High Country News

One of journalism's oddest assignments: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

One of journalism's oddest assignments: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

Mormon polygamists are notoriously tough to interview and photograph unless there’s some sort of prior trust relationship. That’s why I was amazed to see photos in the High Country News of an annual polygamist gathering in southeast Utah.

The photos by Shannon Mullane, which unfortunately are copyrighted and can’t be reproduced here, are really good. They are also very human; polygamists giving each other back rubs and hugs; going on rafting trips and having picnics. Access like that comes from hanging out with people and showing up year after year as they get to know you. (I had to do a lot of that while researching my book on Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers.)

What’s different about this piece is that the families portrayed here are dressed like normal people, not like the women wearing long, flowered dresses and braided hair swept up into puffy coifs who get shown on TV.

On a Saturday in July, the sun shone on the red-rock cliffs of southeastern Utah. Heidi Foster sat on the banks of the Colorado River, handing out fruit snacks to kids from polygamous families.

Foster, a plural wife from the suburbs of Salt Lake City, was among about 130 people on a river trip. Foster, who brought five of her own children, saw it as part of an important weekend where her kids could drop their guard and be themselves. “If someone asks, ‘How many moms do you have?’ you can tell them,” Foster said.

The rafting was one of the highlights of the annual Rock Rally, a five-day polygamous jamboree at Rockland Ranch, a polygamous community about 40 minutes south of Moab. The rally included hiking, zip-lining, rafting and a dance with a country music band from a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona line.

I looked at the byline, did some digging and realized that the writer, Nate Carlisle, has something called the polygamy beat with the Salt Lake Tribune. Never knew there was such an animal, but the Tribune has had the beat for years. Carlisle took it on in 2006.

It’s a very complex assignment with the need for deep sources.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

High Country News mourns growth of 'news deserts,' or how the West was lost

High Country News mourns growth of 'news deserts,' or how the West was lost

At the end of 2018, High Country News, a magazine centering on issues concerning the Mountain West, ran a full issue of pieces on the media scene in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific time zones. Large cities like Denver, Seattle and San Francisco will always have lots of investors, journalists, donors and audiences to support new media startups, it said, but not so much for the empty spaces in between.

One piece showed the “news deserts” of the West; that is whole chunks of states (think central Oregon and eastern Montana) with at best one newspaper. Forty-six counties in 11 western states now lack a local newspaper. My old haunt –- New Mexico -– lost two weeklies and three dailies and saw total news circulation drop 30 percent from 510,000 to 350,000.

Let’s state the obvious: Red ink in many zip codes has all but killed religion-news coverage. Now, we are seeing the growth of “deserts” in which there are no newspapers — period.

Look at the county map of the United States in the above photo. The red splotches outline 171 counties with no newspaper. The beige shows up the 1,449 counties with only one newspaper; most often a weekly.

Nevada’s news industry is probably the healthiest. Weekly newspapers lost 180,000 readers but dailies gained 140,000. All this came from “The Expanding News Desert,” a report from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. This has been covered elsewhere, but HCN put together a large packet on western media in particular. It said::

In Idaho, weeklies in neighboring counties provide some local coverage, but the hometown, county-seat paper has vanished from the fast-growing state’s rural areas. Meanwhile, many Western counties are at risk of losing their only remaining newspapers. The report identifies 185 such single-newspaper counties in the 13 Pacific and Rocky Mountain states — 34 of them in Montana alone…

Still, Denver and Seattle (and Tucson, to a lesser extent) have potentially high numbers of investors, donors, journalists and audiences to support new media startups. The West’s small towns and rural areas lack that advantage. Instead, these communities risk losing critical information when a newspaper closes or merges with a neighboring county’s publication. Few entrepreneurs or startup editors see their future in the Western news deserts.

So, let’s return to the religion angle. The moment a newspaper starts to lose steam (revenue, reporters), it begins to cut specialty beats. Religion is one of the first to go, which is what happened at the Seattle Times after it reassigned its former religion writer Janet Tu to the Microsoft beat. And once Melissa Binder left Oregonian’s religion beat to pursue other interests, she was not replaced. Despite how faith often flourishes quite well in rural areas, it’s at the back of the pack in terms of incisive religion pieces.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Are polygamous Mormons part of Western narrative? The High Country News thinks so

Are polygamous Mormons part of Western narrative? The High Country News thinks so

The High Country News (HCN), a 30,000-circ. environmental journal based in western Colorado, usually reports on investigations within the National Park Service, wind energy projects in Montana, fish die-offs in Colorado and similar regional stories, but rarely anything to do with religion. I managed to find one piece in there last fall about wild wolves and morality but that was about it.

But the magazine does have a villain -- the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which occupies land on the Utah-Arizona border smack in the middle of the high desert country that HCN calls its backyard. And whenever HCN goes after them, they wade into a mix of police and religion reporting.

Thus, see their latest on how corruption among city officials in that region has stymied the FBI from catching FLDS leaders who were raping children in the name of their religion.

This is a long passage, but, in a way, it points to one of the journalistic challenges linked to these reports.

In January 2006, more than 3,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a polygamist offshoot of the Mormon Church, gathered inside their huge white meetinghouse in Colorado City, Arizona, for a regular Saturday work project service. Outside, unknown to the congregants, a handful of FBI agents were quietly approaching. They wanted to question 31 people about the whereabouts of Warren Jeffs, the church’s former “president and prophet,” who was on the run for performing a wedding involving an underage girl.
Within five minutes, just as a FLDS member named Jim Allred began the first prayer, FBI agents entered the building.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

High Country News ruminates on god, spirituality, wolves, bison and wild morality

High Country News ruminates on god, spirituality, wolves, bison and wild morality

I first heard of High Country News this past year from the copies stacked in the conference room of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks journalism department, which is where I taught this past year. 

For starters I was delighted to find a publication that covered the Rocky Mountain West, in any way, shape or form. It’s based in western Colorado (Paonia, to be exact) and covers environmental, land use and public lands issues.

So I was interested in a recent piece on HCN’s site that is an author interview: “Can studying morality help Yellowstone’s wolves and bison?” There’s a photo of a wolf with the caption: "Majestic spiritual icon, or religious abomination? Depends whom you ask."

Here are some excerpts from a discussion with sociologist Justin Farrell:

HCN: It seems like wolves epitomize the “what is wildlife good for” debate. Some outsiders assume that the people who hate wolves hate them for economic reasons -- they’re ranchers and hunters who are worried about livestock and game. But you say people seem morally opposed to wolves. What’s the source of that opposition? 
JF: One of the primary feelings I heard is that individual rights are being infringed upon by the federal government. The reintroduced wolves came from Canada, so there’s also the fact that people see the wolf as an “immigrant” -- a word that brings up a lot of connotations right now. The wolf links to all sorts of other issues in American politics that go well beyond the Yellowstone area.
HCN: People often oppose wolves in religious terms, too -- it’s an animal that symbolizes man losing dominion over the earth.

Please respect our Commenting Policy