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Where Everything Grows

As the ecosystem of news changes, will journalists adapt fast enough?

Blooms can still be found in the West’s news desert.

Fifteen years ago, NewTowncarShare News sent its then-field editor, Ray Ring, out to investigate how well the West’s local media were covering the region. Back then, the storms that have since buffeted the nation’s media had yet to fully hit, but the warning clouds were on the horizon, and Ring, who had previously worked as a staff reporter on two daily newspapers, came back with some alarming news. “It’s often said that we’re in some golden Information Age,” he wrote, “with more news available than ever before, thanks to cable TV, the Internet, specialty magazines and other burgeoning news sources. But the foundation of the news-gathering system, the daily papers, is shaky.”

Today, the foundations are not just shaky; they are crumbling. More and more communities are finding themselves without a daily newspaper, forced to rely on a single weekly or without any paper at all. These are the West’s “news deserts,” where local reporting is often sparse, inconsistent or completely nonexistent.

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 year, found that the 11 Western states, plus Alaska and Hawaii, lost 48 dailies and 157 weeklies between 2004 and 2018. Forty-six counties in the region now lack a local newspaper. In some cases, the report notes, only “ghost papers” remain, mere shadows of their former selves. If this trend continues, observers ask, how will local journalism survive?

 

Even long-established legacy media are struggling, decimated by staff cuts imposed by corporate owners and private-equity firms in response to plummeting readership, declining ad revenue and the relentless push to maximize profits for owners and investors. In city after city, reporters struggle to meet deadlines with less time, fewer resources and increasing demands to file stories round-the-clock for social media and online editions. While good, sometimes outstanding work is still being done even at the hardest-hit newspapers, the bread-and-butter coverage of government, politics and public issues is already suffering, becoming thinner almost everywhere.

Deprived of the comprehensive local coverage that daily papers once provided, citizens are less informed and increasingly ill-equipped to hold their elected officials accountable. This kind of watchdog journalism was not common in many small towns and mid-sized cities, but the metro dailies once set the agenda for radio and television newsrooms, often leading the way in local coverage. Today, that is becoming increasingly rare.

“As newspapers vanish and readers drop off, an increasing number of Americans are living without a reliable and comprehensive source of local news,” the University of North Carolina report warns. The report defines a news desert as “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.” According to the UNC analysis, the Pacific and Mountain states now have 46 news deserts, a figure that includes 13 sparsely populated boroughs or census units in Alaska, which does not have counties. “Our sense of community and our trust in democracy at all levels suffer when journalism is lost or diminished,” wrote Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics at UNC, who oversaw the research for the 104-page report and its accompanying website.

In the West, coverage is indeed shrinking. Wyoming and Arizona still have a newspaper in every county, but Colorado has four counties without newspapers, while Idaho has seven. 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.

The closure of three major metro dailies in the West — Denver, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain News, Washington’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Arizona’s Tucson Citizen — made headlines in 2009. (Though The Post-Intelligencer continues as an online-only publication, it does so with a skeleton crew, following layoffs earlier this year, making it what you might call the online ghost of the ghost of a newspaper.) 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.  

The disappearance of traditional media has been somewhat buffered by the rise of digital-only news sites, unencumbered by the fixed costs of legacy media organizations and therefore less threatened by faltering revenue streams. “A range of entrepreneurs — from journalists at televisions stations to founders of digital sites — are experimenting with new business models and new ways of providing local news to hundreds of communities that have lost their local newspapers,” Abernathy wrote. “Most ventures, however, are clustered around major metro areas.” In contrast to the news deserts of the rural West, these media oases are reinventing journalism with a distinctive local flavor.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” said Greg Hanscom, the former executive editor of Crosscut, an online news site that partners with Seattle’s public TV station, and a former editor of HCN. “Hundreds of new models for journalism have sprung up.”

Whether these startups will thrive, just get by or wither away remains an open question. Without them, however, the picture would be even grimmer. These outlets — old and new — have had to develop inventive survival strategies to bloom in today’s harsh media landscape. Here, we present four of those strategies.

Les Zaitz, longtime investigative reporter for The Oregonian, retired from his daily newspaper job, then went on to found an online news site, Salem Reporter. Here, he leads a training session for journalists on source development.
Timothy J. Gonzalez for NewTowncarShare News

Dig deep, but dig fast

Les Zaitz thought he was done with daily journalism in 2016, when he retired from The Oregonian, where he’d been an award-winning investigative reporter. At the time, Zaitz, a Pulitzer finalist who reported huge stories for Oregon’s largest newspaper, from the 1980 eruption to Mount St. Helens to more recent blockbusters on the emergence of Mexican drug cartels, told readers he was stepping away from the job to edit two family-owned weeklies from a remote ranch in eastern Oregon.

He took over the Malheur Enterprise and reinvigorated the 109-year-old weekly with a commitment to local news, including the kind of hard-hitting reports rarely seen in small-town papers.  But Zaitz’s time in eastern Oregon’s wide-open spaces turned out to be brief. In September, he launched an online news site, Salem Reporter, in Oregon’s capital. “I didn’t need another project, especially one 300 miles from my ranch,” Zaitz told me recently. Then a prominent Salem businessman invited him to provide a new voice in the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s population center. Now, Zaitz is overseeing three reporters and a statehouse bureau, emphasizing the kinds of enterprise stories he once reported on for the Oregonian.  

Publishing online enabled the Reporter to quickly find a foothold in Salem’s media market at a time when The Statesman Journal, Salem’s daily, has cut staff and scaled back coverage. Without the up-front costs of a traditional newspaper, The Reporter can offer $10-a-month subscriptions, enabling it to fill in the news gaps left by The Journal, which is owned by the Gannett Company, a publicly traded national corporation with total assets last year of over $2.5 billion.

“A startup is not necessarily encumbered by the costs of legacy publications, such as building and printing costs,” said Damian Radcliffe, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene, 66 miles from Salem. An online news site can be “agile in beats to cover and topics to explore” without the obligations of the paper of record, Radcliffe said.

Zaitz said he wants the Reporter to provide a blend of breaking news and enterprise stories. His three reporters — all new to Salem but with experience at Western newspapers — cover education, business, local government and state politics. “That’s the beauty of starting from scratch,” Zaitz said. “There’s no script for what we’re covering and how.”

The Reporter’s startup money came from a Salem real estate developer, Larry Tokarski, who reached out to Zaitz in 2017. “He asked me, ‘Why don’t you come back to Salem? We’re unhappy with the lack of local news.’ ” Zaitz accepted and began planning the Reporter’s online launch, which came on Sept. 17. “Readers have responded strongly to our brand of local journalism with encouragement, ‘Attaboys,’ and story tips,” Zaitz said. He is surprised by how many readers commit to the $100 annual subscription fee, rather than the $10 monthly charge. Zaitz declined to disclose the number of subscribers. However, he said, “since I planned on no paid subscribers for six months, we’re way ahead.”  

A week after the Reporter’s debut, it joined a 4-year-old state capital bureau founded by two other Oregon companies, EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group. EO Media owns 11 newspapers, including The Capital Press, a regional agricultural weekly, and the East Oregonian in Pendleton. Pamplin owns the twice-weekly Portland Tribune and 24 other, mostly suburban, newspapers. Zaitz became the bureau chief. “The crew has already scored solid beats,” he said, citing stories about the Oregon secretary of State’s health issues and the two $1 million campaign contributions a candidate for governor received.

Steve Bagwell, managing editor of the Yamhill Valley News-Register in nearby McMinnville, has been closely watching. “My overall impression is that The Reporter is a much richer source of serious news content you can’t get elsewhere,” said Bagwell, an editor for The Statesman Journal in the 1980s.  “Virtually all stories explore a serious news issue, and many of them appear to be exclusive.” The Statesman Journal, the established daily paper, relies instead on a much broader range of material, Bagwell said, including sports and feature content, and has made no noticeable changes in coverage in response to its new competition. Zaitz said, “I could be imagining this, but the local daily appears much quicker on the trigger on breaking news. Now, it feels more like a true horse race to see who can get there first.”

Larry Ryckman, who started The Colorado Sun along with other former Denver Post reporters and editors, outside the downtown Denver building where he once worked, which is next door to The Sun's office.
Luna Anna Archey/ NewTowncarShare News

Break free, start fresh

At nearly the same time The Reporter went live in Salem, The Colorado Sun debuted in Denver. The Sun, staffed by former reporters and editors of The Denver Post, joins a much more crowded media mix in Colorado’s capital city. The emergence the Sun was closely followed, because it began with a startup grant from the Civil Media Company, which describes itself as “the decentralized marketplace for sustainable journalism.” Civil’s public offering of cryptocurrency (called tokens) to support independent news ventures fell short of expectations in late October, but the company’s marketing director, Matt Coolidge, said that won’t affect funding for The Sun or a dozen other journalistic ventures supported by Civil.(None of the others are in the West.) The Sun is currently an LLC, but its staff is pursuing a Public Benefit Corp (B-Corp) status. Civil provided a startup grant to The Sun but is not involved in its operations. “We’re not looking for any kind of profit from the Sun,” Coolidge said. “These are pure grants.”

The Sun must find its niche in a crowded marketplace, which includes The Post’s print and online editions, the established alternative weekly, Westword (read our profile of the editor here); newer digital start-ups like The Colorado Independent and The Denverite, and specialty websites like Chalkbeat Colorado, which covers education, and The Athletic, which focuses on sports. Is there even room in the mix for another online publication? Sun Editor Larry Ryckman thinks so. “We decided early on that we are not trying to recreate The Denver Post,” said Ryckman, who leads a staff of 10 reporters and editors who left the Post this year. “The Sun aims to do deep, meaningful stories that others can’t do, or can’t do as much of because of staff cuts, or won’t do. Our focus is bringing understanding to people, places and politics of Colorado.”

University of Colorado journalism professor Pat Ferrucci says The Sun has so far succeeded in that goal. When a new outlet is started by people who formerly worked at legacy media organizations, they tend to imitate the coverage of their previous organization, he said. “From my reading of the first month of The Sun, they’re covering things a bit differently,” at greater length and with more context, Ferrucci said. For example, a feature about how Colorado’s ski resorts make snow during drought years connected an environmental issue to the state’s economy.

Earlier this year, the Post vacated the building and relocated to its printing plant in the suburbs. Below right, Denver Post Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo, center, talks with journalists in the Post’s new office.
Luna Anna Archey/ NewTowncarShare News

Meanwhile, Denver Post Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo says that while her paper has weathered some tough years, it continues to support one of Colorado’s largest news operations,  and the paper is now filling vacant positions. “We are bringing in people who wanted to be at The Post and are excited to work at a paper of this size,” she said.

The Post continues to excel in its coverage of Colorado politics, energy issues, housing and real estate and recreation, she said. Critical coverage of its owner, a hedge-fund company called Alden Capital, and the high-profile resignation of the paper’s editorial-page editor, led to a perception that The Post was dying. “We are anything but,” Colacioppo said. “Being able to reimagine who we were brought new life to the place.” The paper remains committed to covering breaking news and major enterprise stories, she said.

Corey Hutchins, journalist in residence at Colorado College, said that the new hires at the Post, especially those covering politics, led to better coverage of the 2018 election. “It’s kind of a bizarre twist to the new startup story,” said Hutchins, who writes about media issues for Columbia Journalism Review and The Colorado Independent. “In a weird way, the hedge fund that owns the Post and is responsible for all this bloodletting inadvertently created more political reporting in Colorado.”

Alden Capital, which operates newspapers through its Digital First Media company, has faced deep criticism, including vocal protests from former employees, for the deep cuts it has made to newsrooms. The UNC report, in a chapter titled “The Enduring Legacy of Our New Media Barons,” documented Digital First’s path of acquisitions, mergers, closures and cost-cutting. At last count, the company owns 158 newspapers in 12 states — down from 208 papers just four years earlier. California has 76 Digital First papers (23 dailies and 53 weeklies), the most of any state, while Colorado has eight dailies and eight weeklies. Company-wide circulation fell by one-third, from 4.6 million to 3.2 million, in that same period, according to the UNC report, as readers let subscriptions lapse or simply lost interest in the slimmed-down product.

Ryckman says the Colorado Sun is eager to promote good local journalism “wherever we find it,” even at his former employer, the Denver Post.  “News is no longer a zero-sum game,” he explained. “Complement is the new compete.”

Lynda Mapes, longtime environmental reporter for the Seattle Times, on a NOAA vessel with researchers who are studying southern resident killer whales in Central Puget Sound, November 2018.
Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times, NOAA permit number 21348

Stay true to your roots — and your beats

This summer, Lynda Mapes’ beat took her from Puget Sound to the Palouse hills of eastern Washington. These two locations are linked by chinook salmon, essential food for the orcas of the Salish Sea. The chinook’s spawning grounds are hundreds of miles inland, on tributaries of the Columbia and Snake rivers, so the fate of the salmon plays into a larger regional debate over agriculture, barge traffic on the rivers and hydroelectric power generation.

An environmental reporter for The Seattle Times since 1997, Mapes has considerable expertise about the region’s endangered species and a rich network of sources to draw from.  Since July, her coverage has focused on the plight of the southern resident family of orcas, iconic marine mammals that symbolize Seattle’s special relationship to the Pacific Ocean.

So when Orca J35 — locally known as “Tahlequah” — carried her dead calf on her head for 17 days before rejoining her pod, Mapes was on the scene almost from the beginning, reporting from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island and racing to file stories across choppy waters, on small boats and ferries—even an inflatable Zodiac raft. At times, she had to text her copy from a cellphone.  (“I’m lucky; I don’t get seasick,” Mapes told me.)

Mapes was uniquely qualified to report on this story, says Don Shelton, The Times’ executive editor. “Her coverage of the mother orca resonated locally, regionally and worldwide because of the depth of her knowledge and her hard work.”

The enormous public interest in J35 and her calf kept Mapes on the story for weeks. Shelton said the orcas captivated readers around the world. From July 24 to Aug. 7, The Times’ coverage drew 3.32 million page views, 1,273 story comments and 1.31 million interactions on Facebook.

But the work of a beat reporter is never done, and the death of a 3-year-old orca, J50, in mid-September — the third casualty in four months, renewed questions about the future of the Salish Sea’s orca population, which has dropped to 74 individuals. To help readers better understand the decline, Mapes traveled to Garfield County in southeastern Washington. There, she examined the arguments for and against removing four dams on the lower Snake River, where salmon and steelhead populations — a major source of food for orcas — have fallen dramatically.  

Interviewing representatives of farm groups, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Nez Perce Tribe, Mapes provided a comprehensive yet concise overview of the dams versus salmon debate. Climate change has contributed to declining salmon populations, she wrote, but the scientific consensus increasingly supports removing the dams.

Rocky Barker, an HCN contributor who recently retired after 22 years as an environmental reporter for The Idaho Statesman in Boise, closely follows Mapes’ reporting. “The reason so many people care about the orcas is because of her amazing work,” he said. “She is a great storyteller, knows her subject so well and puts in details that other people miss.” Earlier this year, Barker and Mapes traveled around the Northwest together, giving programs titled “Tale of Two Rivers.” Mapes described the removal of a dam on the Elwha River in western Washington, while Barker assessed the prospects for breaching the Snake River dams.

That kind of in-depth knowledge and beat reporting makes a difference. Rachel Clark, a writer and educator in Moscow, Idaho, praised Mapes’ commitment to the orca story. “Because of her instrumental role at a large regional newspaper, she is able to reach the audiences necessary to generate the public outcry we need to save this highly endangered populations of whales — and the ecosystem they, and we, depend on.”

And that kind of knowledge is hard-earned. Mapes spent five years as the Olympia correspondent for The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review before moving to The Times to cover science, the environment and tribal nations. The key to her success? “Being there, wherever ‘there’ is,” she said. “It is the only way to ever really know anything. Otherwise, I feel like I am listening through a wall.”

Mapes found the orca story particularly challenging. She spent hours on boats with whale-watching scientists, who had to be “the right kind of scientists for whom their work required getting close to the whales.” Tahlequah’s saga was emotionally and physically draining, too, she said. “All those stories were like that — chasing daylight and deadlines and cell service.”

Beat reporting is fundamental to legacy media like The Seattle Times, which was founded in 1891 and is now the dominant newspaper in the Northwest, with a daily circulation of about 200,000 and a Sunday circulation of 270,000. It has been controlled since 1896 by the Blethen family, which owns 50.5 percent of the company’s stock. Mapes praised the family’s commitment to independent journalism. “It sounds corny, but local ownership is our secret sauce,” Mapes said.  

Embrace healthy competition

Where the sagebrush of the Snake River Plain meets the foothills of the central Idaho mountains, a 21st century boomtown is the scene of the West’s latest, and possibly last, showdown between two printed daily newspapers.   

Downtown Boise after the Idaho Press, from nearby Nampa, expanded into Boise and purchased the Boise Weekly.
Justin Barnes/ University of Idaho
Unlike similar-sized cities, which have seen papers close, merge or slash news staffs, Idaho’s capital city, Boise, is enjoying a journalism revival. The Idaho Press, based 21 miles away, in Nampa, has claimed a beachhead in Boise, challenging the long-dominant Idaho Statesman on its home turf.

“Only a handful of towns have competing dailies, and we’re lucky to be one of them,” says Seth Ashley, an associate professor of communication at Boise State University. Since June, several thousand Boise residents have snapped up $10-per-month subscriptions for home delivery of the Idaho Press.

Boise and Nampa are part of the Treasure Valley, where nearly 40 percent of Idaho’s 1.68 million people live, in two counties along Interstate 84. Boise was tagged by Forbes in early 2018 as the fastest-growing city in the United States, its growth driven in part by tech workers fleeing high housing prices elsewhere in the West.

The newspaper rivalry pits two national media chains against each other. California-based McClatchy acquired The Statesman in 2006 when it bought Knight-Ridder’s 32 papers. The Seattle-based Pioneer News Group sold what was then the Idaho Press-Tribune and several other Idaho papers to the Adams Publishing Group of Minneapolis in 2017. (The West’s only other similar two-newspaper city is Salt Lake, where the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News share advertising, production and circulation staffs under one of the last joint-operating agreements in the country.)

A collaborative relationship between The Statesman (founded in 1864) and Idaho Press-Tribune (whose history goes back to 1883) soured within a few months of The Press-Tribune’s ownership change. Now, The Press, renamed in mid-summer as part of its planned expansion into Boise, aggressively promotes its six-day-per-week print edition with the slogan, “Local news worth holding.”  The seven-day-a-week Statesman emphasizes breaking news online while reserving its print edition for longer features and enterprise stories. So far, The Statesman enjoys a commanding lead in circulation, reporting 32,733 subscribers in September, compared to The Press’ 18,064. But The Press’ latest report showed it added nearly 3,000 more subscribers over the 12-month average.

Economic necessity drives each paper’s strategy. After Adams bought The Press-Tribune, McClatchy asked the Nampa paper to lower the charge for printing the Statesman. When Adams refused, the Statesman found a new printer — the Times-News of Twin Falls, Idaho, owned by another chain, Lee Enterprises.

Printing in Twin Falls, 132 miles away, forced The Statesman to move up its deadlines. Any story coming in after 7:30 p.m. now must wait until the next print cycle. In sports-crazy Boise, where the Boise State Broncos finished their 2018 regular season with a 10-3 record, some readers complained that the outcome of late-night Saturday football games didn’t appear in print until Monday. That may not have made a difference to the fans who watched the games live or followed online, but it likely didn’t help print readership.

“People are agnostic to the way they get their news and information,” says The Statesman’s publisher, Rebecca Poynter, downplaying concerns about the earlier deadlines. “Where it’s printed doesn’t have any impact on the product.”

Meanwhile, losing The Statesman contract left The Press-Tribune with surplus press capacity. Press-Tribune President and Publisher Matt Davison said his division president asked: “How are you going to make up the revenue?” That led to the decision to open a Boise bureau and hire Betsy Russell, one of the state’s leading political reporters, to head it. “Betsy’s hiring turned heads and made people realize that Adams was serious about covering Boise in a way they hadn’t before,” said Don Day, who edits BoiseDev, a website that covers business in the city. (Day licenses some BoiseDev content to the Idaho Press.)

Russell, who had served as a one-person Boise bureau for Spokane’s Spokesman-Review since 1995, now supervises three reporters covering city government, county government and courts. “They’re tearing it up,” Russell says of her colleagues. “How many journalists can say they are part of a growing operation that’s adding print subscribers every day?”

Three months after hiring Russell, The Press bought the 26-year-old Boise Weekly, which has a prime downtown Boise location. The Weekly is now inserted into the Thursday edition of The Press. So far, The Weekly has kept an independent editorial staff, concentrating on arts and culture, while The Press focuses on government, politics and public issues.

Both publications see the competition as beneficial. “I love being in a vibrant media community — it keeps all of us on our toes,” said Poynter, who arrived in Boise in April. Davison, at the helm of The Press since 2010, agrees. “Provide a great local news product and you will earn readers,” he said. “Boise has welcomed us with open arms.”

Vicki Rubin reads the final edition of the Rocky Mountain News in a Denver coffeeshop Feb. 27, 2009. The competing daily, The Denver Post, continues to publish, but has had major staff cuts.
Matthew Staver/ Bloomberg via Getty Images

Despair not

Which of these strategies will work best, or whether new models will appear and survive the encroaching desert, remains to be seen. But UNC’s Abernathy is encouraged by the digital startups providing local news, with more than 500 identified in her team’s report. Still, she notes that 90 percent of those are in metropolitan areas, where there are multiple news outlets to choose from — not in the rural areas, where local reporters are few and far between.  It’s not clear how many of the new digital startups and nonprofit news outlets are sustainable, particularly if they depend on subscriptions, donations, business sponsorships and foundation grants.

In Arizona, where the Gannett-owned Tucson Citizen was a casualty of the recession, the online Tucson Sentinel is approaching its ninth anniversary.  Editor and publisher Dylan Smith, who worked at the Citizen until May 16, 2009, the day it stopped printing, said it hasn’t been easy. “Unlike the common perception of nonprofit news sites, we haven’t got huge foundation support,” he said. What the Sentinel has is support from readers, local donors and small businesses — “people who understand and appreciate good local journalism.”

Smith is also a founder and board chair of LION, Local Independent Online News, whose annual conference in Chicago this fall attracted several hundred current and aspiring news entrepreneurs. Smith was heartened by the success stories he heard there.  “One attendee was struck by how this conference is positive, with people looking to the future, while other industry conferences are stuck in a doom-and-gloom, how-do-we-survive mode.” Smith doesn’t deny the challenges facing the media today. But the payoff, he believes, is worth it.  Journalists thrive on the sense of a job well done in the face of obstacles. As Smith puts it: “We’ve managed to punch above our weight, doing excellent reporting — kicking ass and taking names.”

Note: This article has been updated to correct the Colorado Sun’s current status. The venture is an LLC, not a nonprofit organization.

Kenton Bird spent 15 years as a newspaper reporter and editor. He teaches journalism at the University of Idaho and is a former director of UI’s School of Journalism and Mass Media.

This story was funded with reader donations to the NewTowncarShare News Research Fund.