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Posted 6/21/22

In the past week, floods ripped through Yellowstone, forcing the evacuation of the park and devastating communities in the northern areas of the Beartooth Mountains.

As would be expected, when …

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In the past week, floods ripped through Yellowstone, forcing the evacuation of the park and devastating communities in the northern areas of the Beartooth Mountains.

As would be expected, when natural disasters impact one of America’s key national parks, the national media descended on the area. Flood waters inundated Red Lodge, Montana, covering downtown, and washing away homes and businesses. This little forest town in the mountains had a thriving, picturesque downtown. People across the country who had never heard of Red Lodge were seeing it for the first time — as it was being destroyed.

The national media outlets flew their reporters out to get those pictures and some sound bites. In the coming days, when the waters subside and the citizens of these impacted communities start to rebuild, those reporters will be long gone back to their coastal cities.

The Park County Travel Council met last week to discuss how to respond to the impacts of the flood, as well as the message people are hearing from the media. Summer travelers who were looking forward to their vacations in Yellowstone were canceling reservations as quickly as they could and making plans to spend their vacation somewhere else.

At the meeting, Cody Mayor Matt Hall said he had received calls from people asking how bad things were in Cody. With the pictures in the media showing the worst of the impacts, some people are left with the impression that the flooding is over the entire region.

Tourism is Wyoming’s second largest industry, and this kind of negative press can have a huge impact on the local and state economy. There’s definitely news value in showing the destruction and talking to the people whose lives are torn apart by the events. But needless to say Fox News and CNN weren’t at the travel council meeting.

Most national reporters are not going to be concerned with the long-term impacts of their coverage. They aren’t going to run into the people they talked to at the grocery store, and their lives will be unaffected by the story months down the road. The story will quickly slip down the memory hole when they move onto the next story, whether it’s another natural disaster or a mass shooting.

It’s not going to be a surprise to anyone that local journalism has been struggling in the modern era. Thousands of communities across the country have no local news outlets. Many that still have newspapers are operating with gutted newsrooms and a fraction of the resources they once did.

Despite surveys consistently showing that readers trust their local media far more than the national outlets, the world of cheap, online news made the economics of print difficult to navigate profitably, especially on the local level. As such, more and more people get their news from sources unconnected to their communities.

A 2018 study found that when local communities lose their newspapers, local governments see bond ratings fall as they become more fiscally unsound. There are also anecdotal reports of how the absence of a local watchdog facilitates corruption.

In 2010, the Los Angeles Times investigated local officials in Bell, California. They had some of the highest salaries in the nation, unusually high property tax rates, and irregularities in local elections. Eventually, the Bell city manager was sentenced to 12 years for a range of charges related to the scandal.

It was fortunate that the Times took note of what was happening there. The absence of a community newspaper in Bell was one reason the town’s officials got away with so much for so long.

At the travel council meeting, there was an important theme discussed among the elected officials, tourism professionals, and communication experts. They wanted to promote tourism while still being sensitive to the residents of the impacted communities. When you live and work in the communities you serve, you extend considerations to your neighbors that supersede other needs, such as profits.

The same is true for the local media, and why it’s so important to support your local newspapers. When the floods subside, we’ll still be here. We’re invested in this community in ways the national media never will be.