In my second year reporting for the Advocate, I’ll be focusing my reporting on rural public health stories.

The Advocate is tackling this undercovered topic as part of its second year with Report for America, a nonprofit that works to put more journalists in local newsrooms.

Like the rest of the state, South Texas is facing a daunting shortage of primary care physicians. The state health department projects that the South Texas region will see a shortage of about 111 psychiatrists by 2030. The region is also expected to see an “ongoing and worsening shortage of obstetricians and gynecologists.” Coupled with a shortage of doctors, rural hospitals continue to face steep financial odds to treat patients and keep their doors open.

And amid these larger public health crises, Texans and Americans are paying more for all kinds of medical care, whether it’s a checkup at the doctor’s office or a visit to the emergency room.

I’ll be reporting on these issues and more for the next year.

To do that work, the Advocate is asking for readers’ financial support to help pay for my salary. The request might seem odd, and an unexpected one to come from your local newspaper. But the truth is that newspapers throughout the U.S. are working hard to find new and creative ways to pay for our work.

The Victoria Advocate is a family-owned newspaper with a proud tradition of serving the Crossroads for 173 years. We also are a growing company, having in recent years purchased the daily newspapers in Tyler, Longview and Marshall, along with the weeklies in Kilgore and Carthage.

But all newspapers and other media companies are facing new challenges, of which most in the public understandably aren’t fully aware. A recent study from the PEW Research Center indicated that 71% of people surveyed thought their local paper was doing well financially.

However, in the past 15 years, more than one in five papers has closed, according to a report from the University of North Carolina journalism school. You can see those changes all around us: Last year, Refugio County’s weekly paper stopped publication and was absorbed into the Advance-Guard Press, which covers both Goliad and Refugio counties. About the same time, the weekly newspaper in Port Lavaca reduced from publishing twice a week to once. Just a few weeks ago, the largest city in Louisiana lost its metro daily when the New Orleans Times-Picayune was bought by another media company.

Fewer newspapers in local communities means there’s less coverage about local government, about high school sports, about the public health challenges communities face and more. The Advocate and Report for America are fighting this trend.

Journalism serves a lot of functions, some of which we’re only beginning to understand as access to local news decreases.

Epidemiologists with HealthMap, a project that tracks the spread of disease globally, use local news reports to see where certain epidemics might be spreading. HealthMap researchers said they relied heavily on local news coverage from the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to understand a mumps outbreak in the state in 2016.

The measles epidemic in the U.S., and the spread of misinformation from the anti-vaccination community, show how misleading and incorrect health knowledge are making our communities sick and putting our kids at risk.

In Texas, an investigation from the Houston Chronicle and ProPublica found that patients receive heart transplants at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston had an unusually low survival rate, among other issues. The investigation prompted a review of the hospital as well as new leadership.

Local journalism does work like this, in ways big and small, every day. I’m spending the next year focused on public health. I’m asking for your financial support to do that work but also for your advice, your stories, your ideas and your feedback.

Since I moved to Texas, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I can do my job better, and I try to ask that question a lot. Tell me what you want to know and how we can make our community healthier and stronger.

Ciara McCarthy covers local government for the Victoria Advocate as a Report for America corps member. You may reach her at cmccarthy@vicad.com or at 580-6597 or on Twitter at

@mccarthy_ciara.

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Reporter

Ciara McCarthy covers local government for the Advocate as a Report for America corps member. You can contact her by emailing cmccarthy@vicad.com.

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