On January 4, political news site Iowa Starting Line announced it was going on hiatus until further notice. “Good journalism should hold the powerful accountable, but it should do so in reality, not just theory,” Pat Rynard, founder and managing editor, wrote. “And if voters aren’t listening to it, then what are we doing here?”
Rynard launched Iowa Starting Line in 2015 as a left-leaning news blog for political insiders—“a way to bring some balance to the online political conversation in Iowa,” he says. Over the years, the publication evolved into a full-fledged news outlet with a large staff. One year ago, in the lead-up to a chaotic primary election, the New York Times called Iowa Starting Line a “success story in the ailing world of local news.” This January, Rynard is in the process of reevaluating the publication’s role.
CJR spoke to Rynard about the influence of local political reporting, its limits, and the challenges it faces. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CJR: Who does Iowa Starting Line write for? Who’s your audience?
Pat Rynard: It’s a mix. In terms of pure numbers, it’s politically engaged people in Iowa, who just want to have a fuller sense of what’s happening in politics. Over the years, I was very intentional in writing things that would be interesting for other reporters, so that our stories wouldn’t just stay on one little online news site that has a limited reach, but could end up in a lot of other places. I built up a lot of good relationships with national reporters who were here for the Iowa caucus, offering us up as a resource for a behind-the scenes look at what was happening in Iowa politics.
CJR: In your recent post, you said that good journalism should hold the powerful accountable in reality, not just in theory. Why?
PR: I don’t see that conversation happening as much. It’s all about How do we keep this stuff surviving? and not so much Is it having its full impact? It’s been very disheartening to see so much stellar journalism—uncovering massive failures of how the state government was handling the pandemic in Iowa—and feeling like it did not have a real impact. When there’s a huge exposé about some agency failing terribly, there just aren’t many changes. And that’s what’s been frustrating to me and why I’m trying to figure out either Do I want to keep doing this? or, if I am going to, What’s the way to get the news in front of more people? When I started, my pitch to a lot of people was that it would be impactful journalism: for me, at that point, getting stories picked up in larger news outlets so that a whole lot more Iowans and voters would see it. But now my concern is, if voters aren’t even reading it or watching those things, then you’ve got to figure out something different.
How do you get a good, factual news story in front of the twenty-six-year-old guy who works at the Casey’s gas station in Knoxville, Iowa? Because those are the kind of folks who don’t have a lot of time, or who definitely don’t follow all the news, who don’t have subscriptions to the Des Moines Register or New York Times, probably don’t even watch the local news at night. Most of the news pops up in their news feed. So how do you figure out a way to pop up in front of him? Because otherwise, it’s too easy to get swamped with misinformation.
CJR: Do you think national outlets have jumped into the “let’s save local news” conversation without evaluating the ways in which local news outlets have degraded or have never really met the needs of their audience in the way that they should?
PR: I think paywalls are single-handedly eroding our democracy. Even when you get good news out there, it’s locked behind a paywall. That journalism has a limited impact. Obviously, newspaper paywalls are often essential in keeping reporters employed. But these local news outlets need to find a different business model to move away from that. We’ve seen that it’s not working. When you have a big breaking news story, and a couple of ten thousand people can actually read it in a state, how much impact or influence is it gonna have? Not everybody subscribes to their newspaper anymore. There’s been a very clear trend of politicians trying to sow doubt in the credibility of mainstream news. People are just finding their news wherever they can find it for free.
CJR: We’ve seen how misinformation and disinformation can contribute to large numbers of American citizens believing a fair election was fraudulent. We’ve also seen disinformation playing a role in prompting a violent mob at the Capitol. How have you seen these trends in disinformation playing out locally?
PR: Even when you have these massively shocking moments, like at the Capitol, that you would think would pierce through some of the fog—and I think it does for some people—there are too many Americans that get presented a different reality. And I think the misinformation, unfortunately, makes local politics more national. It’s not like there are lots of conspiracy theories going around about [Iowa governor] Kim Reynolds. What’s been frustrating about a lot of these more recent elections is that it just feels like the local issues don’t matter, because people get whipped up by this misinformation that’s related to national politics. There’s a lot of stuff floating around on social media, and it’s not about your local city council meeting. And local politicians aren’t held as accountable as they should be.
CJR: I’ve held out some hope for the possibility that local news outlets, speaking in a common vernacular, and understanding local concerns, might have some sort of power to build trust with local audiences that national outlets can’t. Do you think that there’s any hope for that?
PR: I think it’s a possibility. The issue is just—what kind of business models are those local, trusted news sources going to transition to, going forward? Or are they all just gonna kind of hang on to this sort of slow decline? And I also know a lot of the problem is with a bunch of these newspapers being part of huge national corporations. I don’t know what the answer is.
CJR: In your post, you wrote about the sacrifices you’ve made. Do you think there’s a future where local news can survive and without journalists having to go on this sort of moral campaign to their own detriment?
PR: My situation has been pretty unique. But I do observe that people write for a local outlet for five to eight years—they’ll get out…because the pay is just so bad. Even though they love the work, at some point, you’ve got to focus on your family and your own long-term financial stability. And those issues are just getting harder by the year as we keep making more and more cuts. You lose institutional knowledge, and a lot of things.
CJR: In a perfect, miraculous world, how do we get more eyeballs on good journalism?
PR: I don’t know yet. I think partially it’s figuring out ways to write stories a little more colloquially, finding stories that are a little more engaging on social media that aren’t clickbait. Find a way to get people to click on factual-but-interesting. I think it’s very salvageable. We just need a lot of new and more imaginative thinking. It kind of goes hand in hand with my frustration with Democratic campaigns in Iowa. Democrats keep getting beat year after year after year, and then you see them run the exact same type of campaigns, year after year after year, without introspection or reflection. Like with all the challenges of the journalism industry, it just requires a lot more reflection and introspection and coming up with creative, more imaginative ways of how to fund news outlets and get their stories in front of people.
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Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:
- WHAT IS LAURENE POWELL JOBS AIMING TO ACHIEVE? For CJR, Robert P. Baird has a deep dive into Laurene Powell Jobs and the Emerson Collective, which has become a force in American media. “The apparent straight line from a billionaire’s policy preferences to the funding of a particular media outlet might give you pause. One person’s synergy, after all, is another’s potential conflict of interest,” Baird writes.
- “THE PEOPLE’S NEWSPAPER”: The Navajo Times—the only paper specifically covering the 170,000 members of the Navajo Nation—has played an essential role in reporting on the covid-19 pandemic, offering critical information to many readers who don’t have internet access. For The New Yorker, Eléonore Léo Hamelin followed Times reporters in telling the harrowing story of 2020.
- MEDIA ORGANIZATIONS CHALLENGE POSTAL RATE INCREASE: The News Media Alliance and the National Newspaper Association announced that they would join a legal challenge against a new rate-setting order by the Postal Regulatory Commission that would allow the Postal Service to increase postal rates for newspapers. “The PRC is placing the Postal Service’s balance sheet problems—which Congress can fix—on local newspapers and other mailers at the worst possible time,” David Chavern writes. “As many newspapers are the only source of local news about a community, this will undoubtedly increase the number of ‘news deserts’ across the country.”
- NEW ZEALAND MAGAZINES BOUNCE BACK: Nine months after Bauer Media, a major New Zealand magazine company, announced its closure, it has relaunched under new ownership with new magazine titles, The Guardian reported. “The recovery, since the dire outlook in April, has exceeded all expectations: testament to the appetite of New Zealanders not just to read magazines, but to make them,” Elle Hunt writes.
- JOURNALISTS IN PUBLIC MEDIA CALL FOR RACIAL EQUITY: A group of journalists in the public media field published an open letter calling for an anti-racist transformation in the world of public media. The letter calls on public media companies to publicly admit mistakes and seek amends; to change hiring practices and pay structures; to alter training and development; and to create structures for accountability. “Creating anti-racist media is a collective task,” Celeste Headlee writes. “Everyone in the industry has a responsibility to scrutinize how our work contributes to or challenges white supremacy and racism. It’s a task that requires long-term commitment and accountability with measurable outcomes.”
- ON COMMUNITY-CENTERED JOURNALISM: For Gather, a platform built to support community-minded journalism, four experienced practitioners have contributed to a guide for building journalism that engages with the surrounding community: tips and frameworks for building relationships and trust, finding people, and staying accountable.
- QUEENS PAPER MAKES GOOD JOKE—AGAIN: The Queens Daily Eagle, revived in 2018, spoke with the New York Times about the national praise for a recent headline that emphasized the local angle of Donald Trump’s impeachment: “Queens man impeached—again.” David Brand, the paper’s managing editor, says the national virality of the tongue-in-cheek headline (the third of its kind) has brought attention to the substantive daily reporting that the Eagle does in its community. Though the headline is a wry joke, “the point still stands—there’s always a local angle,” Jonathan Sperling, a former staffer, said.
- LOCAL OWNERSHIP FOR LOCAL NEWS: “If Alden already owns nearly a third of Tribune, could life under new full ownership possibly get worse?” Jim Friedlich asks for CJR. “The answer is yes.” Friedlich, executive director of the Lenfest Institute—the nonprofit that acquired the Philadelphia Inquirer two years after an investment group purchased it from Alden—writes about the financial-buyer approach of supporting local news and aiming for community-centered ownership.
- APPLE MAY PAYWALL PODCASTS; FORBES STARTS NEWSLETTER PLATFORM: Apple is discussing plans to launch a new podcasting subscription service, The Information reported. “Such a service could pose a threat to Spotify, SiriusXM, Amazon and other big companies that have in the past couple of years swallowed up podcasting production firms in an effort to gain more control of the podcast ad market,” Tom Dotan and Jessica Toonkel write. Elsewhere, Current reported that the owners of PocketCasts, public media’s supposed answer to Spotify, are putting the platform up for sale. And Axios reported that Forbes plans to launch its own newsletter platform, which will split subscription revenue 50/50 with writers.
- RETIREMENT COMMUNITY NEWSLETTER “STIRS IT UP”: Diana Wiener, an eighty-year-old resident of a retirement community in Yonkers, New York, began self-publishing a newsletter called The Buzz to circulate information about covid-19 in the community, the New York Times reported. The newsletter has broken news about deaths in the community that have been unreported by corporate owners, in addition to publishing residents’ poems and book reviews and protesting the closure of the facility garden (which reopened soon after The Buzz complained). “The Buzz stirs it up,” Wiener told the Times.
- GANNETT AIMS FOR A MILLION SUBSCRIBERS: Gannett CEO Mike Reed announced last week that the company—which owns USA Today and a few hundred local publications—will aim for one million subscribers within the next five years, after seeing an increase in subscriptions in 2020.
- MORE LAYOFFS: Newsday has announced it will cut an unspecified number of staffers at the end of January.
JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: 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. And an organization of fifty writers called the Periplus Collective recently announced a mentorship program to serve early-career writers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.
Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites.