Small-town perspectives | Part 2

Nov 27, 2020  | 27 min  | Ep 4815 | Podcast | Transcript

Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, we convene a panel of Iowa's small-town journalists to discuss general issues of small town journalism in an era of tightening budgets, small staff, and a changing media landscape.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times; Ty Rushing, managing editor of the N'West Iowa Review; Doug Burns, co-owner and columnist for the Carroll Times-Herald; and Bob Leonard, news director for KNIA/KLRS radio in Knoxville.

Preceding the studio recording of this edition of Iowa Press, these same guests participated in a discussion on the 2020 election. That conversation may be watched here:
Small-town perspectives | Part 1

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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2020 has been a year unlike any other. We sit down with small town reporters at a roundtable to discuss the future of journalism on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, November 27 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.

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Henderson: 2020 has been quite a year for news. A pandemic, a derecho, a pivotal election. We're going to go hyper local today and talk about local radio and newspapers in these challenging times. Joining us today are Doug Burns, Co-0wner of the Carroll Daily Times Herald. Bob Leonard is News Director for radio stations KNIA and KLRS. Ty Rushing is Managing Editor at the N'West Iowa Review. And Art Cullen is Editor of the Storm Lake Times.

Henderson: Gentlemen, before we get started talking about the business end of journalism, let's start with you, Bob. Why do you do this? Why are you here?

Leonard: Well because I like telling stories and I like helping, even more importantly I like helping people tell their stories. I like to elevate people and make them the most important person in town for a little bit. And I like telling the people what matters in their community so that they are better citizens, better informed, so they make better decisions and they spend local and contribute to our local economies.

Henderson: Doug, what keeps you involved?

Burns: Well, it's a privilege and it's often very humbling to be a storyteller. So I always say we're there to celebrate people's successes and we're there to give them a hand up when they're struggling. So I like doing stories on people's aspirations. We get a lot of -- people think that if it bleeds it leads and we're after those negative stories. What I really enjoy writing is when you have somebody who has worked at Hy-Vee for 50 years and they are retiring. Or we have a front page story in today's paper about a local barber who has been around for about 50 years. And those are the stories that really uplift our community and give us the kind of trust to tell the hard stories.

Henderson: Ty, what about you?

Rushing: I love writing. I love meeting new people. I love adventure. This job is the perfect way to combine all three of those things. And I just enjoy that. And plus I get a rush out of beating my competition to a good story or dropping a bombshell and I also really, really enjoy covering public meetings, which no one ever says, but it's true.

Henderson: Art?

Cullen: Well, I came of age in college during the post-Watergate era and so my heroes were Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward and the reason I got into journalism is because I thought I could really make a difference and I think we have.

Henderson: Gentlemen, COVID, the age of, how has that impacted the industry? Doug?

Burns: Well, it has been devastating because, as we'll get to later, I think our industry is going to move more toward a non-profit model. You're seeing that in Seattle and Art and I are working on a western Iowa journalism foundation. But as of now, as we're sitting at his table, we still are driven by advertising and subscriber revenue and COVID has wiped out a lot of our advertising base.

Henderson: In a minute we'll get to the obit section for newspapers on the program. But Bob, radio stations, they don't give up licenses and the radio landscape in Iowa is pretty static, isn't it?

Leonard: Well, I'm not privy to the finances of the station, but I do know that our ownership and our management has given us their vote of support, their vote of confidence. They just want us to go out and do our jobs and we're doing them to the best of our ability. And I'm sure there has been some kind of a hit, but we don't have any layoffs, and we're just out there doing the same thing that we always do. And there has been some consequences, having no sports, sports is a big deal for us, as you know. But --

Henderson: Friday night lights.

Leonard: Yeah, and so that has been a hit. But we're just working, the sports guys in particular have been very creative doing all kinds of different features that they probably would have never done before. So this has sort of sent them in a different direction and it's a good direction too. It will be nice when we're back to normal with all the kids. But they've done a great job.

Henderson: Art, how is abnormal going for your enterprise?

Cullen: Well, when the shutdown first began my brother, who is the founder of the newspaper, and I got together and we were losing $5,000 to $7,000 a month and we just said should we shut it down and we were very seriously considering that for about 15 minutes and then we heard about the PPP program. And that saved us. And something really funny happened about July and August, we started seeing really big gains in circulation revenue, a 50% increase in circulation revenue. During the pandemic, people were turning to our website for accurate information and I have a little hope now that we can make it on reader revenue. I didn't feel that way 7 months ago at all. I thought it was the end.

Henderson: Ty, what about your organization? There is some Pew research out there that shows 74% of people recently surveyed think that the news business is profitable, but only 14% of those who were surveyed actually pay for the news.

Rushing: That's interesting. Because I try to keep myself out of the financial end of the business. We have a healthy wall between news and ads. But part of my job is monitoring our digital traffic and we're approaching 5 million page views this year and we only really started pushing web content in 2016 and for that year we had 435,000 page views for the entire year. So we're approaching 5 million this year and that is going to break our record that we set last year and it's going to break the record that was set before that and so on and so on. I'm seeing a lot of traffic that way. But, at the same time, I know our print circulation hasn't dropped. At its peak, the Review had more than 6,000 subscribers, but we're remaining above 5,000. So it's a blessing.

Henderson: According to the Poynter Institute, since 2004 1,800 newspapers have closed. 1,700 of them are weeklies. What is the business model, Doug? Do you publish weekly and then push stuff online digitally? Do you publish every other day? Do you publish a weekend? What is the new business model out there that you see as being the best to serve local?

Burns: So, like you, I grew up in Iowa and I watched the Farm Crisis when I was a teenager and you would hear these stories about legacy farms and their owners committing suicide. I was sort of wondering why would that happen? Why would somebody get into that desperate of a situation? And then to be honest I found myself there. We have owned the business for 100 years and we were a daily paper and we were hemorrhaging money and we had to go from a daily paper to two days a week. And, as Art mentioned, we've struggled. But we've been working with the Facebook Journalism Project on boosting our digital subscriptions and that has been going well. And I think going forward the model, I don’t think that the advertising and the subscription model will sustain these papers. I think we really have to move into creating non-profit streams. That has happened elsewhere. We're trying to be on the vanguard of that here. But to have to take a daily paper to two days a week and to wonder if the family business that you love, I have a picture of my grandfather and my uncle on the wall, and to think that it's going to collapse under your leadership is just heartbreaking and I apologize for the condescending thoughts I had about farmers who couldn't make it through the Farm Crisis when I was a teenager.

Henderson: Art, this non-profit model, do you think it's the future?

Cullen: It has to be because we are not the advertising middle man anymore and it's coming to radio too and TV, it just hasn't hit as hard there yet. And so Doug and I have been working for about the last year or so on trying to set up a foundation for our two family owned newspapers, essentially, that would solicit donations and without it I'm not convinced that we can survive. It appears that we can float the boat temporarily the way we're going, but ultimately we're going to have to adopt the PBS model.

Henderson: The Poynter Institute has a list of newspapers that have closed this year and they argue it is because the pandemic, it just pushed the business model to the point that newspapers couldn't continue operating. And I'll just read these because some of our viewers may have been longtime subscribers to these newspapers and miss seeing that masthead land in their mailbox. The Sun in New Sharon has closed. The Tama News Herald and the Toledo Chronicle have merged. The Gladbrook Northern Sun, what a great name, and the Reinbeck Courier now have merged and they are the Sun Courier. The Traer Star Clipper and the Dysart Reporter are now the North Tama Telegraph. The Keota Eagle and the News Review in Sigourney have merged. And this one got a little bit of statewide attention, the Daily Iowegian in Centerville that was launched in 1864 has merged and is now I guess managed by the Ottumwa Courier. Now, I'm going to mention a couple that are in your neck of the woods, Bob. The Oskaloosa newspaper has absorbed the Pella Chronicle and the Knoxville Journal. And, let me just say about the Knoxville Journal, it was founded by a Civil War hero named William Milo Stone who was a friend of Abraham Lincoln's and he became the Governor of Iowa. What has been the talk of the town now that those two newspapers in communities that you serve are now part of the Oskaloosa enterprise?

Leonard: Well, people are trying to recover. The avid newspaper readers, those are great towns, Knoxville and Pella, Oskaloosa, they're great towns, they all deserve fine newspapers. Part of the problem with those papers was the lack of local ownership and that they worked their people to the bone. You can only do so much as one person and it's just when you don't live, when ownership isn't in the community, doesn't care about the community, then it's tough to survive. And some of the reporters were very good. There is one young lady who is really good and she is trying to cover Oskaloosa, Knoxville and Pella and it's just, it's impossible. I don't know if you know that from headquarters in Alabama or wherever they are, Arkansas. But it's a tough bind. And they've gone through a number of reporters, a number of editors, and they're all rode hard and put away wet. And it's just a tough life, tougher than, I mean, tougher than most people can handle.

Henderson: Gentlemen, there are a couple of newspapers in Iowa that are doing things that aren't necessarily newspapering. Doug, they're owning other companies, they are buying other companies that can be profit centers or they are using one side of the business to help local businesses write news releases. What is the prospect of becoming a newspaper that has ownership stakes in other kinds of businesses as a way to support the newspaper?

Burns: So, we have taken steps in that direction. We created a company called Mercury Boost Media Marketing Solutions. So we would get no’s from people about print or online ads, now we're able to sell digital advertising, Facebook, social media advertising as a separate company. I also represent the Iowa Newspaper Association on political ads with all 252 newspapers and any revenue we derive from that goes to support our newsroom. I saw my good friend, Art, shaking his head. The problem if you diversify like that, at some point the non-newspaper revenue will be, that will be the successful part of your business. And if you're going to diversify honestly and your mission is just to make money you might as well get out. I'm motivated to bring money into the business to keep our newspaper alive because I know what happens in rural areas when they become news deserts and the toxicity and dystopian atmosphere of Facebook just consumes a community from the inside. So I'm going to do everything I can to keep our paper open. And yeah, that means some side businesses. But Art, I'm sure you'll talk to him next about it, but he's right, to just go in that direction completely defeats the purpose of the main mission of what we do.

Henderson: Art?

Cullen: Well, I go back, I'm too old, but I go back to Gardner Cowles, the former owner of the Des Moines Register many years ago and was a fantastic newspaper and he just believed the newspaper business was newspapering. Because you get into something else and it creates conflicts for you, it distracts you from your mission and so we've got, little newspapers I always had job printing shops, print envelopes and letterhead and so on. That business has gone away. You can't sell wedding invitations anymore. That business has gone away. So we've just got to stick to newspapers. I don't know that cleaning out hog houses on weekends is going to help me be a better newspaper man. So we need to stick to our knitting. And I don't begrudge Doug or anybody else doing that, it's just my opinion as the Storm Lake Times is all I care about and that's what I'm going to stick with.

Henderson: Ty, you're a native of the Kansas City metro and you have chosen to live in Northwest Iowa. What advice can you give to folks in this industry who are trying to recruit people to make this a career?

Rushing: Basically you've got to explain community journalism to them. I didn't know a thing about community journalism, I didn't know there was such a thing as weekly newspapers when I was in Kansas City. I grew up reading the Kansas City Star. That is still my favorite paper despite being --

Henderson: No offense to these people.

Rushing: Yeah, I love these guys. I get their papers as well. But the Kansas City Star, that's my hometown paper, so it has a special place in my heart. But we've really got to talk, journalism professors have really got to explain the opportunities that come about in community journalism. And fortunately I've been able to talk to a couple of college classes at UNI, Morningside, the University of Iowa and Iowa State in the last couple of months and I've told those kids about some of the adventures I'll get to have and some of the fun things I get to do and all the cool things you get to do while working for a community newspaper and also being a part of that community. And so we need to enlighten them about those opportunities because coming out of college I thought if you don't go to the New York Times or the LA Tribune, or the LA Times or the Chicago Tribute, you weren't doing anything great and that's a lie. You can find a great news story anywhere. It doesn't just have to be in those flagship, major, well-known publications. You can go to the Sheldon Mail Sun and write great stories and cover meetings and make an impact.

Henderson: I'll tell a little tale on a person who often sits in this chair and isn't here today. But I once covered a meeting in the Iowa Statehouse, in the Iowa legislature, and came out and ran into David Yepsen. And he said, so what are you doing today? And I explained that I had covered this meeting and what had happened and his reply was, oh, meeting journalism. But you really like covering the city council.

Rushing: I do.

Henderson: Why?

Rushing: It's very entertaining and not only is it entertaining but it's very informative. I learn so much about what is happening in Sheldon just from hearing the different perspectives of the different councilmen and the different representatives and the city manager and the city clerk and the public works director and the community development director because they all share about what is happening in their little slice of town. Then you've got people coming in with the public comments and you hear about what is happening elsewhere, you can kind of understand what the issues are, so that way I can learn about these issues so I can write about them properly and talk to other people and find out about them and find out what are their issues, what the city is going to do about them and things like that. And so it's a great way to learn about exactly what is happening in your community and to stay informed. And it's my job to help people be informed and know what is happening in their community. So by being there, being that fly on the wall, I get to report that information and share it and keep my readers informed. I tweet the meetings live on Twitter and I've got a big following outside of Sheldon who are people who are invested in this meeting. Like I have friends from Sioux City tell me all the time, I know more about what is happening with your council than I do with our own. And that's a huge compliment to me just because I have found a way to talk about a council meeting, which most people would be like oh that's boring, but it is somehow both informative and entertaining to them. And so that is a huge compliment.

Henderson: Bob, what is the most obscure meeting you have ever covered and what did it yield?

Leonard: Most obscure meeting --

Henderson: Do you share his view about the excitement of covering city council?

Leonard: I do in sort of a different way because I like watching the faces and mannerisms of the different councilmen and women and try to figure out what is really going on behind-the-scenes and who is mad at each other, who is upset, the personal drama there. But there's some things that are pretty mundane. But my attitude is just because it might seem mundane to me doesn't mean it is, it means I probably haven't intellectualized the issue enough, I don't know enough, and so I've got to figure out why it is important because if it wasn't important it wouldn't be on the agenda.

Henderson: Speaking of not knowing enough, there's a discussion in our industry about media literacy. What role does local media, radio and newspaper, play in explaining media to the electorate?

Burns: We started a program called A Sustainable Partnership where we've worked with two local schools and we have a business in the community that is providing digital and regular subscriptions to students who are in social studies and history classes. So, we have a big role to explain that anything that comes through my newspaper is vetted and it is professionally gathered. We have also been much more aggressive in putting our information out online. Again, when you go into the fever swamp of Facebook in our community I would like to think that we're sort of the only beacon of reason and the only source that people can go to where there is still that community square of trust and there's common truth. I think we're really the only people who can project common truth into public discussion in our region. So, it's a big responsibility, we're doing it by, again, reaching out to the schools and by aggressively using social media and explaining to our readers when they have a question about a story or when they complain about a story very politely and thoroughly answering those concerns.

Henderson: Art, I know very few people who are younger than I am that subscribe to a newspaper and most of them are in the industry. What happens when the folks who do subscribe age out? Is there a digital model for this that is just going to have to figure out its way?

Cullen: Yes and that is what we're in the midst of right now. We just launched a new website today at www.stormlake.com --

Henderson: Do we charge for that commercial, folks?

Cullen: Yeah, we'll send you a donation later during pledge week. And young people, if you go to a hotel or an airport, not just young people but old people too, and I haven't been to a hotel or an airport in 7 months, but nobody is reading a print publication, they're all staring into their cell phones. So obviously we have to be a digital product. And my brother and I, John is over 70 and I'm 63 and we're old luddites and we love printed newspapers. I used to run our press. And we love the smell of ink. But I'm afraid the print publication is not long for this world, frankly, and we're going to have to make that transition to digital.

Henderson: Gentlemen, we're almost out of time, we have just a couple of minutes left and a bunch of geeky news people sitting around. Let's just do something more entertaining than talking about the decline in the industry. Ty, is there a masthead out there, a newspaper name that you have wished you worked for?

Rushing: Ooh, that's a good question. The N'West Iowa Review is a pretty, pretty sweet name and we're very much about the N'West style for the branding and so a lot of people give me flack about that because it's like oh, I'm never going to -- at N'West. I'm like, well they're paying me to say N'West, so I'm going to say N'West.

Henderson: I got my start in journalism at the Lenox Timetable. Are there any mastheads out there that you look at, Doug, and you say, gosh?

Burns: So, when I was in school at Northwestern University in Evanston I always thought it would be great to work for the New Orleans Times Picayune.

Henderson: Art?

Cullen: Well, one of those newspapers that died was the Youngstown Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio and I'm always seeking to be vindicated. So if I could change the flag of the Times to something else it would be the Vindicator.

Henderson: Bob, I always thought it was sad that WOW in Omaha gave up those call letters. Any call letters out there that you recall that you thought, man, I love those call letters, I wish I could work there?

Leonard: Boy, I don't know, I love WNYC, what an incredible station, I like that. I as a kid had a shortwave radio and I used to listen to it at night when nobody thought I was and I used to listen to Radio Japan and listening to Radio Japan was incredible. I listened to a man, a naturalist walk up Mount Fuji and tell me a different story about plants, people and cultures every night. That was just fascinating to me. So a lot of the things from overseas I just still love.

Henderson: Well, we hope that our viewers and listeners at home loved this conversation that we just had. On behalf of all the folks at Iowa PBS, thanks for joining us and follow us online.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa