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Adair County Free Press

3 Iowa newspapers disappear in a week. The pandemic threat is real for the industry, and for Iowans

You don't see cigarette burns on the floors of newsrooms anymore. Supposedly, the people who work in them will live longer. But whether the papers they toil over will live is in much more doubt.

“You can pay me now,” said the man on the 1970 television commercial for Fram oil filters, “or you can pay him later,” pointing to the mechanic rebuilding an engine.”

That TV ad first aired 50 years ago; the message is a part of our consciousness today.

That “pay now or pay later” line applies to what I believe is one of the two most under-reported stories of our time: The business of local journalism is endangered, and it matters.

Of the 270 newspapers serving Iowa’s 99 counties, not all will be around much longer. If yours is one that doesn’t last, who will report on public meetings? Who will hold your elected officials accountable? And who will advocate for regional economic development?

As we are witnessing in this pandemic, information, or lack thereof, is — literally — an issue of life or death.

Were it not for local reporters, the number of cases and deaths from COVID-19 might go under-reported. Without public accountability, the interests of those who make the campaign contributions would likely influence what and how the information is released.

Ironically, as Iowa meat processing plants became hotspots for COVID-19, the news of the death of Nick Kotz landed in my inbox while I was working on this column. Kotz was a legendary Des Moines Register reporter. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for his reporting of unsanitary conditions in many meatpacking plants. His reporting helped ensure the passage of the Wholesome Meat Act. Reporting by this Iowa newspaper impacted national legislation and saved lives.

I follow many Iowa journalists on Twitter and subscribe or support five local news outlets, including online-only, independent sources. Here is what I’m seeing.

Studies show that municipalities without a local newspaper are more costly for residents. When no one is holding officials accountable, taxes go up, and inefficiencies abound. The cost of municipal bonds goes up. Areas without newspapers are called “news deserts.”

If you think paying approximately $150 for an annual digital subscription to your newspaper is expensive, wait until you see how high your taxes will be if you lose your local news source. Local journalism scrutinizes contracts, the hiring, and firing of government employees, and points out boondoggles. 

Susan Patterson Plank is the executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association, and her job, in part, is to stay abreast of issues facing local journalism.

“There are success stories out there,” she says. “On the other hand, we will not have 270 newspapers when this year is over.”

As I write this, the latest compression is the disappearance in recent days of three Iowa newspapers: The Pella Chronicle and Knoxville Journal-Express will merge into the Oskaloosa Herald, and the Daily Iowegian in Centerville says that the paper is merging with the Ottumwa Courier. The Iowegian cited a financial “gut punch” due to the loss of advertising revenue from pandemic-related business closures. All five publications are owned by CNHI.

Patterson Plank says some of the Iowa papers that are faring the best have local ownership: “Independent owners may have four or five papers, built synergies, consolidated the back room, and invested in the news side.”

Social media is as great as it is terrible. Over 90% of the information on Facebook is false. Or maybe not. I made that number up to make the point that anyone can say anything online, and do. And it gets repeated.

Social media platforms hitchhike off legitimate content creators and count on their users to do the rest. It’s a brilliant business model, even though the rants can be vastly unreliable.

The story of how we got here takes more space than allowed here. Offer a beer to anyone who has worked in a newsroom, then ask, “What do you think about newspapers today?”

Then let the finger-pointing begin. Don’t get me started on over-leveraged media companies paying top dollar to corporate executives while slashing newsroom budgets. And then measuring a reporter’s worth by how many clicks a story gets. I’ll stick “Tiger King” in here just to boost clicks. How stupid is that?

But we are all part of the problem and solution.

If you are buying stuff on Amazon instead of your local businesses, you (we) are part of the problem in the current advertiser-subsidized business model.

Solutions?

Subscribe and advertise in your local paper. Duh. And please don’t taunt “fake news” just because you don’t like a story.

And publishers need to think differently. Publishers and editors get a bit sick of others telling them what to do, but I’d like to offer a few ideas:

Be open with your readers about the realities you face. Tell them what it costs to produce and deliver the newspaper to them and what your current revenues are. They might not know their subscription fee for the print edition usually doesn’t cover the cost of delivery, for example. Report the business side of your newspaper as a powerful community news story. It is. Next, start an ad campaign promoting your paper by listing information they would not have known had not been reported. Explain what distinguishes the local news organization.

Put a dollar amount on a story as to what it could have saved the community. Run a house ad each week touting something they learned because of you. Then, raise your subscription cost. And raise it annually at least 3%.

I facilitated a business group in Chicago where we had experts give presentations on a variety of topics. Pricing is a hot topic, and most leaders loathe to raise prices out of fear they will lose customers.

THINK DIFFERENTLY. Your potential digital audience is bigger than you think. There are 2,290 members of the Facebook group “You know you grew up in West Liberty, Iowa if...” The Dubuque group has 16,596 followers, and your town likely has one, too. There are 228,000 members of “I grew up in Iowa!” Your future audience doesn’t have to live within a 25-mile radius. Run a list of Iowa Snowbird gatherings. Readers like “where are they now” stories about the hometown kids living elsewhere.There’s content gold out there.

Think about a membership model. Some are toying with a variation on a non-profit hybrid arrangement.

Douglas Burns is a co-owner of Carroll Times Herald/Herald Publishing Co., which has been in his family for three generations. The family newspaper operation also owns the Jefferson Herald.

Burns is both old school and new school and is a leader in innovation. Even so, he’s working 70 hours a week, under more stress than ever in his life. He has a new appreciation for the mental toll farmers have faced over the potential loss of land owned by families for over a century.

He’s an innovator who isn’t hesitant to try new ideas. Burns snagged a $75,000 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project. He will use part of the funds toward establishing a Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, along with five neighboring independent newspapers, to fund shared reporters. They will potentially cover agriculture, health care, courts, along with enterprise stories. Contributions to the foundation will pay their salaries.

“The ad-driven, subscription-driven model in the time of Facebook and Amazon is not sustainable at the level it needs to be to prevent rural areas of the country from becoming news deserts,” said Burns.

“Internet-based enterprises like Iowa Capital Dispatch can pick up some of the slack, but can’t scale enough to cover rural areas,” he says.

Many folks are trying to figure this out, including a pal and former Des Moines Register reporter, James O’Shea. Following his time with the Iowa newspaper, he went on to top editor positions with the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. At the Times in 2008, O’Shea gained notoriety for refusing to follow the publisher’s order to cut the newsroom budget by 10%.

He’s the author of “The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspaper.” To this day, instead of enjoying a stress-free retirement, O’Shea continues to find innovative ways to help local journalism. CityXones is in the experimental phase, using “mapping, data visualization, analysis, and engagement tools.”

O’Shea believes just as strongly today as he did in 2008 when he staked his career on the belief that readers will pay for content.

“Back in the 19th century, it was the penny press,” said O’Shea. “We conditioned (readers) their papers were cheap or free.

“It’s going to take a while for readers to realize advertising alone will no longer fully subsidize their local journalism.”

Hey, I don’t know if any of these ideas will work. I’m just a reader and some-times contributor to pages like these. My first job was as a “copy kid” for The Des Moines Register, so long ago, I can describe the cigarette burns on the linoleum floor of the 1960s newsroom.

Nowadays, newsrooms are smoke-free, so the cigarette burns are gone. Supposedly, the people who work in them will live longer.

But whether the papers they toil over will live is in much more doubt.

•••

Julie Gammack is a former Des Moines Register columnist who retired this year as a professional development coach with Vistage International.

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