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Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West moves into news

Already an interdisciplinary hub for regional studies of the West, the Bill Lane Center has also become a journalistic destination, partnering with newspapers and making forays into academic reporting.

It's not news that newspapers are short on resources. The industry has shrunk by 43 percent since 2000, according to the Pew Research Center, meaning most papers don't have time or money to invest in anything but bare-bones reporting.

That's a shame, because two of the defining features of 21st-century journalism – digital storytelling and complex, large-scale topics – often end up getting short shrift.

L.A. CiceroKathy Zonana portrait

Kathy Zonana, associate director for the Bill Lane Center for the American West

Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West, on the other hand, specializes in these things.

"We have this idea that universities have a real role to play in engaging the public," said Geoff McGhee, the center's creative director for media and communications.

The Center has increasingly been partnering with news agencies, as well as producing its own original reporting. "We can carry the weight that independent news agencies are increasingly unable to carry on their own," McGhee said.

The Center is already well known for bringing together academics on Western topics ranging from wildfire ecology to rural health care. Now, in a process that began with former executive director Jon Christensen and has continued with new associate director Kathy Zonana since her arrival in September, the Center has been bringing journalists to those academics, partnering with news agencies and conducting original reporting on the West.

Good fellows

Texas Tribune reporter Kate Galbraith had a complex story idea. She wanted to look at water rates in Texas cities - "an explosive issue," as she put it. But the Tribune was a young, nonprofit online paper, and the topic demanded a degree of data visualization that it simply couldn't produce in-house.

That's where the Lane Center's media fellowship program came in. The Center offers stipends and multiple-week residencies to journalists working on Western issues.

But, as Zonana explained, the fellowship offers journalists more than an opportunity for data visualization. "One of the things that's important with topics like these is to give journalists a little bit of time to pause and think about a subject," she said. "Giving them access to scholars is a way to do that."

Galbraith, a 2012 Fellow, remembers how it felt to talk directly to Stanford water experts. "I'd walk into professors' offices and say I was doing this article about water rates," she said. "They'd just start talking about water concepts I hadn't even thought of."

The result was a detailed, interactive graphic comparing water rates, usage, precipitation and drought statistics across the nation.

Other collaborators have included Harper's Magazine, High Country News and the Salt Lake City NBC affiliate KSL-TV. Earlier this year, the Center collaborated with KQED radio on an in-depth digital look at the California Delta's historical ecology.

The Center isn't only a resource for news agencies, either – it's also a resource for resources for news agencies. One of McGhee's most recent collaborations has been with the environmental data clearinghouse website EcoWest.

The site collects scattered but publicly available data on topics like wildfires and endangered species in the form of freely available charts, infographics and maps (a full version of the site will be launched in early 2013.)

"We talked to environmental foundations, and they didn't want another report," said EcoWest staffer Mitch Tobin. "They wanted PowerPoint slides."

"These are changes that are going to affect everyone," said McGhee. "But reading a 50-page paper isn't necessarily going to get people interested."

Beyond the backyard

Projects like these have also highlighted just how widespread some seemingly local issues are in the rural West.

"Too often, journalists in the West only think along geopolitical lines – city, county or state," said John McChesney, a veteran NPR reporter, editor and executive. "A lot of the issues that face the West transcend these borders."

Federal lands, oil and gas deposits, water sources – these can all span multiple states. So can subtler cultural affiliations of rural Westerners, such as their relative geographic isolation and an interest in self-sufficiency.

The second arm of the Bill Lane Center's new journalistic push has been original reporting that draws out these regional Western trends. At the center of these efforts is the Rural West Initiative, helmed for the past 18 months by McChesney.

The goal of the Initiative in its first three years of existence, according to the center's faculty director, Stanford Professor of History Emeritus David Kennedy, has been to bring journalistic attention to challenges common to many areas of the rural West, but largely unknown to urbanites.

"The people in the urban areas have little or no knowledge of what the rural areas are all about," said Kennedy. "All you have to do is go three or four hours east of here and it's a different world."

Accordingly, the Initiative's work has focused thus far on three issues that may define the future of the West: oil and gas exploration ("places you haven't heard of, they're drilling the hell out of," McChesney said,) rural health care ("margins are shrinking rapidly") and the Colorado River ("demand exceeds supply, and there's no end in sight for that").

The Initiative's documentary on the benefits and drawbacks of the current Western energy boom – with digital annotations made possible by an interactive video player designed by McGhee – will soon appear on North Dakota's Prairie Public Broadcasting.

And, last month, the Initiative organized the first Rural West Conference in Ogden, Utah. The gathering at Ogden's David Eccles Conference Center brought together journalists, politicians and scholars to discuss topics ranging from federal land management to tribal politics, as well as evergreen Western issues like water management – now exacerbated by new concerns, such as the fracking boom and bust.

"I could hardly get them to stop talking in the hallway and sit down to dinner," Zonana said.

Select papers from the conference will be published in a special issue of Utah State University's Rural Connections magazine, as well as in an edited academic volume – possible harbingers of further journalistic-academic collaborations.

"We don't have the answers," said Christensen, "but that's why it's important for us to collaborate and experiment on funding solutions."

The Rural West Initiative has been supported by the Eccles family. The Rural West Conference was cosponsored by the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University, the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University and the American West Center at the University of Utah.

Media Contact

Kathy Zonana, Bill Lane Center for the American West: (650) 725-7526, kathyz@stanford.edu

Max McClure, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-6737, maxmc@stanford.edu