The role of local news has never been more important than today during a pandemic that has killed millions and at a time when anyone can spew rumors and conspiracies while sitting behind a screen.
In Colorado, online misinformation has led some to believe COVID-19 vaccines alter DNA, distrust legitimate philanthropic organizations in the community, and even consider the Boulder shooting a hoax.
As Colorado journalists strive to shield their communities against such misinformation, they face immense challenges as news deserts — areas without any newspapers to serve their needs —continue to grow. Since 2004, the number of newspapers in the state has dropped by at least 16%, with three counties qualifying as news deserts and 33 more on the verge of becoming so.
Against that backdrop, we worked with Hearken on a Colorado Trust-funded study to assess the news landscape in the state during the pandemic and come up with recommendations to bolster the journalism infrastructure.
Here we highlight the main findings from our analysis of media content in Weld, La Plata, Montezuma and Alamosa counties as well as journalists’ perceptions of the quality of journalism across the state.
Good news, bad news: Media coverage
The good news is that news output in the four counties far exceeds the national average when it comes to the provision of quality journalism.
A 2018 Duke study shows the vast majority of local news content across the United States is nonlocal, unoriginal and tends to focus on soft news, such as sports and entertainment. In the Centennial State, around two-thirds of the output is local and original, while a whopping 79% addresses key issues like health care, politics, environment, economy, education, transportation, emergencies and civic life.
Nontraditional news sources in Colorado are also playing a critical role in serving their communities. Staff at ethnic media (e.g., the Southern Ute Drum newspaper), non-governmental organizations (e.g., La Puente and the Immigrant & Refugee Center of Northern Colorado), and government offices (e.g., Greeley-Evans School District 6, Weld County, and San Juan Basin Public Health) are utilizing their social media platforms to fill gaps in coverage and spread timely information on local issues.
The bad news, however, is the more diverse, more rural and less affluent the county is, the closer it gets to being a news desert.
Take, for example, Alamosa County, which is the most rural and has the lowest median income and the second-highest share of non-white population amongst the four. The Valley Courier, which mostly features local, original coverage of hard news, is the only newspaper that serves its population.
Similarly, the nature of the county and its population can affect the quality of journalism.
Montezuma County is the most diverse and has the second-lowest median income of the four. Although a newspaper and two radio stations serve its population, almost two-thirds of the output is nonlocal and unoriginal. In fact, one of its radio stations only showcases Fox News articles on its website.
Good news, bad news: What Colorado journalists think
The good news, journalists say, is that legacy news organizations, such as The Denver Post, CPR and network TV affiliates, are performing a great deal of accountability journalism. Journalists notice the ecosystem is changing, with digital startups such as The Colorado Sun and the Colorado Independent/COLab emerging as important players when it comes to holding powers accountable across the state.
Overall, journalists think that news organizations mostly use original reporting and focus on local stories, a finding that is in contrast with national research on local news, but in line with what we found in Weld, La Plata and Alamosa.
The bad news relates to gaps in media coverage. Journalists contend rural areas and specific regions of the state — eastern Colorado, western slope and communities in southern Colorado —are often forgotten by news organizations. They also say Colorado news media rarely provide in-depth reporting on Native American, African American and Hispanic and Latino populations.
In connection with these gaps, journalists identify a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in newsrooms that affects the stories covered by news organizations. In the eyes of journalists, while some topics are extensively covered by mass media, such as politics and education, issues like the environment and transportation are often overlooked.
In short, our study shows that the Colorado news ecosystem is struggling: the gaps in local and original reporting and the lack of resources are undeniable.
Journalists in the state propose a few solutions to address those gaps. Many of them think an increase in funding and staff, coupled with resources for specific tools like access to records and diversifying sources, could improve accountability journalism.
They assert the need for a shift in news organizations’ culture, with more resources devoted to recruiting and retaining a diverse pool of reporters and leaders.
That being said, Colorado also offers a template for how innovation can improve the health of local news: Successful initiatives range from the state-level efforts of Colorado Media Project to salvage local journalism and combat misinformation to the development of digital business models that sustain high-quality local reporting.
The fight to save local news will have profound implications for the future of our democracy. There is a winding road ahead, but Colorado is definitely up to the challenge.
Here’s a link to our full study.
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