Across the West, news deserts spread

But civic engagement is taking other forms.

Alex Pere and Nicole Feltman, two recent graduates of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism, are a lot like most of my students: They’re young and hardworking, and they are driven by idealism. I was thrilled for them last year when they landed their first reporting jobs right after graduation — Alex, covering the pandemic, and Nicole writing about education. They both ended up at the Tucson Weekly, an alternative newspaper founded in 1984 that has been an important launching pad for many Arizona journalists.


Within months, though, I started hearing the bad news. Local media baron” Steven Strickbine, the former certified public accountant who bought the Tucson Weekly and five other newsweeklies across Arizona and Southern California, announced that, in order to save resources, he wanted to start publishing the same stories across many of his holdings. Before long, Tucson Weeklys main editors quit, and Alex and Nicole were also pushed out despite being promised higher salaries and fancier titles. Alex had been working at the paper for barely a year; Nicole lasted about six months. But I believe the repercussions of their exit will ripple out to future journalists and local readers, and in turn, impact their ability to participate in society and democracy and beyond.

The new management seemed to care less about covering current events than it did about selling ads. The 38-year-old alternative weekly is today little more than an advertising rag for Arizonas burgeoning recreational marijuana industry. 

Reporters were required to have a weed-centric article in every issue, instead of covering local issues,” Alex told me recently. If we couldn’t, we were advised to do product reviews, so that at the end of the day, we had to have a marijuana story no matter what.”

Sadly, none of this is new. Local newspapers across the U.S. have been on a steady decline as many media owners prioritize profits. But what happened to my former students feels personal: As a journalism professor, Im invested in nurturing storytellers who can serve as a check on power and keep the public informed of their rights and of the truth. Even though more women and people of color are studying journalism than in the past, few make it to senior or management positions. The disappearance of reliable local news outlets and local reporters affects every single one of us: It goes along with a decline in voter participation, and it can lead to unchecked corruption, hyper-partisanship and the rapid spread of misinformation.

The Tucson Weekly was purchased last year and has since seen several editors and journalists quit.

The State of Local News, a 2022 report by Northwestern Universitys Medill School of Journalism, estimates that a third of the U.S. newspapers circulating in the last 20 years will be out of business by 2025. A majority of those will be weeklies, which can serve between a few hundred to tens of thousands of readers. According to the report, there are no major news deserts in my home state of Arizona: Every county is served by at least one newspaper. Elsewhere in the West, though, a State of Local News map shows clusters of counties in Oregon, New Mexico, Utah, Montana, Idaho and the Dakotas where there is not a single source of printed news. The largest U.S. newspaper publisher, Gannett, appears to be locked in a steady cycle of increasing executive salaries and bonuses while laying off employees. It recently announced the layoff of 400 people this summer and has plans to cut 400 more positions.

In the past two decades, journalism has also been evolving into a rich and complex digital ecosystem — think website startups, newsletters, live events, podcasts, apps. Yet as traditional institutions of investigative and cultural local impact disappear, so does informed civic participation, particularly in smaller cities, away from coastal states and in rural communities that may not be well-served by the internet. As I hear about whats happening to the Tucson Weekly, I worry about normalizing news deserts like these; I wonder about the journalists of the future who will want to serve with and for their own communities but will have no place to work.

That meshing of local news coverage, misinformation campaigns and voter turnout in Arizona will be worth a close watch this coming election. Arizona has been a red state for a long time, and the false narratives about a stolen election that proliferated on social media led to attacks against journalists and public officials. And yet, Arizona went for President Joe Biden and filled two Senate seats with Democrats in 2020. Despite voter suppression efforts, Black, Latino and Indigenous first-time voters headed to the polls more than ever before in state history. They were one big reason the state turned purple.” 

It gets even more interesting: State news coverage in Arizona and elsewhere around the West seems to have only grown richer since the last national election. You just need to know where to look — and to be willing to accept that as society evolves, so does media. A study by the Philadelphia-based Lenfest Institute finds that more local news organizations are collaborating to investigate wrongdoing, host public debates and train new generations of journalists. Its playing out differently throughout the West: CoastAlaska, for example, is bringing together six public radio stations to fundraise and cover the states communities under a shared editor, and in Colorado, COLab, a statewide hub, is leading collaborations on urgent issues pushing for diversity and inclusion initiatives in participating newsrooms. (Disclosure: High Country News is a Colorado News Collaborative partner.) 

In my corner of the desert, I may be mourning the demise of a decades-old alternative weekly, but a new nonprofit startup, Arizona Luminaria, is delivering in-depth accountability reporting in English and Spanish — and stepping up its elections coverage. One of my current students has found work fact-checking claims by candidates running for office; another has single-handedly become one of my primary sources of local news as a fellow for Report for America, a national service program thats placing early-career journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered communities.

In an ideal world, local journalism connects people with their government and community, and young journalists will continue to be key in brokering these relationships.

In an ideal world, local journalism connects people with their government and community, and young journalists will continue to be key in brokering these relationships. The way in which that connection occurs is likely to keep mutating, but this isnt necessarily a bad thing. Quite the opposite: In my classes, I meet young journalists who are increasingly culturally sensitive, more willing to collaborate, eager to organize. Even as outlets disappear, media is evolving in ways few of us could have predicted, and this spirit of innovation is what will allow Alex and Nicole to find ways to tell the stories that matter most in these uncertain times.

Ruxandra Guidi was formerly a contributing editor for High Country News. She writes from Tucson, Arizona. 

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.