Imagine, for a moment, that you live in a rural Colorado community of, say, 1,000 people. Then imagine a major news event happening in your town. You know, like a dangerous pandemic, invisible and deadly, that threatens your neighbors, your friends, your family.
Where do you go for the latest information on health guidelines, on actual numbers of those affected in your small town, on ways you can help local people who are out of work and unable to feed their families?
If you’re lucky, you can turn to your community newspaper, usually a weekly, for those hyper-local details. But if you are living in a rural area that can be classified as a “news desert,” you are out of luck.
A news desert allows gossip and unverified information to flourish, in the absence of solid, fact-based reporting. A news desert is full of hot air, generated by rumors on social media, with no oasis of factual reporting to quench our thirst for truth.
I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to live in a small rural town in Colorado. I reside in Norwood, in San Miguel County, which also includes the larger resort town of Telluride.
We have a weekly paper, The Norwood Post, which is a poor cousin to its parent publication, The Telluride Daily Planet. The Post’s editor does all the work herself – from covering local government and politics to school functions. For this relentless task, she is paid a pittance. There is no way she could muster the time and energy to dig deeper into the local issues of the day.
So, in this time of the pandemic, we Norwoodians rely on news about the county, as a whole, without specific information about how our town is impacted.
The result: a lot of the debate about how to best deal with COVID can be found on social media, where bias triumphs over fact. The diminution and, in too many places, the death of local newspapers is leaving a dangerous vacuum at the most critical time, a time when the very meaning of fact and evidence is undergoing what the RAND Corp. calls “truth decay.”
The healthiest, most vibrant local papers encourage readers to debate issues plaguing their communities (these days, an actual plague) in letters to the editor. And courageous editors, who know something about the “too close for comfort” challenge of reporting on one’s neighbors, may take a bold stand in an editorial or a column.
This letter to the editor appeared recently in the Ouray County Plaindealer, a weekly that serves as a model of excellence, week after week.
Dear Editor: Now that the hospitals are nearly full, can we agree that everyone needs to be masked in public places? Just last week I was in the post office. There was a post office employee in the lobby with their mask not covering the nose, and the person opening the box near mine was mask-less.
And this is an excerpt from a column in the Telluride Daily Planet, by a reporter who was appalled at the lax conditions when she shopped in nearby Montrose:
Where, I wondered, were the City Market employees enforcing the statewide mask ordinance? How has the fact we’re living through a public health crisis eluded a good 20-25% of the mask-less shoppers?
For folks living in, say, Denver or Boulder, these opinions might not seem terribly daring or courageous. But in a small town, taking an editorial stand or doing an investigative piece on why local businesses are reluctant to enforce their own mask mandates takes courage.
For folks living in a town without any newspaper at all, reasonable discussion about issues like mask-wearing is non-existent.
Reporting about the pandemic, or the lack of it, underscores a much larger problem. Unless local journalism gets a much-needed boost, more papers are going to go under, joining the hundreds that have folded across the country in recent years.
Without a local newspaper, a community’s very identity gets lost. No school sports, no local obituaries, no police blotter. More importantly, no one keeping an eye on how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Who will sit through school board and town council meetings on your behalf? Nobody, that’s who. It could be a great time for crooked politicians.
Meanwhile, as we discuss the threat of COVID to those with pre-existing conditions, we might expand the concept to consider the threat posed to newspapers from their own pre-existing conditions. The old business model, advertising and subscriptions, has taken a huge hit. Social media have nibbled away at the audience. How do we immunize these critically important sources of community news and debate?
Here’s a start: subscribe. Contribute an opinion or two. Donate. Yes, community philanthropy is becoming commonplace to help sustain local news.
In fact, this month your donation could be doubled, as 25 nonprofit and locally owned Colorado outlets – including the Ouray County Plaindealer and The Colorado Sun – are raising a quarter-million dollars to sustain their essential services. You can learn more at thisisnewsconeeds.org.
And as long as you are housebound during COVID, think about baking some cookies to deliver to your local newspaper office. The one or two people still working there will definitely appreciate it.
Judy Muller is a former ABC News correspondent and professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. She is a resident of Norwood and on the Local Advisory Committee for the Colorado Media Project, a community-led initiative to navigate a sustainable future for local news in our state.
The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggest writers or give feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.