‘Orphan counties,’ and a battle over what local news really means

Columbia Journalism Review: Jill and Michael Fischer live seven miles outside the city of Durango, a historic mountain town of nearly 20,000 and the seat of La Plata County in southwest Colorado. When they turn on their TV for local news, however, evening broadcasts—about community events, the weather, and most notably politics—arrive via satellite from Albuquerque, New Mexico, more than 200 miles away. The couple rarely sees substantial public affairs coverage about their own state’s legislature. During election season, they receive TV ads and coverage for political campaigns in New Mexico, not Colorado.

For years, some La Plata residents have vented their frustrations about out-of-state news in the editorial pages of the family-owned Durango Herald newspaper. “Albuquerque TV is oppressing us,” ran the headline on one such letter. Another resident wrote that Durango is “still being held hostage by the Nielsen Holdings Co. and many Albuquerque television stations.”

La Plata has been in Albuquerque’s Designated Market Area (DMA) for decades because that’s where Nielsen put it. Nielsen, the private data analytics company, creates DMAs nationwide, which help set advertising rates and determine the nation’s top media markets.

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