Unwritten: Changes in rural reporting in the last few decades

By Elika Roohi/Alaska Press Club Fellow

Last summer, smaller salmons runs led to fishing bans across the state, making it hard for subsistance fishers to bring in their usual haul. Fishers protested a ban on salmon fishing in the Lower Kuskokwim River in June.

An iPhone video of authorities cutting a fishing net during a protest from Kuskokwim fishers got a lot of attention around the state, and for a moment Kuskokwim fishers were a hot topic.

In the last 20 years, coverage of rural Alaska has changed dramatically.

“Most reporting on the bush happens outside the bush,” said Alex DeMarban, a reporter for the Alaska Dispatch who’s spent a lot of his career covering news in rural communities.

Once newspapers had rural reporters living in the villages, but changes in the journalism industry have resulted in smaller newsrooms that can’t afford that coverage anymore. For example, Anchorage Daily News does most of their rural reporting over the phone.

Less coverage of rural issues, particularly in print, has consequences. Rural Alaska faces some serious issues, such as domestic violence, alcohol abuse and crime. Less coverage means fewer resources. If grant writers and non-profits don’t know about the issues, they don’t know what to ask for to help, DeMarban said.

There has also been a shift in the political power in Alaska from the Bush to the urban areas, leaving rural Alaska to solve their problems alone, said DeMarban who has seen the bush change dramatically during his career. Rural populations have been steadily migrating to the urban centers of Alaska, according to the 2009 Rural Population Report. The report cited cost of living as one of the many reasons for moving.

Rhonda McBride, the Rural Editor at Denali Media, said the last decade’s advances in technology haven’t killed the coverage, they’ve created new opportunities. That story about the Kuskokwim fisherman? The video would have never gotten out if it were 1995. Back then, if you wanted a video clip from rural Alaska on the news you had to go get it and then fly it back to the newsroom.

And while there used to be more urban reporters covering the Bush, now a lot of village news is reported by villagers.

“You don’t have to go through filters,” McBride said.

Rural news was once picked up solely on the wire, but now it’s spread from local websites and Facebook pages as well.

There needs to be more coverage of rural Alaska, but if you’re just looking for it in the large urban papers you won’t find a lot of it, McBride said. It’s out there, just not in the same places it used to be.

A lot more rural reporters, these days, are Alaska Native, McBride said, lending their understanding and breadth of knowledge to their reporting. They also connect with a Native audience outside of the villages.

“Somebody that’s Yupik in Anchorage can listen to the news in Yupik online now,” McBride says.

Internet speeds are starting to get faster in the Bush, which only increases the possibilities.

Traditional rural reporting has suffered significantly in the last decade or so, and DeMarban doesn’t think there’s an easy solution.

“There are a lot of stories out there,” DeMarban said.

Alaska Dispatch does more than almost anyone in the way of rural reporting, he said, but they can always do more.

But McBride thinks that we’re going in that direction already.

“Rural news is coming into it’s own,” she said. “I think we’ll just see more of that.”