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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.

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A GetReligionista looks back on some of his — and his colleagues' — most-clicked posts of 2018

A GetReligionista looks back on some of his — and his colleagues' — most-clicked posts of 2018

I write more than 200 posts a year for GetReligion.

My pieces range from our bread-and-butter critiques of mainstream news media coverage of religion to our weekly Friday Five columns highlighting each week’s major (or just plain quirky) developments on the Godbeat.

At the end of each year, I’m always curious to see which posts caught the attention of the most readers.

What makes a GetReligion post go viral? In 2017, key ingredients included Joel Osteen, same-sex wedding cakes and the Mark of the Beast. The previous year — 2016 — Donald Trump’s “Two Corinthians,” Merle Haggard’s Church of Christ mama and a rare opening of a Chick-fil-A on Sunday were in the mix.

2018? Well, let’s check out the top five posts for GetReligionista Julia Duin, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly and myself.

We’ll start with Julia, for reasons that will become obvious:

5. How journalists can nail down the rest of the Cardinal McCarrick story – for good

4. Cardinal Ted McCarrick, Part II: The New York Times takes a stab at this old story

3. Catholic News Agency pulls off investigative coup in the 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick saga

2. Another #ChurchToo: The Chicago Tribune investigates Bill Hybels in 6,000 words

1. The scandal of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and why no major media outed him

See any common thread there? That’s right — McCarrick and the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal were huge news and big traffic drivers to GetReligion in 2018, as was the related #ChurchToo news that also made headlines.

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Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

I have been in and out of Nashville since the mid-1980s and I have heard that great city called many things.

Of course, it is the “Music City,” but I am more fond of the nickname “Guitar Town.”

Southern Baptists used to refer to the national convention’s large, strategically located headquarters as the “Baptist Vatican.” Then again, the United Methodist corporate presence in Nashville is also important.

This points to another reality: The historic synergy between the country music industry and the world of gospel music, in a wide variety of forms (including Contemporary Christian Music). Nashville is also home to a hub of Christian publishing companies that has global clout. All of that contributes to another well-known Nashville label: “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s an amazing town, with a stunning mix of churches and honky-tonks. As country legend Naomi Judd once told me, in Nashville artists can sing about Saturday night and Sunday morning in the same show and no one will blink.

This brings me to a massive New York Times feature that ran with this sprawling double-decker headline:

Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers

Nashville and others are thriving thanks to a mix of luck, astute political choices and well-timed investments, while cities like Birmingham, Ala., fall behind.

That tells you the basic thrust of the story. What interested me is that the Times covered the rapidly changing face of Nashville — many Tennesseans moan that it’s the new Atlanta — without making a single reference to the role that religious institutions have played in the city’s past and, yes, its present.

That’s really, really hard to do. But the Times team managed to pull that off.

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Beyond the War on Christmas: AP serves up an advent story that fails to mention Advent

Beyond the War on Christmas: AP serves up an advent story that fails to mention Advent

It’s time for a major-league GetReligion flashback.

It has been a decade since M.Z. “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway wrote a post — a low-key nod to the whole “War on Christmas” school of media coverage — in which she talked about the overlooked religious traditions that, once upon a time, millions of Christians followed in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

The name of her post back in 2008: “The War on Advent.” Here is MZ’s overture:

Of all the seasons of the church year, the first — Advent — is definitely the one that leaves me feeling most out of touch with my fellow Americans. While everyone else is frantically shopping, decorating, partying, those Christians who mark Advent are in a period of preparation and prayerful contemplation. The disciplines of Advent include confession and repentance, prayer, immersion in Scripture, fasting and the singing of the Great O Antiphons and other seasonal hymns. …

The season is marked by millions of Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and many other Christians, but not only do you rarely see any media coverage of it, the media actively promotes the secular version. 

Advent ends on Christmas Eve with the beginning of the Christmas season. In America, the end of Advent coincides with the end of the secular Christmas season/shoppingpalooza. Just as my family is putting up Christmas trees and lights and buying gifts for friends and family, much of the rest of America is experiencing the post-Christmas hangover.

This is all true. I thought that back when I was an evangelical Anglican and I feel that way today as an Eastern Orthodox Christian — only we observe Nativity Lent. Yes, I have written about this topic here, here and here (in which I asked Siri for some seasonal info). You get the point.

So what is Advent? Here’s a piece of yet another column I wrote on that. The voice here is the Rev. Timothy Paul Jones, a Baptist who is the author of “Church History Made Easy.

… Jones noted that "Advent ... comes to us from a Latin term that means 'toward the coming.' The purpose of this season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting. As early as the 4th century A.D., Christians fasted during this season. ... By the late Middle Ages, Advent preceded Christmas by 40 days in the Eastern Orthodox Church and by four weeks in western congregations." Advent was then followed by the 12-day Christmas season.

This brings us to an Associated Press story with this rather non-liturgical headline: “Forget the chocolate: Advent calendars go for booze, cheese.

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Sikhs, the new lions of the American trucking industry, get some timely coverage

Sikhs, the new lions of the American trucking industry, get some timely coverage

In the category of cool-religion-stories-that-no-one-knows-about, we learn that America’s trucking industry driver shortage is getting some help from an unlikely religious group.

Didn’t know the industry is in trouble? That 48,000 more drivers are needed on America’s highways thanks to burgeoning demand in on-line shopping/shipping services?

If you’ve ever dodged a truck on an interstate, you know there’s a lot of them out there and that anything you wear or eat these days was probably brought to you via truck. So what is the religion angle here?

Sikhs have stepped up to fill the gap. And thanks to stories on Sikh websites and in trucking industry outlets, we can learn why. Here’s from Freight Waves:

The U.S. trucking industry is so massive that not only does it cater to myriads of different verticals, but also houses different ethnicities under its roof, who are part of the industry as truckers, owner-operators, fleet owners, and even as people in gas stations, truck stops, and maintenance sheds. In this mix, the Punjabis or rather the Sikh population have built themselves a bastion in the North American trucking market that is second to none.

Though the terms ‘Punjabi’ and ‘Sikh’ look quite interchangeable, they are essentially entities that cannot be compared on the same breath, as its akin to reasoning out between apples and oranges. Punjab is a geographic region, that is split between the countries of India and Pakistan, the meaning which translates to “the land of the five rivers.” Sikhism however, is a religion that originated in the Punjab region in the 15th century, with most of the followers of the faith living in the Indian part of Punjab.

The U.S. is home to half a million Sikhs, of which the Sikhs Political Action Committee estimates that around 150,000 of them work in the trucking industry - which makes the sector an overwhelming favorite amongst their populace. The statistics are interesting, to say the least. 90% of all the Sikhs in the trade are truckers, and Indians, in general, are ahead of other Asian nations, controlling nearly half of all Asian-owned trucking businesses in America. And as per the findings of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association (NAPTA), California is the ground zero of the Punjabi bulwark, with 40% of truckers in the region being Sikhs.

Readers may need a bit of history to put this in context.

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Relentless 'hollowing out' of newsrooms shapes all beats, and our democracy

Relentless 'hollowing out' of newsrooms shapes all beats, and our democracy

In a break from usual practice, this Religion Guy Memo examines the over-all situation of the American news media.

When times are tough, specialty beats — like religion — become especially vulnerable.

The news biz is transfixed by the mutual rancor between the incumbent American president and the political press corps, which reached another nadir last week. The performance -- on both sides -- hasn’t been this nasty since 1800, when hyper-partisan newspapers manhandled the feuding Adams, Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson. Here’s hoping for a letup 221 or 225 years later when the Donald Trump administration ends.

Meanwhile, media toilers and consumers should be alert to the ongoing broad, bad context within which journalism functions, summarized in this headline: “The Hollowing Out of Newsrooms.” That’s how “Trust,” the Pew Charitable Trusts magazine, upsums data compiled by the Pew Research Center for its latest “State of the News Media” report as of 2017.

One major caveat: As Pew acknowledges, 2017 is a somewhat misleading year for assessing audiences because we’d expect a decline from 2016 with its intense interest in the election. However, Trumpish fascination continued through 2017 and Pew says post-election falloffs usually hit cable news but have little impact on newspapers, network TV or radio. The next report, for 2018, will be significant given fascination with the campaign just past. (Note: These surveys exclude magazine journalism. Non-fiction books are a whole other story.)

Pew’s first such report back in 2004 warned that “most sectors of the news media are losing audience,” therefore “putting pressures on revenues and profits.” According to the latest report, total newsroom employees, whether reporters, editors, copyreaders, photographers or videographers, declined by nearly a fourth between 2008 and 2017, from 114,000 to 88,000

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Payday loans and churches: RNS delivers a fascinating trend piece with a familiar byline

Payday loans and churches: RNS delivers a fascinating trend piece with a familiar byline

Several months ago, the Washington Post wrote about a debate over payday lending unfolding in the black church.

The Post described how African-American congregations had “become an unexpected battleground in the national debate over the future of payday lending.”

Unfortunately, I don’t think we ever ended up commenting on that piece here at GetReligion. It ended up in what we call our “guilt folders” — those stories we'd like to mention but for whatever reason never get around to.

But today offered a perfect excuse to bring up that past report: Religion News Service published a fascinating trend piece on churches nationwide using political pressure and small-dollar loans to fight predatory payday lending.

The compelling lede:

(RNS) — Anyra Cano Valencia was having dinner with her husband, Carlos, and their family when an urgent knock came at their door.

The Valencias, pastors at Iglesia Bautista Victoria en Cristo in Fort Worth, Texas, opened the door to a desperate, overwhelmed congregant.

The woman and her family had borrowed $300 from a “money store” specializing in short-term, high-interest loans. Unable to repay quickly, they had rolled over the balance while the lender added fees and interest. The woman also took out a loan on the title to the family car and borrowed from other short-term lenders. By the time she came to the Valencias for help, the debt had ballooned to more than $10,000. The car was scheduled to be repossessed, and the woman and her family were in danger of losing their home.

The Valencias and their church were able to help the family save the car and recover, but the incident alerted the pastoral duo to a growing problem: lower-income Americans caught in a never-ending loan cycle. While profits for lenders can be substantial, the toll on families can be devastating.

Now, a number of churches are lobbying local, state and federal officials to limit the reach of such lending operations. In some instances, churches are offering small-dollar loans to members and the community as an alternative.

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Seattle Times tells winsome story of a year of Jubilee and generous Pentecostal landlords

Seattle Times tells winsome story of a year of Jubilee and generous Pentecostal landlords

It was the kind of story I rarely see in the Seattle Times.

We’re talking about a religion piece that is, well, positive about people with strong religious beliefs.

In recent years, religion headlines were mostly about Mark Driscoll, the former pastor of Mars Hill, once the city’s largest church. The rise and fall of that congregation left a sour taste in the mouths of many who wanted faith to not be so poisonous.

In this story written by the newspaper’s real estate writer –- the Seattle Times does not have a religion reporter –- we hear about how a pair of Pentecostal Christians are employing an Old Testament rule that dates back at least 3,000 years to apply to the 21st century.

Husband and wife Kory Slaatthaug and Mickey Bambrick are landlords. For the past half-century, Slaatthaug’s family has owned a small apartment building in Greenwood named for the Norwegian town where Kory’s father grew up.

They’re also devout Pentecostal Christians. When Slaatthaug, a 74-year-old retired carpenter, does repairs at the building, he drives there in a Jeep with a 4-foot-tall Bible on top.

The Old Testament has a passage about the year of jubilee — every 50 years, debts are to be forgiven.

So Slaatthaug and Bambrick are celebrating the family’s 50 years as property owners by doing something unheard of for a landlord: For the month of November, everyone in the 11-unit building goes rent-free.

Which is about $15,000 out of their bank account. Apparently the reporter spotted the story on Reddit and realized this couple’s complex is in a very nice section of Seattle. The couple apparently can’t afford the city’s stratospheric rents themselves; they live two counties away in Mt. Vernon, Wash.

But the property referred to in the article is worth $1.3 million, which they will hopefully get when it comes time to sell.

The jubilee-year reference that inspired the gift comes from Leviticus 25. It describes a process whereby slaves would be freed and debts would be forgiven every 50 years in ancient Israel.

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Big religion ghost: Would a 'blue dog Democrat' win Tennessee's U.S. Senate race?

Big religion ghost: Would a 'blue dog Democrat' win Tennessee's U.S. Senate race?

What, pray tell, is a “blue dog Democrat” these days? If you look up the term online, you will find several variations on what characteristics define this politically endangered species.

Growing up as a Democrat in ‘70s Texas, I always heard that “blue dogs” — especially in West Texas — were progressives on economic issues and conservatives on culture. Many were “populist” Texans left over from the old New Deal coalition. Eventually, it was crucial that many “blue dogs” were Democrats who angered Planned Parenthood.

Meanwhile, we had a term for politicos who were conservative on economics and liberal on cultural and moral issues. They were “country club” Republicans.

Here is some language from the website of the current Blue Dog PAC :

The Blue Dog Coalition was created in 1995 to represent the commonsense, moderate voice of the Democratic Party, appealing to mainstream American values. The Blue Dogs are leaders in Congress who are committed to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines to do what’s best for the American people.

Ah, what do the words “mainstream American values” mean in a land dominated by digital “progressives” and Donald Trump? Are there moral or religious implications there?

The term “blue dog” showed up in a recent New York Times feature about the U.S. Senate race in Tennessee, the Bible Belt state that I now call home. (Click here for a previous post on a related subject.) Here is the Times headline: “A Changing Tennessee Weighs a Moderate or Conservative for Senate.”

In Times terms, of course, this is a race between a “moderate” Democrat, that would be former governor Phil Bredesen, and the “hard-line” Republican, Rep. Marsha Blackburn. As always, the term “moderate” is a sign of editorial favor.

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