It’s no secret that local news outlets are struggling in America. I just made reference to the fact in my most-recent newsletter (though through a totally unrelated topic: book publishing), and it’s hardly the first mentions of the difficulties small outlets with limited subscriber-bases and tight margins face.
One of my former colleagues forwarded me a recent article by Columbia Journalism Review, titled “Trouble in Wyoming.” It dives deep into a digital newsroom that’s grown in popularity across the state: Cowboy State Daily.
The piece really digs into two issues: the conservative nature of CSD’s coverage and the relative lack of alternatives.
The conservatism isn’t surprising, if you know anything about Wyoming, but the tone of the stories has an overt combative tone, as if the publication has outwardly taken sides in the culture wars. The thing is: While it’s obvious to any regular visitor to the site that it has taken sides in culture war issues, it holds itself out as a just a traditional newsroom. It’s the same playbook as the ingenious (but patently false) tagline from Fox News: fair and balanced.
CSD’s coverage on two issues in particular—climate change and trans rights—show how it’s publishing from one side of the culture-war divide, not the strived-for journalistic neutral ground.
Amid concerns of partisan agendas seeping into local news, the Tow Center looked at the outlet’s coverage of two hot button culture war topics: the climate crisis and trans rights. Cowboy State Daily’s energy reporting has appeared to throw doubt on the reality of man-made climate change, which is the consensus among the global scientific community. …
Then there is coverage of transgender communities. Cowboy State Daily has been criticized by LGBTQ rights organization Wyoming Equality for deadnaming and using phrases like “biological males/females” to refer to trans people. One Cowboy State Daily columnist wrote they “draw the line” when someone “born with male genitalia and a masculine endocrine system tries to impose himself in a women’s (sic) world."
The digital-only publication finds a lot of readership in Wyoming, where people are not great fans of paying for their news. We saw this in Gillette, where a local publication (that amounted to little more than a Facebook page) ate into our newspaper readership numbers because the online publication had no paywall where the newspaper did. So it matters greatly what this growing publication is saying, because more and more people are turning to it and some may be under the false impression that they’re getting unbiased statewide news coverage.
This is complicated by the roster of reporters now at CSD. There are many reporters who formerly staffed reputable papers across the state. I have no question about how they came to be there; they were diligently recruited. I know this is the case because I was contacted about working there, and I know one my former colleagues at the News Record was also approached by them. They could offer more money than the newspapers across the state; this point was unassailable. So these reputable names (still doing reputable work) is lumped under the same banner as click-baity, trolly headlines and stories driven by a clear agenda, and the legitimacy of these journalists’ careers and reputations blanket the less savory elements of CSD’s coverage.
Those journalists were in a tough spot. They wanted to be journalists, but the career simply doesn’t pay. Not in Wyoming, which, despite its dearth of people, doesn’t exactly make it a cheap place to live. So they made a decision that was good for them personally, which is nothing if not understandable. But that’s how the article’s second issue—the state’s (and nation’s) growing map of news deserts—factors in. There’s a lack of competition in the profession, and it leads the best and brightest to the place that can pay them enough to afford their bills.
Once there, they’ll continue to do the good work they’ve always done, and most likely, roll their eyes at the stuff that’s out of their control—what others are reporting on, how editors choose to headline stories and allocate attention, to name but a few.
But, in the end, it’s the citizens of Wyoming who are losing out in all of this. They won’t think so though, because many of them share the conservative viewpoints of CSD. They’ll see the slant (if they see it) as a feature, not a bug. This will only make the work of newspaper journalists in the state that much harder, for they’ll constantly be competing with a free outlet that offers readers what they want to hear, not necessarily what they need to know.