United States Project

A tale of two local newspapers covering the Vegas massacre from Mesquite

October 4, 2017
Mesquite, Nevada, where Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock resided. Photo circa 2011 by Ken Lund, via Flickr

LUCAS THOMAS, THE LONE REPORTER with the Desert Valley Times in Mesquite, Nevada, was in demand Monday. Once news broke that the gunman who killed at least 59 people and injured over 500 more in Las Vegas on Sunday night was a Mesquite resident, Thomas was inundated with interview requests as a knowledgeable voice from the ground.

Radio stations based in Texas and New Zealand interviewed Thomas about residents’ reaction to the murderer who had quietly resided in Mesquite, a town of just under 20,000 people tucked inside Nevada’s border with Arizona. He was lined up for a slot on Rachel Maddow’s show on Monday (but didn’t go on), and was profiled by his hometown paper in Maine for his role in covering the story. Thomas says he was the first reporter to show up at gunman Stephen Paddock’s house; he tweeted updates throughout the day, and livestreamed a report via Facebook. Despite all that, Thomas hasn’t yet written about Paddock for his own newspaper.

You wake up and the biggest story in the world is happening in your backyard. Suddenly media from all over the world is descending on this quiet town. You would like to have the chance to be at the front of that coverage.

Instead, USA Today staff in other parts of the country filed the report that led the front page of Tuesday’s Desert Valley Times. The smaller paper sits at the bottom of a media food chain—owned by a slightly bigger regional outlet, the Utah-based Spectrum, which is itself part of a larger national chain, the Gannett-owned USA Today Network.

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“We had three reporters here, all from the same network. I wasn’t necessarily worried about filing a story for a deadline last night. I was more tasked with gathering information and making that available to the collaborative effort,” says Thomas. “I’m happy to help out, don’t get me wrong. I’m a team player.”

Small-town reporters like Thomas cover local school boards, city councils, and sports. But when an event of national significance occurs, they have to manage a sudden, jarring coexistence with the swarm of journalists that descends on their patch—from their own chains and from other national and regional outlets.

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“I went to bed Sunday night and Mesquite was Mesquite; a small town where nothing ever happens, and [finding] news is kinda tough,” Thomas says. “You wake up and the biggest story in the world is happening in your backyard. Suddenly media from all over the world is descending on this quiet town. You would like to have the chance to be at the front of that coverage.”

Journalists who parachute into a trauma-struck small town can’t hope to capture the place as accurately or deeply as a beat reporter who lives and works there. The local reporter has a deeper understanding of the community, and can call on familiar sources to get updates before national competitors—something to which Barbara Ellestad, a reporter for Mesquite’s other paper, Mesquite Local News, can attest.

“The police allowed me to go behind the line they had created to cordon off the press,” says Ellestad. “These guys are my friends. I’ve worked with them for over 10 years.” One officer even took pictures of the house and sent them to Ellestad for her story, which she says irked bigger outlets stuck on the wrong side of the rope.

Unlike the Desert Valley Times, Mesquite Local News isn’t part of a national network. (It’s owned by Battle Born Media, which oversees a group of hyperlocals in Nevada.) That gives reporters like Ellestad more space to find their own angle when a national story comes to town.

But it also means they can’t corral resources from a broader pool to bolster their coverage. Mesquite Local News publishes a print issue once a week, posts a daily online update, and relies on a small team of part-timers and freelancers for its reporting. In a perilous financial climate for hyperlocal titles, the trade-off between resources and independence often hamstrings the reporters who are best placed to bring local insight to national stories.

One man told her he’d been misquoted by a national news reporter who cornered him in a bar.

Bigger local papers have a better shot than hyperlocals at scooping national rivals on stories like Paddock’s—as Ohio’s Toledo Blade proved through its brilliant reporting on James Fields, Jr., the local white supremacist who killed Heather Heyer with his car in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Indeed, better-resourced regional titles have done good reporting in Mesquite in the past few days. Even regional outlets that don’t have reporters stationed in the city on a permanent basis have a better understanding than national outlets of the nuances of local culture and politics.

“The advantage for us is we understand the area, and how Mesquite relates to Las Vegas,” says Wade Tyler Millward, a reporter with the Las Vegas Review-Journal who drove to Paddock’s home with a videographer early Monday morning. “The nationals are here just for this event. But we want to know about the immediate aftermath and the long-term effects. We’re not leaving after this news cycle ends.”

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The Nevada Independent, a nonprofit focused on state policy and politics that launched in January, has also published a clutch of original articles on the shooting, despite its relatively small staff. “We’re not really built to cover something like this,” says Editor Jon Ralston. “But we said, ‘We’re gonna do this, and show what we can do with just five reporters.’”

The Independent’s output includes a detailed dispatch from Mesquite by freelancer Daniel Rothberg. “Most of the people I talked to really appreciated [me talking to them] because they had the same question: ‘Who was this guy?’” says Rothberg, referring to Paddock. “They didn’t really know him, but he was part of the community, he lived among them.”

Ellestad at Mesquite Local News, however, says some residents she’s spoken to are already fed up with the army of reporters and camera crews that has descended on their town. One man told her he’d been misquoted by a national news reporter who cornered him in a bar.

Those locals usually have more tolerance for the angle their trusted local paper can bring to bear on stories that attract national outlets. But in 2017, many hyperlocal outlets just aren’t built to meet exploding national interest when a story like this hits their town. Their reporters can provide tidbits and color that national reporters can’t, but it’s hard for them to be visible among the parachutes.

And even if she had more resources at her disposal, Ellestad doesn’t think churning out content to meet heightened demand is the local paper’s job. “I wanted to calm the community. I thought getting the article out as quickly as we did would help calm fears, help calm the rumors,” she says.

Ellestad expects her paper to provide more coverage of Paddock, but only when genuinely new information becomes available. “Why would I [put something out with no new information]?” she asks. “I have a real problem with that: media that put out stuff just to get something out there.”

At the Desert Valley Times, meanwhile, Thomas says he’ll be covering this story long after the light of national publicity trained on Mesquite dims. “There’ll be time to write plenty of stories, not only [about] what happened, but how it affects this small town here,” he says. “I’m not frustrated I haven’t written anything yet. There’s gonna be plenty of words to write in the coming weeks and months.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.