A last-minute emergency got me to fabulous Elko, Nevada last week. I substituted on a Nevada Humanities panel: “Reporting Stories from the Rural West.”
The panel was just a tiny part of what has become a major winter wingding for Elko, the 35th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The National Gathering is first-rate, with dozens to hundreds of staff, volunteers, performers and events staged for thousands of paying lovers of all things “cowboy.”
For example, one of this year’s music headliners was Marty Stuart, Nashville’s biggest hero. He’s taken it upon himself to preserve $20-some million worth of country-music memorabilia that otherwise would be lost forever. The Flathead’s Rob and Halladay Quist were there. So was Crow cowboy poet Henry Real Bird. Good stuff, good people.
A serious bonus was meeting my “other editor” after 15 years of working together, plus some mutual admirers. To finally make multiple long-distance friendships personal and real was satisfying beyond words.
Not so satisfying was the short emergency notice and two days of vicious winter driving out of four. I almost did myself in south of Butte in Sunday’s blizzard.
Our two panel discussions were on the health of “rural journalism.” When asked, I declared that all journalism, not just “rural,” tends to stink a coyote off a gut pile.
Seven Western-based writers participated. Two work for the Center for Investigative Reporting, a San Francisco investigative news nonprofit. One each work for: London Guardian, High Country News (HCN), Elko Free Press, Elko’s TV station, and RANGE. All (except Dave) have journalism degrees. Four work for mostly urban readerships and/or editors, while three serve primarily a rural customer base. So yep, there was some rather spirited parting of the ways on what constitutes truth-telling about rural happenings. The best zinger came from a woman in the audience, who said she didn’t care about bias as long as reporters were — honest!
Everyone agreed, however, that truly good reporting requires resources of time, money, and in flyover America, distance. As the Guardian writer put it: “To be a journalist in a rural environment can be — without proper support — a lonely and dispiriting pursuit.”
We also agreed that the media, mainly “news” print (not books, not radio, not even TV), needs to figure out how, as the HCN writer termed it, to “monetize” news after the combined loss of paid subscribers (to “free” news) and classified advertising to Craigslist and clones.
Discussion then drifted to what might result as more and more news is re-“monetized” behind paywalls (vending machines and paperboys had that job in the old days). How might readers respond? Pay for (and track) 20 separate monthly subscriptions, which adds up right quick? Or are they more likely to give up, perhaps defaulting to Facebook for “information?”
I’ve long felt that some kind of great bargain needs to be made by the post-Craiglist news trade. In short, your paid local newspaper (or news website) subscription needs to come with the right to access not only “the bigs,” but all other member providers. I’ve just not been able to price it.
Thankfully, audience members turned on a light for me. A Nevada mining engineer warned us all that free stuff is often worth about what we pay for it, while a feisty couple from California pointed out that Internet access and devices already cost plenty. They also reminded us all of the days when readers had multiple yearly magazine subscriptions, book club memberships, and yep, long-term newspaper subscriptions.
Hmmm. News organizations already share content through Associated Press, of course. Could a similar sharing arrangement be crafted to fairly pay for that content?
So, how much a year did the average American household fork over for “news” prior to 1995? I know I used to blow at least $200 per year on magazines and newspapers alone. What is that in 2019 dollars? Um, $330.
Might you pay that much for a year in order to raise journalism back from the dead? To have access to honest news, good and bad, from reporters you trust, real news that informs you well? For such a bargain, I hope yes, and soon.