Potholes on Journalism’s Dead-end Road

Over the last year, we’ve seen a spate of hand-wringing articles on the death of journalism, prompted chiefly by the recent demise of some venerable American daily newspapers. To us unemployed and underemployed journalists, both print and broadcast, this is an old, old story, one that we have followed intensely for years (because we have nothing better to do). Across the board and as predicted, media conglomeration was the beginning of the end of the newsroom as we have known it, and certainly the death of journalism as an activity largely engaged in by trained, experienced and allegedly dispassionate professionals.

Anyone who has ever been a beat reporter knows the full truth: there’s no easy, cheap or free, robotized way to replace us, and Americans are going to become even less informed than they are now. We have progressed from “57 channels with nothin’ on” to a formidable millions of channels, containing a vast amount of (unverified) information, but the news hole has shrunk right along with broadcasting and newspapering. Everyone knows that reporting, which is characterized by research and facts, continues to be replaced almost wholly by punditry and advocacy.

The pundits are stumped on how to save journalism now that it is no longer a center of employment that the private sector is eager to support. Government funding would be rejected out of hand as un-American. Besides, do we need another tepid national McDigest like NPR? It does look likely that any renaissance will have to happen in the nonprofit world, but that begs the question of where the money comes from. I remain generally skeptical that journalism will survive without paid journalists, but I came across a hopeful piece of the puzzle right in my own back yard.

It’s an email “list serve” called the Moab Area Progressive Network, or MAPN. It was started innocuously enough back in 2005 by local members of MoveOn. From the beginning, the content on MAPN was impressive. Moab already had a number of local activists who were used to backchanneling lots of time-sensitive content. They had to, because our sleepy local weekly paper does not. So MAPN readers are regularly offered new and real information, like the agenda of the council meeting that didn’t get in the paper, blow-by-blow accounts of crucial local political battles, links to “outside” stories of local concern and endless links to newly discovered government documents. There is plenty of rumor to be sure, but I’m amazed at how often, Wikipedia style, a string of messages will quickly zero in on the truth or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

It was an event in the spring of ‘09 that convinced me of the considerable reporting power that MAPN can generate on deadline. On April 15, an eerie and massive, post-global-warming dust storm blew through town. The unprecedented brownout was confirmed by DOE air quality monitors at the tailings cleanup site, and old-timers said they’d never seen anything like it. It was easily the biggest local story of the week, and the local paper ignored it altogether, while residents joked about the “brown rain” spots on their cars. So I posted a quick question on MAPN, something like, “Where the heck is all the dust coming from?” In the ensuing hours, the closest suspect was analyzed: large tracts of land south of town that were scraped for development and now abandoned in recession. Perps were identified, names were named and carnage described, but it didn’t add up to being the cause of the Armageddon-like dust event we had witnessed. Soon, other posts provided links to another related and under-reported regional story — the recent brown snow phenomenon at Colorado ski resorts. The readers were zeroing in. Then someone found links to satellite photos from April 15 that actually tracked the dust storm from northeast Arizona to Moab. In a day, the group, which numbers less than 100 members, had done for free the research the local paper should have done. The biggest still unanswered question: What is causing the dirt of Arizona to go airborne in such unprecedented volume? Is it some combination of land abuse and global warming? Not too many years ago, those questions too would have already been answered by curious, enterprising and competitive beat reporters and editors.

Like our dwindling quality print media, information on the Internet flows mostly to a relatively small and affluent elite that has computers, broadband accounts and ample leisure time. To access the MAPN content, you have to also pass a political litmus test. Through some makeshift democracy, the group has created a system whereby basically an impromptu kangaroo court is e-convened to confirm an applicant’s progressive/liberal bona fides (so far a handful have been rejected). I’m sure if it were put to the group, the members would not approve of this story being written, so I also have to pass on introducing some of the colorful characters.

MAPN has another trait that serves as a reminder that this is not a website and not mass media, but a hybrid: Like most reporters, I have resolved any anxieties I may have had about the potential implications of shooting off my mouth. We tend to be type-A/Gemini/windbag/argumentative hams anyway. But many MAPN members wouldn’t think of sending a letter to the editor and would not contribute emails to MAPN if they thought they could be read by non-members of the choir. Knowing the speed and power of the local grapevine, I find this to be naïve but understandable. There is real intimidation here — Moab’s conservative power brokers have long practiced the art of the boycott, both formal and informal, against local businessowners who endorse green positions.

One of MAPN’s crucial functions has been to smoke out and support progressive candidates for local office. Moab’s old-guard Republicans have duly taken note, and some have publicly labeled MAPN a “special interest group.” But at annual potlucks and in online surveys, the members have repeatedly rejected the notion that MAPN should essentially become the town’s Green Party, and they’ve affirmed that they want a userdefined safe haven and clearinghouse with few rules (one being that you can’t pass on or quote content without the author’s permission). Whether the list serve is a safe haven remains to be seen — I suspect that if you trash someone on MAPN, you are just as vulnerable to a libel suit or even arrest (Colorado and Utah still have criminal libel/“speech crime” statutes).

Like most worthy Internet endeavors, the MAPN list serve takes up too much of your time. I never erase a MAPN-labeled message until I’ve at least scanned it, so there’s an unread backlog on my mailbox that goes back for months. I know I’m not alone, because, every so often, I see someone respond to a months-old message.

Like most Moab residents, MAPN readers can be fickle in unpredictable ways. Often a thread is launched by a relatively obscure aspect of a town hall skirmish, which somehow triggers a raucous debate over, say, affordable housing, that rages for days until the next juicy topic presents itself. Recently, one activist member castigated the group for its poor showing at a hearing on the proposed nuclear power plant at Green River. What ensued was not a discussion of nuclear power plants, but soul-searching treatises regarding Just How Many Goddamned Meetings One Person Can Go To.

It’s a quirky system, but simple and cheap (thanks to a volunteer administrator), and if it can work in a town with 5,000 souls, the MAPN concept could surely be adapted elsewhere. It’s not The Solution to the death of journalism, but it’s at least a promising piece of a part of the solution, and I’m guessing MAPN will still exist long after Facebook and Twitter have become quaint anachronisms.

Frequent contributor Jon Kovash lives in Moab.

Obituary: Inside Outside Magazine

Cause of Death: Economic Malaise

And now the question is: What next, Four Corners writers, reporters and readers?

After nearly 12 years of exploring, expounding upon, defending and celebrating the Four Corners Country from its home in Durango, Colo., Inside Outside Southwest magazine has joined the ranks of publications that have gone under in its attempt to stay afloat in the new-media economy. The September 2010 issue was the publication’s last release.

Since 1998, Inside Outside has been a journal of entertainment, culture, environment and recreation bonding the regions bounded roughly by Salt Lake, Denver, Albuquerque and Flagstaff. Self-dubbed “A locals’ guide to what’s really up in the Four Corners,” that tagline was more than just a boast — it was accurate. For no other single publication — or any other form of mass media — covered the Four Corners area as the single and distinct place it is.

A single and distinct place, yes, united by hydrology, creative arts, history, geology, rural and tourism economies, outdoor lifestyles and the constant push-me/ pull-you of public commons freedom and rapacious private enterprise. But those four corners of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado are also a multitudinous and distinctive place. As connected as the Four Corners’ inhabitants are, it is also a region of great and grand diversity.

At its heart is the Colorado Plateau, book-ended by the staggering Fourteeners of the ragged San Juan Mountains and the black-granite guts of the Grand Canyon. In between lie the shrapnel and wounds of that landscape’s making: every possible form of peak, foothill, creek, draw, wash, river, canyon, badland, hoodoo, outcrop, sage flat and sheer redrock wall. Inhabiting that landscape are peoples comprising a population more culturally diverse than most continents, inhabiting a scattering of outposts, villages, hamlets, towns and mini-cities.

Inside Outside attempted to package these many varied facets of this place, and gave an outlet for the region’s writers, reporters, artists and photographers to seek sense and continuity in them. They did that for the people who live here, of course, but also to show those who didn’t why someone who does might do so. Because generally — unlike in nicer climes or more economically rewarding places — people who live here in the Four Corners do so deliberately, consciously, by choice, for some more compelling reasons. Because it ain’t easy to make it here.

And now Inside Outside passes that lesson on, too.

But it was a good run. In its dozen-year existence, Inside Outside published some of region’s brightest and best voices (many familiar to Mountain Gazette readers), including Art Goodtimes, David Petersen, Rob Schultheis, David Feela, Ed Quillen, Ed Marston, Jen Jackson, Michael Wolcott and Amy Maestas. The magazine even scored exclusives with some big-name authors, including John Nichols and Will Hobbs, who each premiered chapters of new novels in its pages. Even Edward Abbey himself rose from the grave to throw a scoop Inside Outside’s way, when a special issue of the magazine on the 10th anniversary of Abbey’s death featured a “lost” Abbey short story that no one, not even Abbey’s estate, had seen since the mid-1950s.

Surely, a region like this can’t be done talking, sharing, exploring? So … what next? That’s up to us…

Ken Wright is the author of “Why I’m Against It All” and “A Wilder Life.” He was Inside Outside’s first managing editor.

Cheapskates Rejoice

Champions emerge from every crappy situation, and our long, lousy economic condition is no exception. Sometimes in the name of environmental sustainability, sometimes as a matter of one-upmanship, extreme thriftiness and downsizing have usurped ramen noodles and Geo Metros to become an art form.

1) Big on Small

Dee Williams of Olympia has become a poster child for the Small House Movement — a phenomenon that’s getting a lot of ink and bandwidth as more Americans are shedding their belongings and asking themselves just how far they can scale back before they’re running around in loin cloths. Dwelling in a $10,000, 84-square-foot home on wheels that’s parked in a friend’s back yard, Williams pays $8 a month in utilities. She has a sleeping loft, one-burner stove and a composting toilet to call her own, space for a couple changes of clothes and a little porch for hanging out with friends, who are best to be small. Curious? The Small House Society has a big list of resources that’ll help cut you down to size.

2) Freeganism

Bolstered by an awful economy, the freegan movement, which comprises a lot of people who hate the word “freegan,” is all about extreme sustainability and living off the wastes of capitalism. If you’re really good at it, you can avoid the ravages of employment and find abandoned digs in which to squat (i.e. Las Vegas). The urban-foraging lifestyle requires bountiful dumpsters for food and other cast-offs, with Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s dumpsters getting good reviews. The downside to getting all your goods on the take: Bedbugs (which have made a bigger comeback than the ’04 Red Sox) and getting busted. Cities that are cracking down: Salt Lake and Sacramento. As far as bed-bugs go, Cincinnati leads the national pack, with the rest of Ohio close behind. Denver is the only Western city to make the top 10, ranking a hearty, scratchy fourth place.

3) Cheapest place in the West

In most of the western U.S., you’re statistically screwed if you want to live cheaply. Tennessee comes in as the cost-of-living champion at an overall index of 89.05, with Hawaii at the high end at 163. In the West, Idaho is the cheapest in 10th place, with an overall score of 92.07. Colorado comes in 31st with a 100.83; Arizona 37th at 104.27; and California in 48th place with 131.46. In housing, Idaho comes in at a reasonable 78.9, while California tops the Western charts at 185.74. FYI — the median 2020 home price in Oahu is estimated at over $1 million. Best to stay in Idaho.

4) DIY disasters

Do-it-yourselfers have taken on a certain swagger these days, accounting for a $160 billion business in the U.S. But before you attempt to join the ranks of Bob Vila, remember that complete failure is a strong possibility. For example, it’s common for DIYers to install bathtubs without hooking them up to drainpipes. And sure, that wax ring under your toilet looks easy to replace, but this widespread blunder has an ugly outcome that requires no elaboration. In Las Vegas, where the housing industry has driven homeowners to despair, home inspectors see Darwinian slip-ups such as ceiling fans installed so low that they hit people’s heads and outlets installed right next to tubs so bathers don’t have to get out to plug in their whirlpool spas. If you need more encouragement to call a handyman: http://blog. servicelive.com/blog/diydisasters/0/0/homeowner-tips-how-not-to-repair-your-washing-machine

5) Hot rocks and yard sales

Last year, a Milwaukee man shelled out $10 for a strange chunk of metal he found at a rummage sale, figuring he’d be able to salvage it as copper or bronze and make a few dollars in these hard times. Too bad he watched a TV show that indicated he probably had a rare meteorite on his hands. A collector then offered $10,000, while posts on the all-reliable Internet said he might make $100,000. The bad news: The chunk turned out to be part of the big Canyon Diablo meteor, which strayed from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and landed in the Arizona desert in 1942. Some jerk stole it from the Meteor Crater Visitor Center in 1962. The Milwaukee man returned the find, which rewarded him $1,000. He says he doesn’t remember where the rummage sale was.

Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 50th Anniversary Edition

Most of us who have gone look- ing for enlightenment in the big hills, armed with crampons or ropes or ice axes or other implements — but without paying for professional mountain guides — have a worn copy of one of the first seven editions of

“Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills” somewhere on our bookshelves. It’s sold more than 600,000 copies worldwide and has been translated into 10 languages, and Mountaineers Books, since it began in 1960, now has more than

500 books in print. The 8th edition of “The Freedom of the Hills” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of this tome of self-reliance, and thankfully, Mountaineers Books didn’t choose to make it a Kindle or iPhone edition. No less than 32 climber-authors were involved in this edition, which includes a few updates — how to travel safely in “border country,” more information on fitness and training specifically for mountaineering and lots of stuff us climbing geeks would get excited about (“fisherman’s knot” is now “fisherman’s bend”!). Still, no chapter on how to convince your partner to lead all the hard pitches, or how to sneak the beers into his/her pack before the climb. Here’s to 50 years of staying alive up there. www.mountaineersbooks.org