Dodging a ‘local news desert’

community conversations about local news continue Nov. 3-4

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/RN&R: More than 2,000 local newspapers, most of them weeklies, have vanished since 2004.

Many regions of the nation are turning into “local news deserts.”

That means the traditional sources of local news and information are drying up as community newspapers vanish and broadcast news operations shrink or also disappear into thin air. That leaves the circus of social media and the internet as news sources, dominated by national stories, local rumors, misinformation, conspiracy theories and intentionally-deceptive fake news.

Since 2004, more than 2,000 American newspapers published their final editions. Some, including the Reno News & Review — which ended its 28-year-old print edition in March 2020 when the pandemic shut down its advertisers and distribution points — survive as online-only publications. Many of the remaining print newspapers also are failing, as corporate owners and hedge funds gut their operations and doom local coverage.

What is being lost

The Atlantic chronicled what one community lost when the Gannett Corp. bled the 200-year-old Burlington (Iowa) Hawk Eye newspaper dry. In 2016, the paper, which was financially viable despite the pressures of the digital revolution, had about 100 people on its payroll; now there are a dozen. In another issue, the Atlantic profiled Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that is buying up newspapers, stripping them like stolen cars in a chop shop, then junking those outlets once every penny of profit is realized.

Alden owns the Denver Post, which employed more than 300 journalists in the 1990s. The Post’s newsroom was down to about 100 people in 2018 and now has about 50 journalists on its masthead. In the Atlantic piece, writer McKay Coppins explored the company’s “simple” business model: “gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible” out of the property until it either folds or is left “a desiccated husk of its former self.”

PHOTO/REYNOLDS SCHOOL: Larry Ryckman at the Nevada Museum of Art.

Larry Ryckman walked away from the Denver Post, where he was a senior editor, when Aldus’ cut that paper’s newsroom to the bone. In 2018 Ryckman and nine other Denver journalists launched the Colorado Sun, a digital publication that covers Colorado. The outlet now employs 28 people.

Rychman, who was the keynote speaker Oct. 19 at the 2021 Cole Campbell Dialogues for Democracy program sponsored by the Nevada News Alliance and the Reynolds School of Journalism at UNR, told an audience at the Nevada Museum of Art for the “Local News Matters” event that “journalism isn’t failing, the old business model is failing.” Adverting revenue has been siphoned off by the internet, he explained, but gathering local news remains an expensive undertaking. No sustainable new source of revenue has arisen to take the place of the display ads that kept the presses rolling (and profits coming) at print publications.

Citizen engagement evaporates

It’s not just a matter of journalists losing their jobs. When the local paper dies, Rychman said, a chain reaction happens: people become less connected to the community; fewer people run for local offices and voter turnout plummets; corruption often runs rampant; local government budgets often swell; and misinformation, spread digitally, runs amuck.

“Journalism isn’t failing; the old business model is failing… Who is left to cover the community when the journalists are gone? Who will cover the school boards and the local governments? Who is left to celebrate the good people of a community?”

— Larry Ryckman, speaking at “Local News Matters” at the Nevada Museum of Art.

In a news desert, Ryckman said, people will never know the stories that remain unreported. “It’s true that democracy dies in darkness,” he said, “and it thrives in sunlight.” Amidst the deaths of so many local papers, however, he said he sees hope in the rise of digital publications and the journalists who work for them.

Those local news and information outlets, if they can find ways to survive and prosper, can help keep citizens informed. “They ask the tough questions, verify facts and hold power accountable,” Ryckman said.

The conversation continues

The conversation around local news – and telling Nevada’s stories – continues Nov. 3 and 4, as part of the 2021 Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer events. RN&R editor Frank X. Mullen, a journalist and author, is this year’s recipient of the honor. The annual program was established in 2001 to inspire new generations of writers in honor of Nevada writer Robert Laxalt, who developed from news reporter to fiction and nonfiction author during his prolific career.

On Nov. 3 at noon, Nevada Humanities is hosting an online conversation with Mullen, moderated by former newspaper reporter and editor Chris Moran. Mullen will be joined by Alicia Barber, a public historian and author working at the intersections of public memory, historic landscapes, and community identity, and Anjeanette Damon, a Reno-based investigative reporter for ProPublica’s Southwest office. Registration for the Zoom is online.

Panelists will discuss the history and future of local journalism in Reno and how to tell the truth about this region in the face of the cacophony of online misinformation. They will talk about what makes news, their past “scoops,” and the perils of writing “the first draft of history.”

The public also is invited to attend Writing the Range: From the Donner Party Trail to the Front Page, an evening with journalist and author Frank X. Mullen at the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, at the University of Nevada, Reno, on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, at 7 pm, PDT. This event will be hosted by the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, in partnership with Nevada Humanities. It’s an in-person event and also being broadcast on Zoom. Free registration and Zoom link here.

The panelists for the Nov. 3 Zoom event:

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a public historian and writer specializing in Nevada’s cultural landscapes and built environment. Recent platforms for her research, analysis, and storytelling include the feature “Time & Place with Alicia Barber” for KUNR Public Radio, the C-SPAN Cities Tour, and her e-newsletter about Reno development, The Barber Brief. Author of Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City, she received the Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 2014.

Anjeanette Damon is a Reno-based investigative reporter for ProPublica’s Southwest office. Prior to joining ProPublica, she was the lead reporter and writer of Season 2 of The City Podcast, a longform investigative podcast by USA Today that was recognized as one of the 10 best podcasts in 2019 by The New Yorker. Her career in Nevada journalism spans two decades, with stints at the Reno Gazette Journal and the Las Vegas Sun.  

Chris Moran is a public relations specialist for the Nevada Division of Tourism (Travel Nevada). Moran is a former newspaper reporter and editor, and held various positions at the Reno Gazette-Journal in Reno, Nevada, before joining Travel Nevada in 2011. She also worked at the Yakima Herald-Republic in Yakima, Washington, and the Sacramento Bee Neighbors, a weekly insert to the Sacramento Bee.

Frank X. Mullen is a Reno-based journalist, author, historian, and Chautauqua scholar. He is an alumnus of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and has been a newspaperman for 41 years, including 25 years as an investigative reporter at the Reno Gazette-Journal. He is the author of The Donner Party Chronicles, a history of the Donner Party, published in 1997 by Halcyon Press at Nevada Humanities. Mullen has been a Chautauqua performer since 1998. His historical characters include Babe Ruth, Henry VIII,  Albert Einstein and several Nevada luminaries.

Mullen, now editor of the Reno News & Review, has appeared in documentaries on the History Channel, PBS, BBC, Discovery and other networks. He was an adjunct instructor of journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and continues to teach classes at Truckee Meadows Community College. In 2021, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame. He is the 2021 Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer

This Nov. 3 Zoom program is produced by Nevada Humanities in partnership with the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, as part of the 2021 Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer celebratory events. The program has the generous support from the John Ben Snow Memorial Trust, Sundance Books and Music, and community contributors.

Laxalt, considered by many to be Nevada’s finest writer, founded the University of Nevada Press and wrote 17 books, four of which were entered for the Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote for National Geographic and served as a professor in the Reynolds School for 18 years, teaching magazine writing and literary journalism.

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