High Country News mourns growth of 'news deserts,' or how the West was lost

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At the end of 2018, High Country News, a magazine centering on issues concerning the Mountain West, ran a full issue of pieces on the media scene in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific time zones. Large cities like Denver, Seattle and San Francisco will always have lots of investors, journalists, donors and audiences to support new media startups, it said, but not so much for the empty spaces in between.

One piece showed the “news deserts” of the West; that is whole chunks of states (think central Oregon and eastern Montana) with at best one newspaper. Forty-six counties in 11 western states now lack a local newspaper. My old haunt –- New Mexico -– lost two weeklies and three dailies and saw total news circulation drop 30 percent from 510,000 to 350,000.

Let’s state the obvious: Red ink in many zip codes has all but killed religion-news coverage. Now, we are seeing the growth of “deserts” in which there are no newspapers — period.

Look at the county map of the United States in the above photo. The red splotches outline 171 counties with no newspaper. The beige shows up the 1,449 counties with only one newspaper; most often a weekly.

Nevada’s news industry is probably the healthiest. Weekly newspapers lost 180,000 readers but dailies gained 140,000. All this came from “The Expanding News Desert,” a report from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. This has been covered elsewhere, but HCN put together a large packet on western media in particular. It said::

In Idaho, weeklies in neighboring counties provide some local coverage, but the hometown, county-seat paper has vanished from the fast-growing state’s rural areas. Meanwhile, many Western counties are at risk of losing their only remaining newspapers. The report identifies 185 such single-newspaper counties in the 13 Pacific and Rocky Mountain states — 34 of them in Montana alone…

Still, Denver and Seattle (and Tucson, to a lesser extent) have potentially high numbers of investors, donors, journalists and audiences to support new media startups. The West’s small towns and rural areas lack that advantage. Instead, these communities risk losing critical information when a newspaper closes or merges with a neighboring county’s publication. Few entrepreneurs or startup editors see their future in the Western news deserts.

So, let’s return to the religion angle. The moment a newspaper starts to lose steam (revenue, reporters), it begins to cut specialty beats. Religion is one of the first to go, which is what happened at the Seattle Times after it reassigned its former religion writer Janet Tu to the Microsoft beat. And once Melissa Binder left Oregonian’s religion beat to pursue other interests, she was not replaced. Despite how faith often flourishes quite well in rural areas, it’s at the back of the pack in terms of incisive religion pieces.

Note: The alternative Seattle news site Crosscut includes former St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Lilly Fowler who just came out with this story about a Catholic hospital in Bellingham that is being sued for refusing to pay for transgender surgery for the offspring of one of its employees.

HCN mentioned several publications as cutting edge in terms of western journalism. One was Denver’s alternative weekly Westword. Taking a look, I noticed it happened to have a religion story about Rastafarians. The reporting was OK; a short story with two sources about weed and worship:

The Colorado House of Rastafari, a nonprofit and members-only church opening in Denver on January 6, aims to change people’s experiences and perceptions about the role cannabis can play in their lives with live music, food and more. …

The main purpose of the CHOR is “to organize, centralize and come as one; a place for like-minded ones to come together and celebrate the culture of Rastafari,” says Sean Bookman, the group's president. "The creed of Rastafari is let the hungry be fed, the naked be clothed, the sick nourished, the aged protected and the infants cared for…

“Rastafari includes the way that we worship the Most High through Nyabinghi chanting, praying and psalms,” Bookman adds. “Nyabinghi is the spiritual tradition and practice of the Rastafari movement, stemming from the elements of the drums: the thunder, the lightning, the heartbeat of creation. And then we chant in a repetitive form where the whole congregation can rise up their voices and chant.

Nearly half of Westword’s October issue was devoted to marijuana ads, HCN noted, so the Rastas fit right in. But let’s not kid ourselves that Westword is as kind to certain other religious expressions, especially the region’s massive evangelical Protestant institutions. Last March, one of its headlines was: “Reader: Focus on the Family is the Worst Thing About Colorado.”

As for alternatives, there’s the Colorado Sun and the Colorado Independent. The Sun had this piece last August about the state’s first potential Catholic saint. So there’s a few things happening out there, but it’s been many moons since I’ve seen any groundbreaking religion reporting out of Colorado.

HCN also named the Nampa-based Idaho Press as an up-and-comer, but its search engine is so bad, I had to go to the site of the Pocatello-based Idaho State Journal to find a recent Press piece about the faith-healing controversy in the state. The Idaho Press also ran this piece in October about the resignation of the head of Protect Idaho Kids.

As I noted almost two years ago, the Oregonian has been following Idaho’s faith-healing groups more than have some of the local media.

Denver and Boise are large, growing cities. But what about religion coverage in smaller markets, ie Wyoming, which lost four weeklies and where circulation has dropped 34 percent from 240,000 to 150,000?

The lone specialist I know of is Tom Morton, who has covered religion in several states, and holds vigil at K2 Radio in Casper and covered the sex abuse scandal of retired Catholic Bishop Joseph Hart last summer.

There are some points of light. In 2012, Tracy Simmons started SpokaneFAVS, a religion news site in eastern Washington, which was definitely a religion news desert at the time. The site is still going and she just announced a church had deeded an empty building to SpokaneFAVS that will be turned into an interfaith center. How many such centers do you think there are in other regional centers?

Very few, I’m sure. The report says that more than 500 newspapers in rural communities have been closed or merged since 2004. This affects politics, voting patterns, schools, the public right to know; everything. Do read the whole thing, as it details the past 20 years of media collapse in the United States.

Then there’s Alaska, a state that, according to HCN, lost nine weeklies in recent years and where circulation for all news outlets has dropped from 300,000 to 140,000? Alaska has a small, but vibrant media culture but there are no religion reporters in the entire state. The Anchorage Daily News has apparently dropped its guest columnist who reviewed churches.

In the spring of 2015, I taught a religion reporting course at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks and my students found an amazing breadth of faith in town, including a storefront mosque, a Buddhist retreat center and a constellation of independent churches.

The stories are out there. It’s too bad that the reporters aren’t.

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