Where the news is drying up — and where it’s not

Rural areas can be hit hardest, but many small-town papers persevere

Infographic
Infographic by Luna Anna Archey / Sources: U.S. News Deserts Report, UNC School of Media and Journalism by Penelope Muse Abernathy; U.S. Census Bureau {Idaho, Montana, Alaska, Oregon, Nevada, California, and Washington use 5-year population estimate; Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arizona use current population estimate); freevector maps.com

Media chatter about the state of journalism tends to go big — big city, that is: Seattle loses a major daily; a media conglomerate lays off hundreds of people in dozens of cities; deep cuts by the Denver Post’s hedge-fund owners spark a mutiny. But urban news woes often have a silver lining, with nonprofits and online-only outlets replacing at least some of what was lost.

What about the newspapers and weeklies that serve the large, sparsely populated expanses of the rural West? From their cramped small-town offices, these papers serve not only as sources of information, but also community pillars — local institutions. When they fold, often after publishing every week without fail for decades, they are rarely replaced by anything more substantial than a community bulletin board on Facebook.

The Expanding News Desert report — as its name makes clear — paints a grim picture. The urban news industry might be struggling, but it has folded altogether in rural counties across the West. Yet there are still reasons to celebrate, despite the report’s overall bleakness. Some of the nation’s most rural areas have held on to their newspapers, and even have more than one, giving them per capita coverage unmatched by much bigger metro areas.

In small towns across the West, dozens of tiny staffs — often consisting of little more than the publisher and her spouse — pound out stories about county and town meetings, elections, weddings, births and deaths, week after week, without paid vacations, health insurance and 401(k)s, often bombarded by angry mail and ever-rising production costs. Nevertheless, they persist, even as their urban compatriots give in.

ARIZONA newspapers have taken a big hit in the last decade or so, with overall circulation sliding from 1.7 million to just 700,000.

Arizona

Sometimes the death of a newspaper is celebrated as much as mourned. Witness the Tombstone Tumbleweed, which ceased publication in 2006 because owner Chris Simcox — founder of the Minutemen, a militant anti-immigration group, and now a convicted sex offender — was too busy harassing border-crossers and ginning up hatred to keep the paper running. Simcox, who purchased the paper in 2002, had transformed it into a mouthpiece for his “citizens border patrol” movement.

NEVADA: Circulation has remained steady at 1.3 million.

Nevada

If numbers alone are any indication, Nevada’s news industry is the West’s healthiest. It lost only four newspapers, two weeklies and two dailies between 2004 and 2018, and its only news desert lies in Esmeralda County, which has less than one person per square mile. Newspaper circulation, meanwhile, held steady; weeklies lost a whopping 180,000 readers, a bad sign for rural areas, but dailies offset most of that by gaining 140,000 readers.

UTAH’s most populous county, Salt Lake, has only four newspapers, serving an average of 567,825 readers each, the lowest papers-per-capita in the West that’s not considered a news desert.

Utah

Utah, with the nation’s youngest population, lost 17 weeklies to closure or mergers in the last 14 years, and total overall circulation dropped by a whopping 45 percent, one of the steepest declines anywhere. The news industry officially dried up in a cluster of counties in southern Utah, but The Insider continues to publish weekly community news about Wayne and Garfield counties.

COLORADO: The top 25 newspaper owners nationally own 37 of the state’s 121 papers.

Saguache County is large in area (3,170 square miles), small in population (6,100), and supports not one, but two newspapers. The Saguache Crescent is in its 137th year, and publisher, editor, reporter and pressman Dean Coombs continues to typeset the entire paper on a linotype, printing on an ancient letterpress from the cluttered offices on Saguache’s main drag.

Colorado

The weekly Silverton Standard & the Miner hasn’t missed an issue since the first edition of the La Plata Miner rolled off the press in 1875. The paper survived the death of the mining industry and the resulting population plunge. It was bought by an outside media conglomerate in 2006, but local ownership resumed when the San Juan County Historical Society took over in 2009. It continues to serve as the paper of record for the county’s 700 or so residents.

OREGON lost a total of 19 papers (17 weeklies and two dailies) and saw total circulation drop from 1.4 million to 790,000, or 41 percent.

Oregon has seen total newspaper readership plummet, but a number of online publications, mostly based in the Portland area, have cropped up to fill the void. The Record-Courier in Baker County (“From the Blue Mountains to Hells Canyon”) unexpectedly fell silent in 2016 due to the publisher’s failing health; it had been publishing since 1901.

WASHINGTON

Lost 11 weeklies and three dailies. Circulation dropped from 2.5 million to 1.6 million, or 37 percent.

CALIFORNIA

Lost a total of 73 newspapers, (31 dailies and 42 weeklies).

Circulation has plummeted from 13 million to 8 million.

WYOMING

Lost four papers, all weeklies. Circulation plunged 34 percent, from 240,000 to 150,000.

MONTANA

Lost three weeklies.

Circulation dropped from 400,000 to 310,000.

ALASKA

Lost nine weeklies. and circulation dropped by more than half from 300,000 to 140,000. No online news organizations are based in Alaska.

Originally posted on High Country News by Jonathan Thompson on Dec. 24, 2018. High Country News publishes independent journalism for people who care about the West.

1 COMMENT

  1. I live in Custer County…there are two local newspapers here. One syndicates some far right bs, but they are technically a legit, and locally informative newspaper. Their circulation is around 1k. So this data is not accurate.

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