The Big Story Written Small
After more than a hundred years of publishing, the West’s daily newspapers still fall short where it counts most.
Keith Rogers, the reporter who covers the environment for the biggest newspaper in Nevada, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, can be found most days in the paper’s brick office building, in a rundown Las Vegas neighborhood far from the glamorous casino strip. He works hard, researching and writing in a windowless newsroom, where desks are crammed together amid the noise of police scanners, TVs tuned to round-the-clock news, and dozens of journalists talking on phones.
Rogers gets out of the office maybe a couple of hours a day on average. His beat includes air quality and land-use issues, endangered species, wilderness, some water issues, wild horses and Indian rock art. Eighty-three percent of Nevada is owned by the federal government, so he covers the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation. He covers state agencies, too, and the hottest issue on his beat — the nation’s attempt to shove a nuclear-waste depository down Nevada’s throat — involves a whole other hodgepodge of agencies, laws and politics (HCN, 2/4/02: Yucca Mountain debate goes nuclear).
A 26-year veteran of journalism, Rogers is no complainer. But he admits that he’s stretched “pretty thin,” especially since he chooses to write about the environment only half-time. The other half of the time, he writes about military issues in Nevada, including a nearby Air Force base and the hundreds of Nevadans fighting in the Iraq war. No matter what he covers, Rogers doesn’t have much time for any topic, since he has to crank out roughly one story per day.
Rogers isn’t the only one stretched thin in the Review-Journal newsroom. Many of the water issues are left to another reporter, but he has recently been distracted by a completely unrelated project on religious controversies in three states. Water gets no more than half his time, even though Las Vegas has the loosest water-use regulations of any city hooked to the Colorado River, and is notorious for its artificial lakes, green lawns and golf courses sprawled over a desert that gets only 4 inches of rain per year.
Even so, the environment and water get more attention than growth and development. Las Vegas is the fastest-growing city in the country, with a metro population busting 1.6 million, and out-of-control sprawl. But the last reporter on that beat quit nearly two years ago and hasn’t been replaced.
In fact, the Review-Journal newsroom is light across the board, with roughly half the staffing level of the average daily paper its size.
So the Review-Journal ends up covering growth and the environment mostly in daily snippets and with occasional special projects. There’s a chronic shortage of in-depth analysis.
Reporters “do the best we can,” says the taciturn Rogers. “Some of (the things that need covering) have been put on the back burner.” “Staffing numbers don’t equate to quality,” insists publisher Sherman Frederick. “We cover Las Vegas better than anyone else in the world.” His claim is probably true, since the competition consists of attention-deficit TV and radio news, a dying afternoon daily paper, and assorted weekly niche papers.
Throw a rock in any direction in the city, though, and you can hit someone who doesn’t think much of the Review-Journal. “It’s a cash cow for the Stephens Media Group” — a chain that owns the Review-Journal and dozens of other newspapers around the country — “and they milk it dry,” says Hal Rothman, a history professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “We don’t get enough coverage (of all the important stories). It’s not the individual people (in the newsroom), it’s the philosophy of the organization.”
The people of Nevada have a right to expect more journalistically from the Review-Journal — with a circulation of about 180,000 on weekdays and 220,000 on Sundays, it is undoubtedly a money-maker. The Stephens Media Group’s owner, Arkansas billionaire Jackson Stephens, ranks #140 on Forbes magazine’s list of the richest Americans.
The plight of the Review-Journal’s newsroom and its readers has many echoes around the West. It’s often said that we’re in some golden Information Age, with more news available than ever before, thanks to cable TV, the Internet, specialty magazines and other burgeoning news sources. But the foundation of the news-gathering system, the daily papers, is shaky.
No matter how short-staffed they are, the dailies put the most reporters on the ground, and they are the place other news operations go to get the basic facts and look for emerging trends. Yet of the West’s 240 English-language daily papers, only a few do their work well. Most are mediocre, with flashes of good work. Some are downright bad.
The picture is particularly grim when it comes to covering the West’s surging population growth and increasing development of all kinds, and the impacts on the environment and on people. According to the most comprehensive study ever done on the region’s daily papers, which has just been released under the provocative title, Matching the Scenery: Journalism’s Duty to the North American West, growth and development are “the big story” in the region right now. But it’s a story most daily papers are neglecting.
Daily newspapers have always struggled for credibility. The longtime flagship paper of the Interior West, The Denver Post, really began cranking when a gambler and an ex-bartender took charge of it in 1895. The Post swung from sensationalist crusades to serious journalism, winning Pulitzer Prizes, and it extended its territory with roaming reporters and distribution that reached as far as New Mexico and Montana. For five decades, the paper has claimed in a front-page motto to be the “Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire.”
But that boast has run into credibility problems. The founders’ heirs sold out to the Los Angeles-based Times-Mirror chain in 1980, and then Times-Mirror sold The Post in 1987 to another chain that has been snapping up many Western papers, MediaNews Group. Each time the paper was sold, new management purged it of many experienced — and relatively well-paid — reporters and editors. Today, despite the new prize certificates on its walls, The Post is still recovering — and covering the region less ambitiously than it once did.
Around the time The Post was first sold to a chain, destructive trends were emerging in the newspaper business: More and more, newspapers were being bought and sold like gold mines, primarily as investments and money-makers. Since the 1970s, chains have grown tremendously and there has been increased profit-mining in the newsrooms. The surge in the stock market in the 1990s increased the pressure: People who owned newspapers, whether they were family investors or public stockholders, saw the profits being made on Wall Street, and began to demand that their newspapers make the same kind of money.
The statistics are well-known within the industry, but mostly unknown among readers: The largest chain, Gannett, floated its first public stock offering in 1967. Before then, newspapers were typically managed to make a 10 percent profit per year. Today, newspapers are often run to make 20 to 40 percent profit — higher than the profit margins of multinational corporations like Dow Chemical and IBM.
To squeeze out more profits, daily newspapers have shrunk both the size of their pages, and the amount of space devoted to news; in many cases, they’re fielding fewer reporters and editors per reader than they were a few decades ago. The squeeze has gotten so tight that several thousand journalists nationwide, including more than 400 in the West, have joined the Committee of Concerned Journalists. They support a “Statement of Concern” that says in part, “This is a critical moment for journalism in America” because of the conflict with profiteering.
“The newspaper is having to redefine its character, even its soul,” wrote three University of Iowa professors in their 2001 book, Taking Stock: Journalism and the Publicly Traded Newspaper Company. Journalism is becoming secondary; salaries of newspaper executives and top editors have soared, encouraging them to enforce the changes, while reporters’ pay remains typically low.
In the shakedown, the environment has often landed at the bottom of the stack of priorities. Vigorous coverage of the impacts of growth, in particular, can chafe against the interests of newspaper owners, and against the well-paid publishers and top editors who share the owners’ interests. The single most important factor in placing a dollar value on a newspaper is whether the “local market” is growing, says John Cribb, a newspaper broker based in Bozeman, Mont. “Basically, where you have population growth, you have stronger values in newspapers, and that includes most of the Western markets.”
Environmental stories are also hard to fit into the spaces around the ads in the daily papers. Michael Milstein, environmental reporter on The Oregonian, told researchers what happened when dozens of reporters swarmed the Klamath River Basin controversy in his state in 2001: Most reporters covered it as farmers vs. fish, but “it was more accurately fish vs. farmers vs. tribes vs. other fish vs. million-dollar farms in California vs. fishermen vs. wildlife refuges vs. environmentalists vs. drought vs. other farmers.”
“These stories are highly complex — there’s always a number of sources, a number of players,” says Tony Davis, who’s covered growth and the environment for three Southwestern dailies. He was hired to cover growth full-time for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson in 1997, but since 2000 he’s been cut back to covering that beat only half-time. “You’re always going to have a disagreement (with editors) as to how long the story should be, and you’re always asking yourself, ‘Am I oversimplifying it?’ It’s endemic to the beat. There’s no paper in the West that doesn’t have that problem.”
As a result, we have newspapers like The Daily Herald in Provo, Utah. The Herald circulates 44,000 copies on Sundays, and was bought several years ago by the Pulitzer chain. It has little or no in-depth coverage of growth and the environment. Even though the local population is booming, The Herald has no reporter dedicated to covering growth; new developments are chronicled piecemeal, by reporters on various government beats.
Caleb Warnock, who covers the environment for $12.50 an hour, follows the local affairs of the federal and state agencies, farming issues, water, pollution and endangered fish in nearby Utah Lake. He also covers three other beats: transportation, health, and 11 outlying city governments. In one week in September, along with stories on wildfire, hawks, and wind power, he reported on the cops-in-schools program, rabid animals biting kids, weather, transportation, and did two feature profiles, one of a dynamic wheelchair-bound woman, and another of a woman who gave her husband a plane ride for his birthday.
“I love it,” says Warnock, 30, who, with an English degree from Brigham Young University and three years at The Herald, is learning the journalism trade on the job. “I have to be very deadline-oriented, have to be willing to eat stress for breakfast.
“I would love to do environmental writing solely,” he adds. “We get a lot of response from the environmental writing, a lot of reader response, a lot of letters to the editor. It feels like the most useful writing I do.”
Frank Allen noticed the lack of attention to growth and the environment, and decided to do what he could to counter it. Allen spent 30 years with daily newspapers, mostly with The Wall Street Journal, where his responsibilities included editing environmental news. He’s also been an editor on papers in Arizona and Oregon, and for three years he was dean of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism.
In 1997, Allen founded the nonprofit Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources in Missoula, Mont. The organization takes environmental reporters on “learning expeditions” to places like logging sites, water diversions, and tourist traffic jams, to teach them how to better cover the issues. “These changes are of great magnitude,” he says, “literally transforming the character of the region and the character of a lot of communities.”
In 2000, Allen got the idea of improving Western newspapers more directly, naming the effort the Wallace Stegner Initiative, for the late writer who examined many of the region’s institutions with a critical eye. With funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and several other foundations, Allen assembled more than a dozen journalists into a research team, including a former Newsweek editor and two reporters who won Pulitzer Prizes while working for the Seattle Times. Over several years, they toured the West doing interviews, built up extensive archives, and inspected the work of 285 English-language daily papers, including 25 papers in Canada and six in Hawaii. It was an ambitious undertaking: Writing up the results, they went through more than eight drafts, and three of the team opted out due to disagreements over the writing style and tone, Allen says. The final 135-page study came out in September.
Matching the Scenery: Journalism’s Duty to the North American West found an ominous pattern: Low newsroom budgets; inexperienced, low-paid and overworked reporters; rapid turnover of newsroom staffs; desks left vacant for months after resignations to save money; and news being oversimplified and written to the “battleground” formula — quote opposing sides and leave it at that, with little or no questioning of the veracity of whatever is rolled out in quotes.
Journalism’s Duty found that many Western dailies fall far below the averages in terms of staff. Nationwide, small to mid-size daily newspapers have an average of 1.5 newsroom staffers for every 1,000 copies circulated, according to the Inland Press Association, while larger dailies average 1.3 newsroom staffers per 1,000-circulation. The Western underperformers in the small-paper class include The Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Mont., (1.1) and The Pueblo Chieftain and The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction), both in Colorado (both 1.0); and, in the bigger class, The Las Vegas Review-Journal (0.7).
The message of Journalism’s Duty — a kind of battle cry — comes through loud and clear: In most places in the West, “the big story” of population growth, increasing water shortages, subdivisions gobbling land, pollution of the air and water, dwindling wildlife, ramped-up oil and gas drilling, and so on, “affects newspapers’ readers everyday lives more than tax increases, regulatory legislation, distant wars.” But only nine daily papers (3 percent) do an excellent job on the big story, according to the study. Fifty-one daily papers in the West (17 percent) do a good job, but are hampered by inconsistency and less-adequate staffing than the excellent papers have. More than half the West’s daily papers (54 percent) don’t even assign a reporter as much as half-time to cover the environment, growth and development and natural resources.
There are big papers that are mediocre and small papers that do a good job — a paper’s circulation is not the determining factor. Neither is chain ownership; a paper’s effectiveness is also very much the result of the vision of the immediate managers — the editors and publisher. Some of them see the big story, and some don’t.
The Idaho Statesman, owned by Gannett, has a circulation of 65,000, and under the leadership of the current editors and publisher, The Statesman has one reporter covering the environment full-time, another reporter covering growth and development full-time, and two more reporters covering the outdoors beat, which consists of wildlife and recreation issues. Meanwhile, The Arizona Republic, another Gannett paper, has a circulation eight times larger — 480,000 on weekdays and more than 600,000 on Sundays. Yet The Republic has no full-time outdoors reporter, due to a resignation several months ago, and only one reporter on the environment and one on growth and development.
The Arizona Republic’s environment reporter, Mary Jo Pitzl, says she spends more than 90 percent of her time covering urban issues, such as air pollution and hazardous wastes, with little time left over for national forests and parks, the BLM, endangered species and all the other issues affecting the 44 percent of Arizona that is federal land. Even as forest fires erupted in Arizona this summer, she was pulled off the environment altogether, and put to work covering Phoenix city politics for three months, because the reporter covering that beat had resigned.
"My editor and I go back and forth," she she's. "It’s hard for me to sell stories that are from outside the urban area. They don’t want you to spend much time on it.”
Some reporters simply go limp to avoid conflicts with editors and publishers, and accusations of bias. But that turns their coverage to mush. Journalism’s Duty holds up one example of a reporter who supports environmental goals generally and puts that passion into his work — Rocky Barker at The Idaho Statesman. Barker stakes out positions on some issues, while trying to be fair and present different sides accurately. He says his editors generally support him, though his stories can be controversial.
“When you care about education, you’re not accused of being pro-education or pro-children,” Barker says. “But when you care about the environment, you become a lightning rod.”
The few dailies that cover the big story well, according to Journalism’s Duty, include The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., the largest of just 30 remaining daily newspapers in the West still free of chain ownership, with a circulation of 106,000 (see story next page); and The Sacramento Bee in California, which is owned by the McClatchy chain and has a tradition of doing special projects about the major issues.
The strongest daily for the big story is probably The Oregonian, owned by the Newhouse chain, with a circulation of 380,000; The Oregonian has a team of seven reporters and editors dedicated to the environment and science, along with one reporter covering the outdoors beat, and dozens of reporters on government beats, keeping an eye out for growth and development stories.
“We really encourage environmental writing across the ranks (in the newsroom),” says Len Reed, The Oregonian’s editor of environmental news. “It’s not about tree-hugging. These are the public policy issues of the day, and we’re going to put some of our best people on it.”
Not surprisingly, Journalism’s Duty has hit resistance in some newsrooms. Bill Wilke, managing editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in Montana, says the report reads “like advocacy,” because of its emphasis on environmental issues. Frank Allen responds, “I wouldn’t call the report ‘advocacy’ in the same sense that a preservation group might be advocating for the cutting of no trees or the saving of all wolves. We do take a position: It’s the duty of the daily newspapers to explain the large-scale changes that are going on in the West. That’s a journalistic advocacy. And I think we’re on good grounds taking that position.”
Journalism’s Duty calls for more effort in the underperforming newsrooms: more staff overall, more reporters on the important beats, more time and space for the big story, more training, more commitment to hiring better and more experienced reporters, and more creativity in presenting the big story in interesting ways.
The report doesn’t say much, however, about how those goals might be accomplished. Allen’s organization’s mentoring of individual journalists is one strategy, though it’s modest; his Stegner Initiative also plans to parachute individual “big story” journalists into newsrooms as consultants. But trying to reform the institution of daily newspapers is a massive undertaking. It’s an institution that operates in several hundred pieces scattered across the West, and the owners — including the millions of stockholders — are even more widely scattered.
Daily papers might be more likely to improve if their managers and owners can be persuaded that it makes good business sense. “It’s not an altruistic act that I get to do good work here in Boise,” says Barker at The Idaho Statesman. “The fact is, our readership surveys show us over and over, environmental issues are very important to our readers, especially in the demographic of 25-to-35-year-olds. Every newspaper in the country is scrambling to attract those readers, and most papers are losing them. As far as my immediate bosses and my corporate bosses think, if I do a good job, I’m helping the bottom line.”
But back in Las Vegas at the Review-Journal, the numbers must work for the chain ownership at the moment, or the people running it are distracted with their other concerns, which include investment banking and running a gambling-news wire. There are many consequences for the readers. The lack of coverage of the big story has made the fastest-growing city a place where the impacts of growth are not discussed that much.
“We’re starting to hear a lot of rumbling in the community, from people who’ve been here for years, about the growth issue. They’re starting to ask questions about the drought, and water, and air pollution, and traffic,” admits one reporter, who asks not to be named. “(But) I don’t hear much discussion about the larger philosophical issue of the appropriateness of growth in the desert.”
Newspapers should be leading that discussion, says Allen. “It really does matter. I have seen any number of Western communities that are divided and troubled, fragmented about all kinds of fundamental issues: Where should our local economy go? What should its building blocks be? And can we sustain what we are doing now? And are we taking care of the valley where we live? Those are very appropriate journalism questions, and once you raise them, you have to go dig to get a sense of what the answers could be. “It’s a great opportunity,” he adds, “a wonderful challenge for journalists in the West to have.”
Ray Ring, HCN’s editor in the field, has worked on staff at two daily papers, the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in Montana, and he began his journalism career with an internship on The Denver Post in 1979, when that newsroom was still using typewriters.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:
Several journalists mentioned in this issue, including Tony Davis, Rocky Barker, Michael Milstein and Karen Dorn Steele, write for High Country News.
The Institutes of Journalism and Natural Resources in Missoula, Mont., 406-273-4626, www.ijnr.org.
Matching the Scenery: Journalism’s Duty to the North American West is on the Web at www.ijnr.org/wsi/index.html