How do you relate to your community? If you own a business these days chances are you or one of your people or your marketing firm’s focus group has been asking that question. It’s been a common sense element of any business since the beginning of commerce, and now it’s fashionable thanks to the formation of instant communities through the so-called “social media.”

Whether or not Internet-enabled platforms such as Twitter and Facebook really constitute some form of media, and whether or not they are all that “social,” the community question is still a damn good question. To ask it another way: Is your business making a positive difference in the market it serves?

I don’t have any “people” to answer that question for me. And I don’t have the budget for a marketing firm or a focus group. But I did have a chance to set up a table at the annual Communiversity street fair in downtown Princeton last Saturday. The sponsors estimated that 40,000 people clogged Nassau Street, Witherspoon Street, and Princeton University’s front campus to enjoy the entertainment at four stages, sample the wares from food vendors, and schmooze with community groups and businesses. Even if that crowd estimate was a little high, it was still an amazing cross-section of our community.

So I spent five hours on my feet, reaching out to hundreds of people as they strolled by, and getting a reading on, well, the readers. Here’s what I learned.

People are still reading. A couple, appearing to be of retirement age, said hello, and we began to chat about the feature length articles that still grace our editorial pages. I guessed that the longest one we ever produced was a 10,000-word excerpt of Robin Herman’s book on the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, published in the early 1990s.

The visitors probably didn’t remember that, I said. Yes, they did. In fact, the man I was chatting with was Ron Davidson, the director of the lab from 1991 to 1996.

In this town, I was reminded on several occasions during the afternoon that readers are also newsmakers. Holly Bull stopped by. She’s the director of the Center for Interim Programs on Nassau Street and was featured in our paper on March 24, 2010.

Marcia and Bruce Willsie introduced themselves. The next day, as I edited this week’s cover story, I came across Marcia’s name — she is one of the cooking instructors featured in Pat Tanner’s article.

Then a man named David Holland introduced himself. He has started a company that sells engraved class rings at a much lower price than those produced by established manufacturers. He is also featured in this issue, in an article by Scott Morgan.

People count on U.S. 1 for event listings. This was hammered home by many people who stopped by to visit. The most memorable was a couple who told us they paid close attention to the listings in all the area newspapers, and they knew which papers were keeping up and which ones were slacking off. We got good grades.

Why the special interest? Their son is Ron Kraemer, the musician, now based in Florida. His next Princeton gig will be Saturday, October 22, at Salt Creek Grille in Princeton Forrestal Village. I hope we don’t miss that listing.

Small talk is important. A woman approached the U.S. 1 table and wondered what we were all about. I offered the elevator speech — how we provide useful information for people in business and for people trying to have a life beyond work. She said she comes to Princeton often to visit her son, a Princeton student.

What’s he doing at Princeton, I asked. Working on the student newspaper, she responded. With that I produced a copy of our 25th anniversary issue and pointed out the sections mentioning my involvement with the Prince. I made a note to look for the byline: Randolph Brown.

The press-the-flesh opportunity was not lost on several Princeton-based examples of the online, all-digital media. Greta Cuyler, editor of the newest online entity in town, Princeton Patch, stopped by to introduce herself.

A few minutes later Donna Liu, the driving force behind AllPrinceton.com, walked by. More small talk ensued, which led to an introduction to the founder of Top Admissions LLC, Harini Subrahmanyam. I wasn’t familiar with her company and wondered where she was based. The answer: 195 Nassau, in the heart of our circulation area. But our deliverer had not yet found the college admission counselor, and so we had no record of it. I made a note to add it to our list.

Delivery of the paper is still important. I was amazed at how many people, when asked if they ever read the paper, not only answered yes but also had a story to relate about where they picked the paper up. People get it at their offices, of course, but also at the fitness center and at the supermarket (especially Wegman’s).

One woman told me — in a not very happy tone — that she drove into Princeton or Plainsboro every week to pick up a copy. She was not happy because she used to be able to walk from her home on Sayre Drive in Princeton Landing to a cluster of news boxes near the on-ramp to Route 1 and pick up a copy. But our box and the others had been removed, she noted.

Correct. And that happened at least six years ago. I promised to deliver a new box to a more suitable location at Princeton Landing, near the community center there.

Another casual passerby — commercial real estate broker Stephen Segal — said he and his wife picked up the paper at various supermarkets, diners, and medical offices throughout the region. But he wondered why we didn’t leave some copies at his office complex at Waterfront Park in Trenton.

Good point. The next day I was driving around downtown Trenton and discovering that most of our newsboxes there are in dire need of replacement. Building and maintaining community relations — an ongoing process.

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