Washington State’s Rural Information Ghettos (The Seattle Times)

(June 18, 2012) In huge sections of Washington, citizens have little or no access to news about what is taking place in their own communities. The situation is particularly grim in areas populated by minorities and on some of the vast Native American reservations.

By Lawrence Pintak

Special to The Times

THE city manager was paying himself $1.5 million a year. City Council members earned close to $100,000 for part-time jobs. Yet they were running one of Los Angeles’ smallest and poorest suburbs. It was, the local district attorney said, “corruption on steroids.”

Could it happen in Washington state? You bet it could.

The alleged scam in Bell, Calif., went undetected for at least five years until the Los Angeles Times wrote about it. Until then, no one was watching.

Just like in countless communities in this state.

Washington is an information enigma. Some of the nation’s leading digital-technology companies are headquartered in and around Seattle, yet vast areas of the state are starved of local news. We have Microsoft, Amazon and a large Google satellite office, yet only 20 towns have a daily newspaper. Just 23 have radio stations with some form of local news, and TV is clustered in four cities with tightly defined coverage areas.

T-Mobile USA and AT&T Wireless are headquartered here, but mobile dead zones are common outside the major towns. Facebook recently opened a major office in Seattle, yet Washington’s use of social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter is lower than many other states.

In huge sections of Washington, citizens have little or no access to news about what is taking place in their own communities. The situation is particularly grim in areas populated by minorities and on some of the vast Native American reservations.

In short, Washington is a digital state with a rural information ghetto.

Ironically, there are fewer journalistic boots on the ground even as the potential audience of the state’s papers is dramatically expanding, thanks to the Internet. The Bell scandal was uncovered when reporters from the L.A. Times showed up; remote Washington communities can’t count on being so lucky.

Making matters worse is the fact that while 96 percent of the state has broadband access, in many rural areas the speed of Internet access is too slow to stream video.

“The new digital divide is speed,” according to Frieda Ray, outreach and communications coordinator for the Washington State Broadband Office.

That digital divide is an information divide.

A survey of Washington state residents carried out by a research team at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University reported that rural Washingtonians find it much harder to keep up with local news than those living in more urban areas, even though they are just as adept at using digital technology to read regional and national news.

As the citizens of Bell learned, the stakes are high. They go to the heart of the democratic process and drill deep into issues of access to health information, business competitiveness and the state’s ability to educate its citizens.

The digital divide is also an economic divide.

“If we finally get this technology — this broadband — to our towns, are we going to be able to afford it at an individual level but also at a municipal level?” wonders Kristie Kirkpatrick, director of the Whitman County Rural Library District, where residents flock to libraries to get on the Internet.

A group of diverse representatives from telecom, news, public agencies and grass-roots activists met at a Murrow summit, and we came out with a consensus on what needs to be done.

We need to create rural news consortia that train community journalists to work in partnership with mainstream news organizations. We must educate state and local policymakers about the challenges and opportunities inherent in expanding digital information access. We should bolster digital literacy efforts in rural and economically challenged regions.

The bottom line: A state that is building an economy that rests on digital innovation and global engagement cannot afford even a single information ghetto.

Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

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