Home An audit of community news outlets in the west

Mountain News Deserts 

An audit of news ecosystems of the intermountain west

The following provides an executive summary of the research.

For the complete study, please click on this link: Community-news-audit

When it comes to relevant, reliable news reporting, rural towns across the

intermountain West are often left wanting. At best, they have small weekly

newspapers staffed by a reporter or two – sometimes three. They may get some

coverage from radio and TV stations in nearby small cities, but those outlets, too,

struggle with capacity and resource issues. These towns rarely make headlines in their

state’s leading press; unless there’s a wildfire or sensational murder, they don’t show

up on the nightly news.


So, how do people living in small intermountain West communities get news? Which

sources do they trust and engage powerfully with? What issues do people care about,

and how does that match up against the coverage their local and regional media

actually provide? These questions are well studied in urban news markets, but not in

places like Saguache, Colorado, and Seeley Lake, Montana, with lower population

and media density.


The Solutions Journalism Network set out to ask these questions in fall 2015, with

funding from the LOR Foundation. We focused our study primarily on two regions:

the border area including northern New Mexico and southern Colorado’s San Luis

Valley; and western Montana. Both are programmatic focus areas for the LOR



We found that news ecosystems in these places are often patchy in terms of both

quantity and quality. In some cases, people in small mountain towns manage to get

news and information via a mix of word-of-mouth communication and traditional

news outlets. But when it comes to complex, often deeply ingrained local challenges

and what can be done about them, the knowledge and understanding that could

drive productive citizenship is more elusive. Only one in five people we surveyed

think their local news is consistently relevant and valuable. More than half said

their local news is, at best, sometimes valuable, and a significant number said their

local news is rarely or never relevant.


We found gaps between what people said they’re interested in and the news

coverage they actually get. Survey and focus group participants most often cited

the economy and jobs as the most important issue in their communities, for instance,

yet stories about the economy made up only 8 percent of the actual news coverage

we analyzed — far less than coverage of crime and schools.


What’s more, most news coverage in the areas we studied is cast in terms of

problems. We heard time and time again that news coverage is too negative

too focused on crime, corruption, poor school performance – at the expense of

other compelling stories about the assets of a community. This negative cast, some

believe, has an impact on a community’s psyche: when all you hear is bad news about

your community, people told us, that’s what you’ll come to expect.