Was Ferguson a ‘news desert’ until two weeks ago?
Coming late to the Ferguson story, I have a modest thought to add to the ongoing discussion of why the police shooting and the bumbling local response to protests happened there.
My hunch is that like many aging and changing suburban communities, Ferguson had received only the most episodic of news coverage until all hell broke loose. Political theory and high profile reports from the Knight Foundation and FCC suggest that when a town is a news desert, low civic engagement is almost certain to follow.
So if that's the theory, isn't Ferguson the practice? A community, as the phrase goes, that doesn't know how to talk to itself.
Many reports have noted that with a nearly 70 percent African-American population (flipping the racial composition of 20 years ago), the town's 53-person police force has only three black officers. Others have observed that the mayor, the school board and other elements of the governing power structure in Ferguson remain virtually all white.
We will soon find out whether patronage and racism have kept the police force as it is. But as for white dominance in elections, that seems as if it could only be explained by the black majority being uninvolved and unorganized politically. Rev. Al Sharpton observed as much Sunday, calling for a registration drive and improvement of a dismal 12 percent turnout rate in the last election.
What kind of news coverage had Ferguson been receiving?
Margie Freivogel, editor of St. Louis Public Radio (formerly the St. Louis Beacon) pointed me to a pair of weeklies based in larger towns nearby. But their Ferguson stories appear fragmentary and not aggressive at all. (The August 14 edition of the Florissant Valley Independent led with "leaders' reactions" to the shooting and protests with no additional reporting).
Freivogel, who was a long time Post-Dispatch staffer from 1971 to the mid-2000s, added "the P-D never intensely covered Ferguson or north county. But it was certainly covered more heavily than now."
Adam Goodman, deputy managing editor of the Post-Dispatch, confirmed that in an e-mail:
The Post-Dispatch used to have a North County bureau, which I believe we closed in 2007. Ferguson was one of many north St. Louis County communities covered by two reporters in that office. We used to zone a North County page twice a week. Our sister Suburban Journals publications ended their weekly North County edition in 2011.
But, Goodman said, the Post-Dispatch has still made it out to Ferguson to cover important stories like the dismissal of a popular black school superintendent or continuing foreclosure issues.
My own reporting and Steve Waldman's FCC study both found that metros, which have been forced to make the deepest cute news staff in the last decade, typically denuded their suburban coverage and pulled back to the city limits.
I visited this phenomenon five years ago in a story "Alhambra, Calif.: The Little Town News Forgot." Four times the population of Ferguson, Alhambra is a suburban community of small bungalows, just north of prosperous South Pasadena. It once had its own daily newspaper and subsequently was covered by a small Los Angeles Times bureau and the Pasadena Star-News until the early 2000s. Then coverage dropped from several stories a week in the Times to five or six a year.
Meantime Alhambra demographics, like Ferguson's, changed radically. From a mostly white community, it became a center for Hispanic and Asian immigrant groups with some white and a very small African-American population remaining. Indicators of civic vitality were remarkably low, in part because many in the major ethnic groups could not speak each others' language.
This prompted USC-Annenberg journalism professor Michael Parks (formerly the editor of the L.A. Times) to assemble grants and help from colleagues to build a new digital site with the Alhambra community from the ground up. The resulting Alhambra Source, with a professional editor coordinating a corps of citizen contributors, has had typical growing pains and financial sustainability challenges but is still publishing.
I can see something of the sort in Ferguson's future once the current crisis settles. Huffington Post announced yesterday that it will try to crowd-source a locally based reporter and give her continuing support from its own professionals.
My Poynter colleagues Kristen Hare and Jill Geisler have ably chronicled the strong local media response of the last two weeks (Ferguson is just 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis). Freivogel's public radio news department will no doubt continue its Ferguson blog, and the Post-Dispatch and TV stations now have the issues of Ferguson and similar towns in fragmented St. Louis county in their sites. National media wonks too have discovered oddities that bear continuing analysis.
To be clear, the erosion of newspaper coverage in Ferguson and a vast swath of suburban/exurban communities where so many Americans choose to live undercuts democracy. But the remedy, if one is forthcoming, is not going to be a revival of newspaper coverage -- but rather something else, something new, something digital.