Larry Ganders, Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, 360-280-6320, firstname.lastname@example.org
By Larry Ganders, Edward R. Murrow College of Communication
Report calls Washington ‘digital state with an information ghetto’
PULLMAN, Wash. – Many Washington state residents have difficulty accessing essential local news and information even though the state is home to some of the world’s leading digital content technology companies, according to a Washington State University study funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
"In short, Washington is a digital state with a rural information ghetto,” concluded the report by six WSU researchers from The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. It referred to the situation in the State of Washington as an "information enigma.”
Google, Yahoo, Amazon, T-Mobile, Facebook and MSNBC all have major operations in Washington. Yet "in huge sections of Washington, citizens have little or no access to news about what is taking place in their own communities,” the study concluded.
The report indicated most, but not all, of the underserved areas are rural and lack local news coverage by professional newspaper, radio, and television teams.
"The situation is particularly grim in areas populated by minorities and on some of the vast Native American reservations,” the report said. It said use of social networking platforms like Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter is lower than many other states and cellular dead zones are common outside major Washington towns. About 3.8 percent of the state has no access to broadband including 80 percent of Ferry County’s citizens in Northeastern Washington, according to the state Broadband Office.
Access to technology is not the only consideration.
"In spite of being in the state that is headquarters to Microsoft, creator of Internet Explorer and Bing, rural Washington residents use search engines less than do rural adults throughout the country,” according to study findings by two of the project researchers, Douglas Blanks Hindman and Michael Beam.
The enigma’s issues strike at the heart of the democratic process, said Lawrence Pintak, dean of the WSU Murrow College.
"They also drill deep into issues of access to health information, to business competitiveness, and the state’s ability to educate its citizens,” he said.
WSU’s Washington study is part of a national research initiative sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of America and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Murrow College joins 11 other journalism schools throughout the nation in the national effort to examine issues identified by the Federal Communication Commission’s report on "Information Needs of Communities.” The deans of the 12 schools are expected to release a joint set of recommendations for implementation of the FCC report.
The WSU study team recommends creation of a Washington Rural News Consortium to provide training and partnerships with citizens who can provide news from beyond the current reporting areas of existing news organizations. Funding could come from a combination of community, regional and national foundations, along with news organization partners.
It also suggests a Digital Awareness Initiative to brief state legislators and local policymakers and calls for an annual report on the state of high-speed broadband service, health of news media, and news awareness in the state.
The state’s media organizations have shrinking and "tightly-defined” coverage areas, according to the report. Just 20 Washington towns have daily newspapers, only 23 have radio stations with some form of daily news, and television is clustered in four cities.
Weekly newspapers fill in some of the gaps but they are a mix of publications providing substantial local news and others that "are little more than shoppers.” The study report quotes Michael Shepard, vice president of The Seattle Times, stating that Washington has fewer reporters today than it has had in the previous 100 years.
Most daily newspapers have reduced the areas covered by professional reporters. Decreasing print revenues have driven down the size of newsroom staff. Outlying bureaus, roving rural reporters and journalists covering state politics are among the casualties, according to the report. For instance, The Spokesman-Review in Spokane once circulated from northern Oregon across Washington and into western Montana. It maintained bureaus in Sandpoint, Idaho and Pullman and reporters routinely traveled through remote areas like rural northeastern Washington in pursuit of stories.
Other researchers on the WSU project team included: Brett Atwood, Clinical Associate Professor, Elizabeth Blanks Hindman, Associate Professor, and Ben Shors, Clinical Assistant Professor.
Some of the findings were based on a symposium held in Pullman earlier this year by the WSU Murrow College. Participants selected for the symposium included newspaper management, representatives of major telecommunications firms, technology industry groups, library officials, a broadband consultant, radio and television managers, government officials, university faculty, and a retired school superintendent-turned citizen journalist. The discussion often focused on the "digital divide” that separates state residents who easily utilize digital equipment such as laptops, tablets, and smart phones versus those who have limited use or no access.
A one-hour program based on the symposium will air on the stations of Northwest Public Radio as follows: Saturday, June 23 at 7 pm on NWPR’s NPR News stations and Sunday, June 24 at 6 pm on NWPR’s NPR & Classics stations. See NWPR.org for frequencies in your area. An extended version of the program will also be available at NWPR
The complete report from The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication is available at their website