Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Sara Konrad Baranowski, editor of the Iowa Falls Times Citizen, Abigail Pelzer, publisher of the Marshalltown Times-Republican, and Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, discuss community journalism and the state of local news in Iowa, particularly in smaller towns and cities, as well as open records and public information.

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

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Decades of media consolidation has winnowed the number of small town newspapers across Iowa, but many are still publishing papers and producing news for their communities. We gather a small town newspaper roundtable 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. 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 political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, January 7th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 

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Henderson: Today we're going to have a discussion about the importance of your local press. A 2018 study you may be familiar with found that in counties around the country where there was not a local newspaper, the borrowing costs for the city and county governments in those communities were higher than in areas where there was a newspaper covering those government entities and providing perspective and accountability for taxpayers. Our guests today are providing accountability for the folks in their areas and have done with a history of newspapering in this state. First of all, you may recognize Randy Evans, he is the Executive Director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He has been on the program before and he spent 40 years at the Des Moines Register. Joining us for our conversation as well is Abigail Pelzer, she is the Publisher of the Times-Republican in Marshalltown. Welcome to Iowa Press.

Pelzer: Thank you.

Henderson: Also joining us, Sara Konrad Baranowski. She is the Editor of the Iowa Falls Times Citizen. And folks, before we get started I do want to say a tiny bit of an obituary for a couple of newspapers. The newspaper in Sidney seized publication in February and after 127 years the newspaper in La Porte City, Iowa seized publication in November. Randy, I believe you started at a newspaper in Albia. Is it still being published?

Evans: It is. It has gone from twice a week to once a week. But actually I started when I was in high school in Bloomfield and it is still publishing by the same family.

Henderson: Great. Well, people may not know, but I have been at Radio Iowa since 1987, but before that I was the Editor for three months at my hometown newspaper, the Lenox Time Table, established in 1874 and still being published weekly. Let's learn a little bit more before we begin getting really into this discussion. Sara, tell us about the Iowa Falls Times Citizen enterprise.

Baranowski: So, it is obviously the Iowa Falls Times Citizen. It is a twice weekly newspaper. We cover Hardin County up in north central Iowa. But our company is more than just a weekly newspaper. It is Times Citizen Communications, which also owns the Ackley World Journal, which publishes once a week, and we uniquely own a radio station that is in-house in Iowa Falls, KIFG Radio, which is a small commercial radio station. We have a converged newsroom, so whoever reports for the newspaper is also expected to report for the radio station, whether you're able to or not when you first start there. We also own a printing press in Iowa Falls and print our newspapers as well as some other newspapers and some other printing jobs. And we sell advertising into farm publications throughout Iowa and more than 2 dozen other states in the United States.

Henderson: Abigail, you are the Publisher of the Marshalltown Times-Republican. Tell us about that operation.

Pelzer: Sure. Right now we're a 6-day weekly newspaper. We also have the Marshalltown Times-Republican and obviously our digital presence available 24/7 there. And in addition to that we have three weekly newspapers in Tama and Grundy County and also an expansive commercial print operation at our location.

Henderson: Great. Well, thanks for being here. Randy, you talk to newspaper folk around the state. What do they tell you is their number one challenge?

Evans: I think they all worry about keeping the lights on. When you're in rural Iowa the changing economics of rural Iowa has affected businesses up and down Main Street, which the newspapers in those communities are one of those businesses and those businesses are also potential advertisers. So, newspaper publishers these days must be buying their Maalox by the tanker truckload.

Henderson: Abigail, what do you see as your number one challenge?

Pelzer: Similar to everyone right now is workforce and also I would mention just the keeping morale and reporting on COVID for close to three years does a number on anybody. And so it has been a tough journey. Also in Marshalltown we've had a couple of natural disasters.

Henderson: Tornadoes.

Pelzer: Yeah, we had a tornado and then followed by the derecho of course. But we're a resilient community and building back and there's a lot of very exciting things happening in Marshalltown. But there's also the impact of global pandemic.

Henderson: Sara, do you have anything to add to that list?

Baranowski: I think one of, I'm the Editor of the Times Citizen, and so a lot of my focus is on the news. And just covering everything. We have a staff of five of us reporting the news in Iowa Falls and sometimes that doesn't feel like enough to really report on everything. Like Abigail said, COVID, that is a whole beat that you could create to cover that and its effects on our community. But also workforce and reminding the community that we are worthy of their support through advertising and subscriptions.

Henderson: So, if someone comes in and doesn't know anything about the newspaper, how would you describe the role of your newspaper, Sara, to the folks in Iowa Falls?

Baranowski: I think we have a lot of roles. I think informing our community of what is happening, covering government meetings, letting them know when their taxes are going to go up or if there is a decision coming about building a new school. What are the different aspects of that decision? What discussions are happening? How might that affect your taxes? I also think it is our responsibility to share the stories of our community and I guess build community that way. Reporting on one person's struggle or story might make other people feel like they can share their story. And then public notices and obituaries, we are I kind of see us as the glue that holds our communities together and lets people know what is happening in a way that is not social media.

Henderson: Abigail, as the publisher you have a different role than being an editor, as Sara is. What do you describe to folks in Marshalltown and the surrounding area as the role of the newspaper?

Pelzer: Well, I would echo what Sara had to say as far as the newsroom goes and kind of being the voice of the community and telling the stories of our community, but also we are there to support our local businesses and help them be a success through advertising, digital, still and print as well. But one of the things that we did during the COVID challenge is the challenges of COVID when our businesses were trying to keep their doors open is offer a grant program to our local businesses so they could keep advertising in our paper and be a top of mind of folks in the community. So that is our role, our role is to get the paper at the doorstep and all of the functions and people call the newspaper the daily miracle and that is still the case today. It's just we have another also very important key digital presence with our website and selling O&O advertising as well as programmatic advertising as well. So I would say definitely to support our businesses and our community.

Henderson: Randy Evans, 40 years at the Des Moines Register, did I get that right?

Evans: Absolutely.

Henderson: You saw the Register stop delivering daily to some parts of the state during your career there. How did that rollback, pushback, pullback into the "golden circle" influence what is going on with local newspapers if at all?

Evans: Well, I think that the Register's role through the years has been to some extent sort of to tie the entire state together. And one of the challenges as the Register has pulled in is that it's harder for people in the outlying sections of the state to know as much about what is going on in their state government and the loss of that kind of ready access to information is a definite setback for the state because when my hair was the color of the coffee mug and I was traveling around the state you could go into any cafe in Iowa in the morning and the discussion that was going on with the locals often times was being stimulated by what was in the Register on the front page that morning. We lose some of that glue. But it has created opportunities for community newspapers because they have another demand on their resources, another demand for their information.

Henderson: Abigail, you mentioned a digital complement to the paper paper. How long do you think paper copies of a newspaper will last?

Pelzer: I am not going to touch that one, Kay. I don't have any idea. What I do think is that in communities our size and smaller that they're going to be there a lot longer than maybe more of a metro. But that physical paper is so important to a lot of folks and even I prefer reading a paper copy, a hard copy of the paper myself and viewing it that way. And I think there's, it becomes trendy for kids sometimes, college kids or something. It's attractive to be knowledgeable about your community and knowledgeable about your state and use resources like that. So I think we'll be around for a while, but definitely our readership continues to grow online.

Henderson: Sara, what do you see in terms of the paper paper landscape?

Baranowski: I don't see it going away for us any time soon. If there is a time when we don’t get our paper out right on time we hear about it right away, the phones are ringing, people want their paper. There is a segment of our readership that does not read our paper online at all. We have a very active website that we update every day. We also have a newsletter that goes out via email five days a week that gives us sort of a daily feel or ability to report daily. And while those are important and people appreciate them, they still want the paper copy of the paper.

Henderson: Well, what I hear you saying is the Washington Post and the New York Times have a lot of online subscribers but there are sort of midsized papers who are bumping up against this idea that I don't want to pay for this content. How do you have that discussion with people in Iowa Falls and the surrounding communities that subscribing to the newspaper is something that you should do rather than just getting it for free?

Baranowski: We have this conversation almost daily. When we went online in the early 2000s I believe, it was before I was there, initially we made everything free and saw our subscriptions plummet. And so the leadership at the newspaper made the decision that we were going to have a pay wall on our website and we have maintained that pay wall the entire time that the conversation has been happening in the larger journalism industry about whether people should be charged for the news. What we produce has value and if we don't charge for it then A, people don't see the value in it, and B, we can't continue to operate the way we do. So we have a lot of conversations with the public about why we charge for the content, because we're a business and just like any business we charge for the product that we are selling you. You can't walk into the grocery store and buy a gallon of milk or get a gallon of milk without paying for it. So it is much the same. But I think one thing that COVID lay bare is that there is some information that we really do need to provide without asking people to pay for it. And so there are stories that we make free to readers, things that are o public health concern or content that we really believe that people should have access to just to make an informed decision. That might be election information or information about a school bond, like I referenced earlier. And so it is finding that balance. We still want people to pay for the newspaper, but we understand not everyone can, so we don't want that to be a barrier to them having information.

Henderson: Abigail, you mentioned that your business provided essentially kind of a loan to some of the businesses in your community to help them advertise during the pandemic when they were facing a downturn. There has been a discussion at the federal level of some sort of federal assistance to sort of boost up the local newspapering industry. What is your view of those proposals?

Pelzer: Well, I think it's a positive thing and it's a great discussion. There's definitely, as Randy mentioned earlier, part of rural Iowa and small town business is local newspapers are struggling and I'm not completely familiar with all of the legislative viewpoints on that or proposals rather. But I think it's a positive discussion definitely for our industry.

Henderson: About business models, there is a group of, a small group of northwest Iowa publications that are sort of experimenting with a non-profit model. Is that in your view something that some newspapers are going to have to embrace or pursue?

Pelzer: I think it definitely could be. I know they are very passionate about that organization. I sit on the Iowa Newspaper Association board and I am very proud of that organization and the things that we do there. So these are discussions we're having is what does our business model look like moving forward? How do we keep a really strong network of newspapers in Iowa thriving through the changes that we're seeing?

Henderson: Randy, we had some folks in Iowa say that if it hadn't been for the TPP loans their business wouldn't have survived, including some newspapers. Is it time for the government to discuss how to support the local newspaper industry?

Evans: I think that there obviously is a need for that kind of a discussion on the national stage. I think there is anxiety among citizens and politicians over how you get government sort of picking and choosing who they are going to support. It's not government's role to pick and choose a particular religious denomination, but you can deduct your donations that you make to whatever church you choose to patronize. And that may be a model that is worth exploring on the national level where there is more of a charitable feel for the community good.

Henderson: There's also something popping up online, Sara, and I wonder if it has impacted your organization. They're called ghost papers. They take articles from other sources or they come up with their own articles and they sort of inhabit a space online presenting themselves as local media. Have you encountered that? Are you keeping an eye out for those sorts of things?

Baranowski: We haven't had that issue in our area but I have heard about it in other areas and over the years we have had issues with other websites or individuals trying to use our content and republish it some place for free, especially because we're behind a pay wall. And really it just takes constant vigilance on our part to look for those and then reach out to the people who are being them and say, here's why you can't do that and try to have that conversation again about why we're charging for our content.

Henderson: Abigail, workforce is a word that I hear all the time as I am interviewing legislators heading up to next week's legislative session. How do you as a manager keep talent, attract talent because people might see, as Mr. Evans did, a local newspaper as a stepping stone to a bigger newspaper?

Pelzer: Absolutely. Well, it starts by rewarding and retaining our great talent and we have been able to do a good job. But we are definitely a stepping stone. We will start a lot of young college graduates in the newsroom who kind of work their way into learning how to be a newspaper reporter and then they have another opportunity. But I think it's just a culture and an environment where we're a small enough company where we're kind of a family, we spend a lot of time together and I think it is just really having the great leadership within the building and appreciating our workers.

Henderson: Randy, your organization, the Freedom of Information Council, recently gave Sara an award. Could you briefly describe what you bestowed upon her?

Evans: Yeah, the Council awards a number of Friends of the First Amendment, we've done it each year for 20 years and Sara was among the honorees this year. And we felt she deserved the recognition because the Times Citizen, because of Sara's role, really stepped up and was providing what I called news you can use about the presence of COVID in that region of the state. I believe that there was the need for the newspaper to step forward because it was difficult to get consistent data out of state government. And I think this just underscored the role that a strong local newspaper plays in a community. It is more than just the local high school sports team scores or who won the blue ribbon at the county fair, but it is providing that sort of important public health news, civic coverage of government. And in my view there are few people who do it any better than the Times Citizen does.

Henderson: Sara, you don't have to thank the academy. But I'm wondering if you could, for our viewers, just briefly describe the work that you did in sort of digging through records to determine positivity rates in your community, hospitalization rates in your community.

Baranowski: Yeah, it really was an accidental effort I guess. When COVID started our goal was just to report on this new illness, this virus that was happening and affecting people in our community. And obviously we all know it shut down businesses and schools and there wasn't a part of our lives that was not affected. I already covered the hospital in our community, that is one of my beats, and so it kind of naturally fell to me to cover the health aspect of it and really it started as a frustration about the data that was available from the state. And I saw that data that had been available the week before was suddenly not available and so I built a spreadsheet so I could keep track of it just for my own interest in reporting and noticed that there were discrepancies and just asked about them and really thought that it was my error in entering the data and found out that it wasn't. And I think really it was just my curiosity and wanting to understand it myself and then really wanting to report it because I was concerned about it and other people in our community were telling me that they were concerned about it. So it just kind of snowballed into what Randy said. But all along it's just, I'm trying to get information to our community because they want to know what is happening with COVID in Hardin County. And it has been really difficult to track that. Statewide, even now, my frustration now is we can see statewide hospitalizations and we're being told that with Omicron look at hospitalizations not case counts. So we can see statewide hospitalizations but I don't know how many people from Hardin County are hospitalized for COVID. So all along it has just been a frustration with the information that is available and the way that it is altered. We used to know hospitalizations by county, now we don't.

Henderson: Randy, just briefly, we just have a couple of minutes left. How many calls do you get a week from local radio stations, newspapers, wanting help with Iowa's Open Records and Open Meetings law at the local level?

Evans: Oh, I get calls every day but it will probably surprise you that I would say maybe at least half of the calls are coming from Joe Citizen as opposed to a journalist because it is citizens who are wanting to engage in their government and are having difficulty getting it.

Henderson: Abigail, we have about half a minute left, I'd like to give it to you. Is there something, an issue, that you're seeing covered in your newspaper that you think should get more attention at the state level?

Pelzer: Oh gosh, not that I can think of right now. We'll have to see, every day is a new challenge and a new story. So not at this moment.

Henderson: Sara, is there anything, one issue?

Baranowski: Oh, I knew you were going to send it to me. There are so many. Child care I'm happy to see is being covered at a larger level, for a long time it wasn't, and that is a huge issue for us. Workforce I know is being covered at the state level. But it's affecting small towns, it has been affecting small towns for much longer.

Henderson: Well, the time is affecting us and we have no more of it. But thanks to each one of you for joining us today and discussing local newspapering. You can watch this show anytime at iowapbs.org. Join us at our regular broadcast times, that would be noon on Sunday and 7:30 on Friday nights. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for joining us today.

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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. 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