Defying news deserts from within the Sonoran desert 

The Cronkite News studio during a newscast, with student anchors at the desk and another student operating the camera in the foreground

Innovation is key; journalism is not dead. 

The crisis of America’s “news deserts” (counties that have 0 local newspapers or digital sites) resonated with me strongly when I first heard the concept. Out of curiosity I jumped onto Northwestern University Medill School’s Local News Initiative that provides interactive maps tracking America’s so-called news deserts to see how Arizona fared within the American context. It came as little surprise to me that Arizona fares comparatively well to the rest of the USA in the number of newspapers, digital sites, ethnic outlets and public broadcasting service the state can claim. When higher education institutions like we’ve seen these past few days at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, are innovating and producing journalism graduates that are part of the community news ecosystems as an integral part of their studies, everyone benefits: the students, the industry and the community. 

As it is, PBS Arizona’s studio shares a physical building floor with the School’s own Cronkite News studios. Accordingly, as Cronkite’s capstone and graduate students produce Cronkite News  (broadcast across Phoenix 4 nights a week during term and 2 nights during summer term) they do so in an instructional environment that is professional from the outset. The 6th floor of the Cronkite Building buzzes with young journalists. Under the attentive guidance of School faculty, there are anchors, directors and camera operators working while Cronkite reporters in the background prepare articles for the website and social media stroytelling as a complete news team. Cronkite News packages are syndicated to 160 media partners across the country, free for use as long as these journalists are credited. News production has real consequences for these budding journalists. 

Achieving this type of learning requires higher education leaders to approach their students’ studies not only as “skills acquisition,” but as a contribution to community life and the enhancement of the local media ecosystem. SUSI scholars were lucky enough to observe the production of Tuesday’s Cronkite News broadcast, and we were genuinely excited to see these young journalists rising to the occasion. 

An atmosphere of optimism

Which brings me to my genuine delight in the optimism SUSI scholars have encountered so far in Phoenix that journalism is not going anywhere soon. It’s simply transforming into something new; what we need to focus on is its purpose to contribute to democratic processes no matter what form it comes in. Furthermore, becoming something new doesn’t necessarily mean all aspects of the old must be discarded. A visit to the TV studios of Phoenix’s KPNX 12News studios and the Phoenix Suns basketball communications team reinforced this idea.

One scholar raises her hand to ask a question of Judd Slivka, director of digital content
Judd Slivka of NBC 12 News takes questions from the scholars during their studio visit (Photo Credit: Sabir Haque)

While watching the live broadcast of the KPNX 12News morning weather and traffic briefings I experienced a moment of nostalgia. Despite being an agreeable scroller of third-party carriers to find my own news content “when I want it,” I grew up in a family that always sat down to watch the 6:30pm news broadcast alongside dinner. The news broadcast on a rival channel always followed at 7pm, and if we were lucky, accompanied by dessert. I relished the conversations (and debates) with my late father and mother about the crises unfolding in that night’s news broadcast that inevitably ensued. It shaped me as the scholar and person I am today. For a moment I thought, what a shame it will be not to have this very same ritual with my own young daughters if structured TV broadcasting in particular was to disappear.  

But my nostalgia didn’t last long. As Judd Slivka, Director of Digital Content for 12News pointed out to SUSI scholars, journalism is merely a mechanism for reporting information to the community. Shifting modes of delivery away from what we have historically known to something new, does not mean that journalism as a mechanism to distribute important information would by extension become redundant. 

Similarly, the sheer scale of America’s basketball industry has meant that there is still a need for the apparatus of sports journalism. While technology was able to provide flexibility to the Suns during the Covid pandemic, and today’s sports information appears in a range of formats (including now an area in the arena where influencers watch games … and well, “influence”), the mechanisms of quality sports journalism that fans rely on remain. 

The scholars pose in front of the NBA court at the Footprint Center arena
The SUSI Scholars got a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Suns and Mercury media operations at the Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix (photo by Hyuntaek Lee)

So, I began to critique my feelings of nostalgia for the news formats I have known (for the record: I am not completely out of this era and now embrace my digital newspaper formats!). It occurred to me the essence of the nightly news ritual I value the most in fact has less to do with the process of sitting and watching, but the conversations that reliable and informative news consumption generate in my family, my community and beyond. If we as educators and practitioners can remain focused on this aspect of journalism’s end goal – that debate and conversation are the backbone of healthy families, communities and democracies – as innovators of news delivery formats we should feel confident the mechanism can remain integral to our societies. Quality journalism’s fundamentals of balance, accountability, and objectivity do not have to disappear just because new forms of storytelling are provided to us by technology and evolving audience behaviour.    

In China, where my scholarship has focused for many years, the two characters that make up the word “crisis” (危机 weiji) are a combination of the characters that mean “danger” and “opportunity”. We can choose to see opportunity within moments of crisis. 

Here in the Sonoran desert, the willingness to innovate as a means of protecting journalism’s integrity and relevance to community is being presented to us SUSI scholars in droves…. And I can understand this. Why would you want a news desert when you already have the real thing?