Looking for a future beyond print in western Iowa

The Western Iowa Journalism Foundation was formed amid the pandemic to try to address the decline of journalism in the region. The foundation’s goal is to funnel philanthropic aid toward local publications with ever-decreasing margins so that those outlets can survive––and also plan for the future. It looks to do the work of connecting donors and grants to local outlets in western Iowa, so that news publishers can focus on the work of reporting. “After a century plus of the drain out of rural America, maybe there’s a way to claw back, to maintain critical mass,” Kyle Munson, the board’s president said. “A healthy newsroom can be part of that.”

CJR spoke to two of the foundation’s board members, Munson, a former reporter at the Des Moines Register, and Andrea Frantz, a longtime journalism professor, about the last decade in local news, the destabilizing effects of the pandemic, and their hopes for the foundation model. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CJR: You’ve both been involved in journalism in your region for a long time. When you think about the journalism scene in western Iowa a decade ago, and compare it to now, what are the most significant changes?

Kyle Munson: A decade ago, there were so many more community newspapers throughout Iowa. Circulation was better for so many of them. We were just starting to go off the cliff, but we didn’t know it. I think there was still the euphoria around Big Tech at that time, the way the news business was going to interact with it, that it was going to be our bridge to the future. 

I worked in a newsroom that was sort of a nerve center for the entire state. Now, the diaspora of the colleagues that I worked with a decade ago in that one newsroom is so diffuse: a former colleague at the Capital Dispatch, one at the Axios newsletter, one at The 19th. That one newsroom has spread out into all these other digital startups, which is not inherently bad. It’s just a much different landscape. AndI think it’s harder for the average news consumer to navigate.

Andrea Frantz: I’ve been teaching for thirty years. So my experience in the newsroom is long past. My dad was the editor of a small family-owned newspaper in Grinnell throughout my childhood, and throughout his entire career. At the most basic level, I just remember a lot of people employed by that newspaper. There were two families running it, there were people from the community who ran the press in the back, who ran the front desk, who ran the advertising department. There were people. Now, there aren’t nearly so many. 

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CJR: What led you to decide to launch this foundation? 

KM: The problem is more urgent than ever, because the pandemic has eroded publications’ funding even more drastically; we have newsrooms on the verge of closing. Our foundation got its start with Doug Burns, publisher at the Carroll Times Herald—one of the publications we’re trying to save—a community, local, independent news source. Doug has always been very interested in making connections nationwide as well as in trying to find different new funding models to maintain his core legacy news business, but it’s never been quite enough. He started having conversations with many people—including me and Andrea—and this organization started to form, the intent being to find a more permanent nonprofit structure that could actually save these for-profit family and independent local news sources in rural communities. And so we’re trying to do our work as aggressively and proactively as fast as possible to get that funding to them when they need it the most, right now. Early this year, we got that final IRS approval, which started our work in earnest. 

AF: First and foremost, many communities out here don’t even have access to local news at all. And Doug saw that his own paper was in deep trouble, having to let people go, having to shut down his own internal printing press. He’s also connected with a semi-regional Spanish-language newspaper, La Prensa. One publisher runs the entire publication herself; she does all the reporting. I live in Storm Lake, and I’ve known the local newspaper owners, the Cullen brothers, since they started the paper here, and I’ve watched that newspaper go from a semi-weekly to trying to go daily, and then having to back off, and now struggling desperately for money. 

One of our primary goals is to preserve the local reporting voice, because it’s so important to a community: having that in-depth perspective of a local press reporting on us

KM: Healthy newsrooms are the nucleus of a healthy community. Some communities still have enough of a critical mass where they can maintain a vibrancy, but some of these communities we’re talking about—whether they have no news source, or they have a new source that’s on the bubble—losing a local newsroom is as critical as losing a good grocery store, or anything else. 

CJR:  How did you settle on this model? And what about this model makes you think it’s the right fit for your region?

AF: Basically, our goal is to pay for reporters, to keep newsrooms sustainable. That just seemed like the best possible way to go, given where we are. Western Iowa isn’t hugely populated. And this is an opportunity for us to reach out to foundations, seek out grants, cultivate individual donors who already have an investment in the communities and care about sustaining this local reporting. It’s part of really how communities self-define; their community identity is articulated in local news. And if you don’t have that, it feels like a huge vacuum. There are people in these communities, or connected with these communities, or who have history with these communities, who truly do care about the future of articulating that community identity.

KM: It’s not a major metro area. This is rural and small town America. And if we can have a proof of concept here, that’s pretty powerful. It’s also a very diverse population. We want to be an agent for sustainability and transformation. We’re not out to maintain print newspapers, necessarily. We want to help these news organizations find that future, find that path. And even Doug Burns himself would say that the ship has sailed. He prints two days a week now, and he doesn’t see any way that he’s going to go back to printing more days per week. What we’re saying is these publications being for-profit, independent businesses… that’s not the problem. We want to preserve these places that have served communities for generations. We just have to find the better funding mix around them to make it work.

AF: Part of our mission is also to elevate underrepresented voices. In Storm Lake, there are about twenty-seven different languages spoken in the public schools. We have a unique opportunity to make La Prensa robust and sustainable. If this works, maybe we have other opportunities to support a news outlet for the Southeast Asian community, which is also burgeoning here. 

KM: I wonder if we could be a force in the turning of the corner for some of these rural communities. With people wanting to stay close to families, after a century plus of the drain out of rural America, maybe there’s a way to claw back, to maintain critical mass and a healthy newsroom can be part of that. On the political or philosophical side, I really think the healing of this polarization we’re all just morbidly fascinated with is going to have to happen on the local level too, and I think the local media plays a huge role. And everything we’ve been talking about has exacerbated that split—the time we’re all spending now streaming to national outlets instead of arguing with our neighbors. 

CJR: I think one challenge that a lot of places are facing—particularly over the past year—is they just don’t have the margins to be able to reimagine how their newsroom works, even though that’s so necessary. If everyone’s in survival mode, that healthy evolution isn’t really happening.

AF: There’s no time. You don’t have enough staff. I mean, I think about La Prensa, with one person running an entire news organization. How do you ever find time to go out and try to raise money beyond whatever advertising sales come your way? It’s impossible. Art Cullen at the Storm Lake Times has said that he wants to be able to spend his time reporting—or investing in those who are doing the reporting—but the financial management is a full time job in and of itself. 

CJR: Down the road, if you were to say, Wow, this really went where we hoped it would, what would that look like?

AF: It would be very gratifying to be able to see the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation funding positions within as many local news organizations as possible, especially people doing public affairs reporting. I’d like to see that we’re lifting some of the burden off of the shoulders of those who are worried about the finances of their organizations, so they can concentrate on doing what they should be doing.

KM: And then if we’re able to make these community newsrooms sustainable for another generation and more. And if we’re able to do that around a different model that enables them to do good work for their communities, to stave off the loss in newsrooms or newsrooms being hollowed out as part of a larger chain.

AF: I have hopes that could open up opportunities for local people who want to stay local and do this kind of work. Students want to be able to pay back their student loans. With current salaries right now, that’s tough. There’s an opportunity to offer up a little bit of hope. Our goal is permanence, sustainability, people putting down roots and investing in these communities as vital members, as well as reporters.

 

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).

EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of COVID-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared.)

 

Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • WHEN FACEBOOK GROUPS FILL LOCAL NEWS VOIDS: In Beaver County, Pennsylvania, a Facebook group has filled the void left behind by the closure of the local newspaper, NBC News reported in a deep dive into the role social platforms play in increasingly beleaguered news markets. “The group’s focus on timely and relevant information for a small real-world community is probably the kind that Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg envisioned when he pivoted his company toward communities in 2017,” Brandy Zadrozny writes. “And yet, the kind of misinformation that’s traded in The News Alerts of Beaver County and thousands of other groups just like it poses a unique danger. It’s subtler and in some ways more insidious, because it’s more likely to be trusted. The misinformation — shared in good faith by neighbors, sandwiched between legitimate local happenings and overseen by a community member with no training but good intentions — is still capable of tearing a community apart.”
  • “SCALE WAS THE GOD THAT FAILED”: The transition from the geographically-based market power once held by regional newspapers to the easy access of digital publishing in the internet age was never going to yield a sustainable news business, Josh Marshall, founder of Talking Points Memo, argued for The Atlantic.The super-low costs of entry and the lack of geographic limitations that were key to the explosive growth of digital journalism were also key to its undoing,” Marshall writes. “These new publications had no way to recreate the profitability and stability that the old regional monopolies had made possible.”
  • CAN LOCAL NEWS SLOW POLARIZATION?: In a new book on the relationship between local news, polarization, and national politics, researchers suggest that “local newspapers can hold back the rising tide of political division in America by turning away from the partisan battles in Washington and focusing their opinion page on local issues,” NiemanLab reported. In one case study, California paper The Desert Sun dedicated a month of opinion pages to local issues only, and the researchers found decreased affective polarization among three groups of readers: those already engaged in local journalism, the politically aware, and the politically active.
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT IS WORTH THE EFFORT: For KPCC/The LAist on Medium, Ashley Alvarado asked the outlet’s engagement team about the work required for community engagement and why such work is worth the effort. “When I cheer backstage as an Unheard LA storyteller takes the stage, or when we help someone vote in their first election, or when we get groceries delivered to someone’s uncle who can’t leave his house, I know that all the work is worth it,” Caitlin Biljan told Alvarado. Mariana Dale talked about the importance of building relationships with sources beyond a single story. And Caitlin Hernández said, “If someone sends a message asking for help, and you respond timely with what they need, you’re now building a layer of trust.”
  • MEREDITH EXAMINES SALES OF LOCAL TV STATIONS: Meredith Corp is considering selling its seventeen local television stations to pay down debt, Bloomberg reported last week. The media corporation—which also owns magazine brands like People, Better Homes and Gardens, and Entertainment Weekly—owns television stations in Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Portland, including Fox and CBS affiliates.
  • “DELIVER US FROM ALDEN”: For NPR, David Folkenflik considered the possibilities should Alden Global Capital acquire Tribune Publishing, speaking with journalists who have worked under Alden ownership. “Their business plan is to dismantle local journalism,” Matt DeRienzo, a former Connecticut news publisher, told Folkenflik. “It’s not that it is happening to them because of market forces; it is part of their model.” Elsewhere, the Tribune-owned Orlando Journal-Sentinel’s editorial board described years of cuts under Tribune, warning that “with Alden as our owner, it could get much, much worse.” In an editorial last week, they praised investors who “see not just an opportunity to make money (because many papers, ours included, still make money) but also a way to strengthen their communities,” adding that Alden “sees only profit potential.” For NiemanLab, Joshua Benton considers the possibility that Alden will bow to a superior bid—and take a “win” either way. The New York Times reports that Tribune is seriously considering the new bids.
  • REBUILDING LOCAL NEWS: For NiemanReports, Christopher Baxter, editor in chief of Spotlight PA, offers five key pillars that drive the publication’s approach to independent local journalism: strategic alignment with statewide reporting, meeting clear needs, centering community voices, finding institutional support, and partnership. And a report from the American Press Institute asks “7 questions to help local media rebound in 2021.” And Osita Nwanevu argued for The New Republic that Democrats’ next infrastructure plan should allocate funding to address news deserts.
  • KANSAS PAPER’S PLEA DRAWS SUPPORT: After running a blank front-page to call attention to the financial challenges facing local newsrooms, Kansas City’s Northeast News received thousands of dollars in donations, off-setting its monthly advertising revenue loss from the pandemic, the AP reported. Several new advertisers have also offered to partner with the publication. Elsewhere, Poynter reported that under-resourced communities are just as willing to pay for local journalism as communities with excess resources.
  • JOURNALISTS SHOULD BE KNOWN IN THEIR COMMUNITIES: Storey Square in Uniontown, Pennsylvania commemorates the career of Walter “Buzz” Storey, a longtime newspaper editor, highlighting the visible role local journalists once played in their communities, John W. Miller wrote for Poynter. “To trust the work of journalists they don’t know, Americans need to see journalists they do know making phone calls, knocking on doors and printing corrections when they screw up,” Miller writes.
  • POST AND COURIER OWNER TO SPLIT IN THREE: Evening Post Industries, the parent company of Charleston, South Carolina’s Post and Courier, announced this week that it would spin off into three companies, one being the newspaper division. 

 

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: Poynter has put together a list of places to search for journalism jobs and internships. MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education.

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites