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.