After a News Desert

A news desert is a community without coverage from a daily newspaper.

If coverage means timely newspaper reporting on a city’s principal public meetings and events, then Whitewater has been a news desert since the nearby Daily Jefferson County Union stopped reporting on Whitewater’s common council & school board meetings.

If coverage means timely, insightful, and objective newspaper reporting on a city’s principal public meetings and events, then the Daily Union didn’t cover Whitewater even when she professed to cover Whitewater. (A DU story ran as though it were either as a laundry list or a press release.)

If coverage means untimely and uninsightful summaries of Whitewater’s principal public meetings, then the weekly Whitewater Register (publishing even now, believe it or not) covers Whitewater.

If news coverage means occasional newspaper feature stories, then Whitewater is not yet a news desert (as the nearby Janesville Gazette sometimes notices Whitewater).

If news coverage means writing by a Whitewater politician about Whitewater politics – and Whitewater for years had a bout of this approach, and does now again – then Whitewater is not a news desert.

But Whitewater has been a news desert, if that terms means credible & creditable news reporting, so much so that some residents are inured to conflicted and self-promoting accounts of their community.

(Bloggers – modern day pamphleteers –  may offer commentary on politics, media, culture, etc., but they are not a substitute for beat reporting. In conflict-riddled conditions, bloggers may find that they have to devote effort to daily and longterm projects. There is, however, no circumstance where I could or would trade this role for another, kind but always-surprising suggestions notwithstanding.)

One worthy model for news reporting that a community might consider comes from Canada. Sarah Scire reports Indiegraf aims to reimagine the newspaper chain for digital news outlets (‘The Canada-based network aims to take the best of newspaper chains for local digital publications — and leave the rest’):

The Indiegraf model was born out of [Erin] Millar and [Caitlin] Havlak’s own research and experimentation building community-funded journalism at The Discourse [a Canadian site] over the past five years as well as a nine-week Independent News Challenge where the co-founders “kicked the tires” on the idea. The challenge results — which included one publication raising $34,000 in its first reader-funded drive and another gaining 2,000 email subscribers — was enough to convince the cofounders that they’d found “a promising and replicable approach to delivering quality local journalism sustainably.”

At a minimum, Millar believes each publication will be able to support one journalist doing community journalism like “showing up at City Hall” with 5,000 email subscribers. The back-of-the-envelope math relies on 10 percent of email subscribers converting to paid subscribers at $150/year.

Their model relies on a Canadian community of about 85,000, so in the Whitewater-area this would be a county-level approach. Needless to say, counties in Wisconsin have more than one city hall, making it necessary to focus mainly on a county seat.

There are key advantages, however: hiring a professional reporter, avoiding the worry over declining advertising, and relying of subscribers who will expect insightful reporting rather than boosterism & babbitry. No one will pay to subscribe to a publication for press releases and attaboys. (That’s what Facebook is for.)

Another alternative for a smaller town would be a philanthropic model that led to publications like Indiegraf’s but without funding from subscribers. That model, however, would require a large direct donation toward a trained, independent reporter – difficult, but admirable.

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2 years ago

Where in your estimation does this leave a place like Whitewater, Wisconsin?