In small towns, news travels fast. But it’s usually based on word of mouth, not verifiable facts. More and more rural places in the San Joaquin Valley are becoming news deserts -- even the local newspapers are mostly ads and press releases.We traveled to western Fresno County to find out what that means for the people who live there.
Joseph Riofrio is one Mendota resident who’s frustrated with the limited news coverage.
He used to be a city council member, and two time mayor. These days, he runs the town pool hall, and is campaigning for another round on the city council.
Riofrio pulls out a flyer the city sends to residents along with the water bill. It’s called “The Mendota Journal.”
“This comes in the water bill, in English and Spanish,” Riofrio says.
There’s so little news in this town, even the city is trying to reach residents with a newsletter. Riofrio says that news coverage in Mendota is very limited. If he wants to know what’s going on, he checks the Fresno Bee’s website or the ABC 30 app on his smartphone. But if he needs more information, he picks up the phone and calls around.
“You know we don't have a local newspaper like we used to.”
The Firebaugh-Mendota Journal still exists, as a weekly paper sent to residents, but it’s small these days, and mostly ads. Riofrio says the Journal used to have a reporter stationed in Mendota who he would see all the time at local functions. That’s changed.
“Most of it is people calling in,” he says of the reporting. “If they don't hear from any people or persons that want something printed for all to see, people in Kerman, Firebaugh, San Joaquin, Tranquility, they don't know about it.”
Tim Drachlis is a journalism professor at Fresno State. He says that a loss of news, or consistent, quality local reporting can be dangerous.
“The danger that you have is that the community stops being aware of what’s going on, what the issues are in the community,” says Drachlis. “Traditionally weekly and daily newspapers have been used by communities to tell folks what’s going on and when those people who are telling you, or telling the reader all the news disappear, you don’t get that news anymore.”
Communities that lose quality reporting are called news deserts.
In nearby Kerman, residents get The Kerman News. But it’s also mostly ads. The few news stories don’t even have reporter’s bylines, so it’s not clear who wrote them. Oddly enough, the paper’s editor, Mark Kilen lives in Texas. He didn’t return our phone calls and e-mails.
And like many residents I spoke with, Sandra Miller says she gets her news this way.
“I go to the senior center and church and you’d hear everything from church or the senior center.”
Miller grew up in Fresno, and moved to Kerman to care for her parents. But even word of mouth can’t cover a local election.
“I wanted to know more about the candidates,” Miller says. “I don't like all the smearing on TV and people believe that. We need more things out there to really know of people.”
Olga Garcia lives in the town of San Joaquin, but we met at a coffee shop in Mendota. She’s 18 years old, so this is the first time she’s ever had the opportunity to vote. But she says that she doesn’t know too much about what’s on the ballot, and she’s never been very interested in the news.
“I never really thought about it twice,” Garcia says. “I was kind of just like, okay, that's just not my thing. But now everybody is urging everyone to vote, and you know, that kind of gives the feeling that it's really important and we should be looking into all of that.”
Her family doesn’t watch the news either, so Garcia says if she wants to know what’s going on, she relies on gossip or social media.
“Since it's such a small town, your know, word gets around. My mom has friends and they talk about things like that,” Garcia says. “My mom’s kind of like another source I have where I find information.”
But as Timothy Drachlis, the Fresno State professor, points out, these sources don’t replace journalism.
“No one goes to town meetings anymore and communities that don’t have a newspaper and don’t have good reliable local media covering the issues within that community don’t have any source of information anymore,” Drachlis says. “They’re just going off of what they hear on TV or read in national news outlets or online, which isn’t always verified and accurate.”
These news deserts seem even more pronounced with the election just a week away.