Missing the Story  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2004

Missing the Story   

A study finds that newspapers in the fast-growing West are falling short in covering development issues.

By Zenitha Prince
Zenitha Prince is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


Are Western daily newspapers missing the big story of their region? Yes, claims a recent report by the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources.

The report, "Matching the Scenery: Journalism's Duty to the North American West," concludes that about 80 percent of the West's 285 dailies overlook or inadequately cover the region's explosive demographic, economic and environmental changes.

"Growth and development in the West are exceeding at a tumultuous pace," says Frank Edward Allen, IJNR president, principal author of the report and formerly an editor at the Wall Street Journal for 14 years. "[We were] concerned about the apparent pattern of neglect in the coverage of these broader topics."

A more pointed criticism of news organizations was their unwillingness to invest in newsroom resources to achieve higher quality coverage. "Most Western dailies have the financial means, if not the will, to do this job," states the report, released in September. "By keeping so much of the profit for the owners, most Western dailies also keep their newsrooms weary and starved of resources."

The 135-page report is the result of a two-year study sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. It ranks newspapers according to the quality, continuity and proportionality of coverage, among other criteria.

"This report was a healthy wakeup," says Betsy Marston, editor of Writers on the Range, a syndicated service of High Country News, a biweekly publication that addresses the West's environment and development concerns.

But some journalists disagree with the report's criticisms. "Academics just don't understand" the challenges of covering the complex beat, says John Robertson, state editor of the Albuquerque Journal. "I think that the coverage of environmental issues by Western dailies has been quite extensive, and has been for a number of years."

Researcher Chris Bryant, who worked on the report, says the high-ranked newspapers were distinguished by the depth and magnitude of their coverage. The top nine papers, ranging in circulation size from 9,000 to 900,000, were recognized at the first Wallace Stegner Awards at Stanford University where the novelist Stegner taught and wrote about the West.

"It's a terrific honor," says award-winner Len Reed, environment and science editor at Portland's Oregonian. Reed says the newspaper has an environment and science team of five reporters, and that its persistent coverage was "partly a mandate of readers and of the vision of the leadership."

Reed also theorizes why some papers' coverage falls short.

"It's pretty hard to do well because it's not historically what newspapers are accustomed to covering," he says. These types of stories "are enterprise-driven, not fundamentally reactive."

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