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

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

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.

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More on 'bathroom wars': Crux quotes several sides and lets you decide

More on 'bathroom wars': Crux quotes several sides and lets you decide

Crux, you had me at "varied Catholic responses."

Just about every transgender rights article I've ever read has drawn caricatures: a hidebound, monolithic bureaucracy against earnest activists who bravely state their rights. Yesterday's Crux story is different: It cites intelligent, articulate viewpoints on more than one side.

You can see the difference right in the lede:

A controversy over transgender rights at schools and public facilities in the United States that’s been dubbed the "bathroom wars" has drawn varied Catholic responses, with bishops expressing concern over a trio of disputed government actions at the local, state and federal level, and a Catholic gay rights group supporting increased access for transgender people.

No other story I've reviewed on this controversy has carried Catholic Church views on the so-called bathroom wars. Nearly all the stories major in politician quotes; most quote liberal activists; some quote their conservative opponents;  one or two have asked a pastor or two. The largest division of Christianity, the Catholic Church, is always ignored. Except for Crux yesterday.

The article focuses on North Carolina, the battleground of laws, lawsuits and boycotts. Crux explains Charlotte's ordinance that allowed people to use restrooms and locker rooms for the gender with which they identify. Crux also cites HB2, the state law that overturned the ordinance and prevented any other cities from passing similar measures.

And the 1,500-word indepth has more than sound bites. It gives lots of space to a statement by both of North Carolina's bishops, Michael F. Burbidge of Raleigh Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte:

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Fine Sports Illustrated salute to Dean Smith, yet haunted by one ghostly error

Fine Sports Illustrated salute to Dean Smith, yet haunted by one ghostly error

What we need here is a sports metaphor that will help me make a larger point about an amazing feature story that ran recently in Sports Illustrated, a tribute to the late, great University of North Carolina hoops coach Dean Smith.

This long and detailed piece story ran under the headline, "Hail and Farewell." The subhead provided the sad context: "Five years ago, amid his sad decline, the coach's former players and assistants found a way to say to him what he had always told them: Thank you."

I would love to link to this feature and share some of the finer points in it, in large part because both of my parents experienced dementia, of one form or another, in the last years of their lives. This SI story does a very sensitive job of dealing with the emotions involved in relating to loved ones caught in that bittersweet stage of life.

I would like to link to the piece, but I can't -- because it is behind a firewall, as is often the case with the best SI material (as opposed to swimsuit issue outtakes). I hope to add such a link in the future.

Anyway, my goal here is to praise this article, while also noting a really strange error at the end, during the crucial final passage. What I need here is a metaphor that links sports and religion to help readers understand the nature of this strange error.

Let's try this one, which uses a sports reference in a religion story, as opposed to this SI piece in which there is a timely religion reference in a sports story.

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