people who need other people, and when we shirk our duty to customs, norms, and basic human kindness, we’re insisting we don’t. Though if we’re to find community once more, we need to take each other to task—not for microaggressions, but, rather, for forgetting we’re not islands. Community is equal parts building up when deserved and tearing down when needed.

Larry David, though neurotic and obsessive compulsive, is on to something. Instead of just chuckling at his ridiculous antics, perhaps we should all be taking notes instead.

 

Alexandra Hudson is a writer, Young Voices Contributor and Novak Fellow based out of Indianapolis. Follow her on Twitter @lexiohudson.

 
 
 
 

Trump’s and Pelosi’s incivility is hurting the government’s ability to function

President Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sent the internet into a frenzy after this week’s State of the Union address with twin acts of incivility. Before his speech, Trump seemingly declined to shake Pelosi’s hand after she extended it, and, at the end of the speech, Pelosi tore her copy of Trump’s remarks in half.

 

Incivility in our politics isn’t exactly new: Over the years, lawmakers in Congress have seen canings, brawls, death by duel, and tarring and feathering. So, then, the pair’s actions weren’t the most uncivil conduct on record, but the antics still are not acceptable. In fact, Trump and Pelosi are setting awful examples for their supporters, considering we’re more divided than ever. Some experts estimate that political polarization is at its worst since the Civil War, and childish feuds aren’t helping.

History tells us that we can’t afford to disregard civility during hardship or partisan disputes.

Indeed, a look to the past shows us how fragile our system of government is, and civility is the necessary social glue that binds us together in times of adversity. This is because true civility requires a fundamental respect for human dignity. Injustices from our past and present illustrate the consequences of failing to recognize the humanity and value of every person, especially for those we really don’t like, those who can’t benefit us, and those with whom we strongly disagree.

Unfortunately, though, it often seems that people’s willingness to defend or condemn instances of incivility today depends entirely on whether the offender is a member of the right political tribe.

If you’re not on my team, the logic goes, then your incivility is an unforgivable affront to common decency, but, if you are, then your incivility is for a greater good and is therefore justified. It’s also becoming more and more common to hear that we are in a post-civility era — the stakes are simply far too high to care about pleasantries and niceties, some say.

Of course, thinking back to the barbaric canings and brawls, this willingness to dispense with common courtesies is nothing new in history, but it’s nonetheless troubling, as civility is also necessary in particular for our unique system of limited government to thrive. Indeed, sincere civility promotes the equality, tolerance, and self-governance necessary for such a system to succeed.

We live out our national credo that “all men are created equal” when we act civilly, and we should be proud that we rejected the rules and social norms of the old aristocratic world of Europe where people were bound to a certain rank from birth to death and were always expected to defer to their social superiors.

Civility entails tolerance.

When we disagree, civility is how we can peacefully live together in spite of our disagreement. Reasonable minds can peacefully disagree, and, indeed, true civility means that even unreasonable minds deserve some basic level of respect. This is because, again, our disagreement doesn’t negate our value as people. Our national motto is, “E pluribus unum”: Out of many, one. When you have a lot of people living in a nation together, there will be differences and discord, but we ought to be connected and unified by our common humanity.

Lastly, civility is necessary to our democracy because it encourages self-governance.

A free society of diverse individuals can function without strict governmental restraints on behavior only when individuals exercise self-restraint and selflessness, when they act well even when they have the opportunity not to. Holding the door open for the person behind us, standing in line instead of jumping to the front of the queue, and resisting the urge to cut someone off in traffic, even though we may be in a hurry. When too many of us fail to exercise self-restraint and common courtesy, people will begin calling for the government to restrain us through burdensome laws and regulations.

Civility, then, is essential to our democracy. In recognizing this, we understand that our everyday interactions matter, whether the entire nation is watching, such as at the State of the Union, or whether no one is paying attention at all. For the sake of our nation, it’s imperative that more of our national leaders realize this in the days to come.

Alexandra Hudson (@LexiOHudson) is an Indianapolis-based writer, a 2020 Novak fellow, and a Young Voices contributor. She is writing a book on civility and American civic renewal.

 
 

A Tribute to Grandma Margaret

The Mellifluous Echo of the Magnanimous Soul

 

My mother, Grandma and me on Dec 23, 2019, less than month before her sudden decline and passing.

On Tuesday morning, January 21st, 2020, my grandmother, Margaret Johnston, passed away after a months-long battle with cancer. Grandma Margaret died in the comfort of the home the she and her husband, my grandfather, shared for over four decades. She was surrounded by my mother, her three sisters, and my uncle, their spouses, and her fifteen grandchildren. I was privileged to be with her in what ended up being among her last days, but it still did not seem like enough time. In the days leading up to, and since, her passing, I’ve reflected on the most extraordinary elements of her life and legacy. I realize I’m only beginning to understand the extent to which her life has touched those around her, including my own, inspiring and my view—and even my work—regarding the foundations of human relationships and community. She was exceptional in many ways, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share two of them at her celebration of life this past weekend. One I call The Mellifluous Echo of the Magnanimous Soul. The other, the Zeal for Hope, and making ordinary encounters extraordinary.

The Mellifluous Echo of the Magnanimous Soul 

We are all familiar—either personally, or through news, history, or memoir—with the potential of a single individual, especially a parent, to make decisions that have unfortunate reverberations in the lives of those around them, often affecting generations. We hear many of these stories today. Indeed, many of the headlines of crime and human tragedy title what are actually stories of parental abuse and childhood suffering.

Less frequently do we hear stories of the inverse: tales describing how one incredible, extraordinary human being, one magnanimous soul, produces positive consequences that reverberate across time. Such people have tremendous strength of character and raw determination, and act as their family’s social glue and foundation. Through their lifestyle and cumulative decisions, they influence those around them—and the generations after them—for the better. These magnanimous souls, people of great personal strength and benevolence, live out a beautiful song—a song that produces a mellifluous echo in successive generations. They initiate a virtuous cycle that begins by building into the lives of those they meet, who in turn build into the lives of yet more individuals. Grandma Margaret epitomized this type of life. Hers was a life well-lived.

She and my grandfather raised their children—four daughters and one son—to love God, to be unceasingly considerate of others, to pursue moral excellence, and to walk through life with a joyful, contagious, and song-filled (at least for the sisters!) ebullience. Each of my grandmother’s children, while unique in their own right, have gone on to be glue in their families and communities. Each of their two to four children—my cousins and my siblings—have, in turn, internalized these values, originally instilled by my grandmother and diffused by our parents, and have become positive lights in their own spheres of influences. This is the extraordinary legacy my grandmother leaves. It is one that is difficult to quantify, but one that has done untold good for more people than she—or I—will ever know. As Ravi Zacharias said in his video-eulogy to her, which we played at her celebration of life, only eternity will reveal how she blessed the world and those around her.

Zeal for Hope, and Maximizing Every Human Interaction

For Grandma Margaret, there was no such thing as an ordinary, casual human encounter. No meeting with another person was neutral: every interaction was an opportunity for her to share the absolute hope she held with every molecule of her being. Her central hope was in her faith. She believed resolutely in the eternal salvation that comes with Jesus Christ for anyone who chooses to repent from their sin and accept the free gift of forgiveness through His death and sacrifice on the cross. She was never without a gospel tract or a booklet on the “Four Spiritual Laws” in at least three different language. After years of passing conversation and friendship, even saw her mail lady come to faith.

In addition to the Gospel, which she was confident would bring people internal peace, she also had great hope in products or services that she was confident would make people’s physical physical lives better. She was a serial entrepreneur: often when a new company came to Canada, my grandmother was among the first people they would recruit to help them sell their wares. It’s difficult to fully recount all the different companies she was involved with, but among the ones that I remember from my childhood are Mary Kay cosmetics (my grandmother, my mother, and one of my aunts at one point each had pink Cadillacs which they parked simultaneously in their driveway in Oakville, Ontario!), Environu non-toxic household cleaning products, Xoçai health dark chocolate, Amway, Tahitian Noni juice—the list goes on! She was even awarded an Amway “Idea Award” by Richard DeVos for her entrepreneurial spirit. Even now, remnants of these products and their promotional materials can be found throughout her home—and seeing them never fails to bring a smile to the face of anyone who knew her. 

 

Pink Is The Color of Success: My grandmother, my mother, and my Aunt Skye featured in Oakville Ontario’s local newspaper for their success in selling Mary Kay Cosmetics. They are are photographed above with one of their three (!) pink Cadillacs.

At Grandma Margaret’s celebration of life, my uncle invited the audience to offer more of her business ventures, many of which we had forgotten! My mother laughs remembering times when Grandma Margaret, while in retirement and no longer fully invested in any single product, would laugh as she reached from a selection of her promotional brochures before leaving the house and ask, laughingly, “Which one should I promote today?”

Yes, Grandma was most herself when she was sharing with others the hope that she had—whether it was in Christ or healthy chocolate. Yet more than anything, selling all of these products was merely a pretense for her. It was an excuse for her to satiate her passion for people and for relationships. For my grandmother, a stranger was just a friend she had not yet met. She was socially fearless, and had no qualms approaching and striking up a conversation with homeless person downtown Toronto (armed with a Tim Hortons cup of hot chocolate for them and a gospel tract, naturally), or Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker at a cocktail party.

She had a passion for people, for forming relationships, and for making other’s lives better. She was always eager to share her hope with anyone who would listen.

Of course, sometimes she irked people who were suspicious of her kindness. After all, who starts a conversation with a stranger at a coffee shop these days? There were, of course, others who simply didn’t want to be sold to—including members of her own family! I remember taking my grandmother for coffee around this time last year and being vexed that, the moment we sat down, she began to introduce herself to the middle-aged man at the table next to us. Within moments, she had drawn a gospel tract from her handbag to begin leading him through it. Grandma, I thought to myself, why can’t we just spend time together? Why must everything be a moment of salesmanship?  

Yet sharing her hope was embedded in her DNA, and though her acts of kindness and friendship were sometimes misplaced, misinterpreted, or rebuffed, far more often were they appreciated, reciprocated, and brought life and light to someone direly in need of it. In a world plagued by darkness, loneliness, and a lack of hope, the intentionality that my grandmother brought to every exchange with other persons, and her fervor for cultivating friendships, undoubtedly made the world a brighter, more connected place. 

It was a privilege to share a few of these ideas at her celebration of life this past weekend, which you may find here. Losing her leaves a gap felt keenly by our family, but my aspiration is to honor her by keeping her legacy alive and mining her rich life, brimming with wisdom and grace, for lessons in community and friendship that can be a model for, and inspiration to, us all. 

 

Grandma Margaret, July 13, 1936 – January 21, 2020.

The Surprising Lesson About American History Hidden in Emily Post’s Classic Etiquette

When Emily Post (née Price) was born on Oct. 27, 1872, it was into a life of privilege. She was raised among America’s elite, her sole formal education was at finishing school and she met her future husband, Edwin Main Post, at a seasonal New York ball. She tried her hand as a columnist and novelist, but it was decades after she divorced her husband for infidelity that she began the career that has made her name famous all these years later, finding nationwide success with her 1922 book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home.

As members of a “society of equals”—and without a God-ordained order of birth and rank—Americans have always suffered from a collective case of status anxiety. For this reason, they have often looked to manners manuals to guide them in interacting with others to succeed in business and in life. But that’s not all that etiquette books can offer. As the norms of a society always reflect the values it treasures, such books are also a window into the evolution of American values.

Most etiquette books popular in early American history were reprints or adaptations from English or French Sources—for example, widely read in the colonial era was Eleazar Moody’s School of Good Manners, originally based on a French courtesy book from the 16th century, first printed in the U.S. in 1715, and running through 33 editions into the mid-19th century. By the time Post’s Etiquette came along, however, the U.S. was undergoing many social and demographic changes. Mass urbanization meant people moved from close-knit communities and were thrust in close proximity with perfect strangers. Post’s work—alongside many other works of manners that proliferated in this era—helped Americans navigate the new world of anonymous commerce.
She wrote about manners from a position of affluence, though her philosophy of etiquette can be read as surprisingly egalitarian. Everyone who does not live alone in a cave is part of society, Post claimed, but becoming a part of “Best Society” requires education, cultivation and training. It is commonly thought, she asserted, that in Europe, Best Society is constituted by those of aristocracy of birth. In the U.S., by contrast, Best Society is made up of an aristocracy of wealth. But for Post, wealth or rank without cultivation was merely pretense; people who thought their wealth or status was sufficient to make them fit for Best Society were more accurately “classified as the court jesters of to-day,” she wrote in the first edition of Etiquette.
Post’s interest in an etiquette of equality during this time was noteworthy. Her Etiquette, published during the roaring 1920sspoke to both the old money and the new, upwardly mobile middle class alike. The resentment the former felt for the parvenus had intensified a few decades earlier during the Gilded Age, the era in which many new industrialists made their wealth. In order to distinguish themselves from the nouveau riche, the old elite established a series of elaborate and arbitrary norms in order to show explicitly who was “in” and who was “out.” One holdover from this era is the “no white after Labor Day” rule.
But, as historian John F. Kasson describes in his 1990 study Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth Century Urban America, the fluid cultural setting that social change produced made it difficult to impose a common code of public conduct. However, Post was up to the task.
She insisted that good breeding was far more than knowledge of, and compliance with, the rules: “Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it take to exclude those who are not of exulted birth; but it is an association of gentle folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognize it’s chosen members.” Kindness and good breeding were open to anyone who took time to study and practice their ways.
Many of her admonitions are still relevant today. Thank-you notes were a sign of good character, Post argued. She also recommended ignoring “elephants at large in the garden,” otherwise known as wealthy know-it-alls: “Why a man, because he has millions, should assume they confer omniscience in all branches of knowledge, it something which may be left to the psychologist to answer.”
Above all, however, one must avoid pretense! Hence her indictment of the tastelessness of what today might be called a “McMansion”: “But the ‘mansion’ with coarse lace… and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill-fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: ‘Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation.’”

Nearly a century later, Etiquette is in its 19th edition. Post’s offspring ensure her immortality by maintaining the Emily Post Institute, which offers training and commentary on modern manners, and periodically updating her book to reflect cultural and social changes in society. For example, gone are the chaperone protocols from the first edition, or the ashtray etiquette from the 12th. Instead, there are sections on managing social media and mobile devices when with others.

It may seem that we live in a post-shame era, where each day reveals new norms breached. Yet the truth is that norms never go away: they merely change. Indeed, as Kasson notes in his book, each society tends to think its own era is the most uncivil. He recommends taking a historical perspective to disabuse us of that notion, finding that human nature—with its capacity for benevolence and predisposition for rudeness—doesn’t change much. But this only underscores the enduring need of latter-day Emily Posts, such as Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) or Steven Petrow (“The Civilist”) who still help their readers navigate life with others.

In a moment where civility is under fire, this task—demystifying norms, and connecting them to deeper cultural values—can be a thankless one. But it’s not hard to guess what Emily Post might recommend if she were still around: a thank you note.

Alexandra O. Hudson is a writer based in Indianapolis, currently working on a book on American civility