Walk in to a town council meeting in Pinedale, Wyoming, and you're likely to find as many as three local reporters scribbling notes and asking questions. That news in a town of 2,030 residents is covered by two newspapers and a website is partly explained by the abundance of mineral wealth in surrounding Sublette County, which produced $3.6 billion in natural gas last year. Add to that the urgent concern about breaching a local dam threatened by record snowmelt coming from the Wind River Range, and you've got a recipe for a small-town media frenzy.
This scene is also illustrative of how rural journalism is surviving, even thriving, in the rural West and across the United States, in an era of precipitous decline for major metropolitan newspapers.
In the United States, some 7,500 community newspapers--papers with under 30,000 in circulation--still hit the streets, front porches, and mailboxes at least once a week. A 2010 survey conducted by the University of Missouri, Columbia for the National Newspaper Association produced some enviable statistics: More than three-quarters of respondents said they read most or all of a local newspaper every week. And in news to warm the heart of any publisher, a full 94 percent said that they paid for their papers.
"The community newspaper business is healthier than metro newspapers, because it hasn't been invaded by Internet competition," says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. "Craigslist doesn't serve these kinds of communities. They have no effective competition for local news. Rural papers own the franchise locally of the most credible information."
This is not to say that rural papers are simply going gangbusters. Rural newsrooms make for lean living and busy workweeks. Reporters have to wear many hats to put out a local paper, interviewing Eagle Scouts, snapping photos of the butter queen, writing editorials on the local rec center and stuffing supermarket circulars. And many of these papers are an advertiser or two away from red ink.
All of this is in the service of developing a relationship with the local readers that some people say that mainstream journalism has lost, a relationship with all the complications that intimacy and proximity bring. "You have only one day a week to beat the daily on timeliness," wrote the editor and publisher Bruce M. Kennedy in his 1974 book, Community Journalism. But "weeklies can add a personal touch," he added. "There's license to 'visit' more. You have time and space to be a small-town citizen talking with another about your community."