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Feature Story

The future of Iowa’s newspapers

7/4/2018

How will the state’s most trusted news source stack up in the years to come?

He and she never met, likely never even heard of one another. Yet here they are, leading an article about the
future of Iowa newspapers. That’s because their views reflect so well what you’ll hear from many Iowa editors
and publishers who argue against the notion that print newspapers are dying.

“He” was Steve Williams, whose family bought the Milford (Utah) News in 1933 and who sold it in 1970. “She” is Abigail Pelzer, named publisher of the Marshalltown Times Republican. She was managing editor of the T-R for five years and editor of the Newton Daily News before her return to Marshalltown.

Williams’ motto for his paper was, “The only newspaper in the world that gives a damn about Milford.”

Pelzer’s Times-Republican, with the Fort Dodge Messenger and a dozen other Iowa publications, is owned by Ogden Newspapers, a branch of the Nutting Company, which also owns the Pittsburgh Pirates major league baseball team.

So, Pelzer works for a corporation that gives a lot of damns about many things other than Marshalltown. And, after all, corporate greed is listed as a driving force behind the circulation declines of America newspapers. But Pelzer is in league with Williams:

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“Ogden Newspapers has an eye on the future of newspapers. Unlike publicly traded companies, Ogden Newspapers doesn’t have a vision for the next quarter; it has one for the next quarter of a century… This vision is a refreshing philosophy compared to boardroom discussions on how to raise dividends and squeeze more profits, sometimes at the expense of quality.”

Her comments about such ownership stand in stark contrast to the nightmares portrayed in the winter 2018 issue of American Prospect magazine. That 7,000-word article is online at http://prospect.org/article/saving-freepress-private-equity. Here are about 150 words from it:

“…(T)he real tragedy for the civic commons is occurring at the level of regional papers. Local dailies and weeklies are in a slow death spiral…[The] private equity [industry] has been gobbling up newspapers across the country and systematically squeezing the life out of them to produce windfall profits, while the papers last. The cost to democracy is incalculable…The malign genius of the private equity business…is that it allows the absentee owner to drive a paper into the ground, but extract exorbitant profits along the way from management fees, dividends, and tax breaks. By the time the paper is a hollow shell, the private equity company can exit and move on, having more than made back its investment. Whether private equity is contained and driven from ownership of newspapers
could well determine whether local newspapers as priceless civic resources survive to make it across the digital divide…”

Similar concerns were raised in a May 22 Bloomberg Press article on the Editor & Publisher website: “The Hard Truth at Newspapers Across America: Hedge Funds Are in Charge.”

The points made by Williams, Pelzer and American Prospect and E&P frame much of the debate about the future of Iowa newspapers — about 240 weeklies and 34 dailies.

That future likely will not include an increase in paid circulation for those newspapers.

The 2010 and 2017 directories of the Iowa Newspaper Association provided circulation figures for 33 weekly newspapers, selected because they are frequently among the winners in annual INA contests recognizing best editorials, best news coverage of various events, public service and other areas important to their communities. For dailies, circulation figures were checked on 29 of the 34 dailies and the 12 with Sunday editions:

                                             2010     2017      % change
Total weekly paid circulation     75,887   61,118    -19.5
Total daily paid circulation        568,489  334,879  -41.1
Total Sunday paid circulation    583,939  400,183  -31.5

The daily and Sunday circulations were also checked in Editor & Publisher Yearbooks for each decade from 1948 to 2008, with 2017 figures coming from the INA directory. The peak year of circulation for these decades was in 1968, resulting in these declines:

                                           1968       2017       % change
Daily paid circulation              926,871  334,879   -63.9
Sunday paid circulation          810,241   400,183   -50.6

(The 1968 daily figures include 116,120 for the Des Moines Tribune, which folded in 1982. There were eight Sunday papers in 1968, 12 in 2017, as some papers had added Sunday editions with the Register pulling back from statewide circulation.)

Given those declines, one wonders how newspapers have survived. Yet, with the exception of the Des Moines Tribune, the Iowa dailies published in 1948 are published in 2018.

The daily Des Moines Register had a circulation drop of almost 50,000 and a Sunday drop of 90,000 between 1988 and 1998. Yet Gannett, which bought the paper in 1985, rang up profits more than double those under Cowles family ownership. How? Expensive statewide circulation was dropped, the staff was cut and the news hole shrank — but pressures remained to somehow maintain quality and increase profits.

Several Iowa editors contributed their thoughts about the future and are quoted below, but first consider the thoughts of two persons whose concerns about circulation and newspapers rival those of any Iowan — Tim Bingaman of St. Louis, president and CEO of the Circulation Verification Council, and Kevin Slimp, CEO of the Newspaper Academy (newspaperacademy.com) and director of the University of Tennessee Newspaper Institute since 1997. His website, stateofnewspapers.com, attracts thousands of newspaper professionals each week.

Bingaman’s CVC verifies for advertisers and others the circulations of all manner of print publications in 21 categories and with total weekly circulations of more than 70 million, more than double the daily newspaper industry nationwide.

“The ‘print is dying’ myth is largely the fault of the print industry for not telling the story accurately,” he said in an email. “While is it true that large metro daily newspapers and large national consumer magazines have lost significant circulation, all other [print] categories are either up, maintaining circulation levels, or down only
slightly in the last decade.”

Listing a few categories of publications and circulation changes since 2007, Bingaman offers these examples: Parenting Publications +3 percent, City & Regional Magazines +7.4, +1.9, African American Publications – 2.1, Hispanic Publications +1.8, Business Publications +5.4 and Lifestyle Magazines +5.4.

Bingaman, like some Iowa editors, says print circulation figures aren’t the whole story because readership also comes from online visits to a publication’s electronic version. Some editors will tell you that despite drops in circulation, their readership has never been higher when you add online readers. But Bingaman is skeptical:

“I think the effort to report ‘total audience’ has muddied the waters of understanding due to the lack of ability to clearly state duplicated audience and unduplicated audience. It was so simple when we just had print circulation and market penetration as measurements.” His concerns are shared by those who report that 30 to 60 percent of internet traffic is automated or generated by bots.

Slimp conducts newspaper workshops, writes a column about the press and does an annual survey of newspaper executives. His 2018 Newspaper Manager Survey drew 500 responses, with 41 percent from the Midwest, 66 percent from weeklies, and about a third in the circulation range of most Iowa weeklies — somewhat typical
of Iowa. What stood out in the survey in terms of wondering about the future is the respondents’ optimism — 68 percent were sure their paper would still be around eight years to 12 years from now; 14 percent opted for four-to-seven years. All managers emphasized local coverage as a strength and mission.

VIEWS FROM THE WEEKLIES/SMALL DAILIES

Local coverage is the theme of Iowa weeklies.

Karen Spurgeon, publisher, Bloomfield Democrat: “… I do worry about circulation and sufficient advertising to sustain a small community weekly. However, we’re not seeing a rapid decline in numbers, and the community still regards the Bloomfield Democrat as its official news source. There is not another entity that gathers, writes and publishes news items in a single package that the public must have to function as informed and engaged citizens of Davis County.

“I am constantly amazed at the readers — even young ones — who want the printed newspaper versus the online edition only. Our online edition is free with the purchase of print.”

Clinton Davis, Stateline Publications: “I live and work in Armstrong, Iowa…at Stateline Publications and Community Publications. For Stateline, I work for four newspapers (Armstrong, Ringsted, Swea City and Bancroft). Community Publications is the press operation in the back of the building.

“For the newspaper side, I do just about everything — writing my weekly opinion column, laying out some pages for the paper, setting all the type from emails, taking photos at events, writing street beat stories for the town. I do the billing at the end of the month, and I print our papers and do job printing. I also control everything we put out online…

“On the press side, I run the press Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesday mornings. Wednesday afternoons I do all necessary maintenance on the presses. Here in Armstrong, we print about 20 different publications each week. We do short runs for small weekly newspapers but are in talks of gaining some more business so that number is more than likely to go up.

“I don’t believe the talk of newspapers dying. I think big metro dailies are shooting themselves in the foot by running their papers like a major corporate business instead of a down-to-earth newspaper…But I firmly believe that weekly hometown newspapers will last my lifetime and more. (I am 24.)”

Rich Paulsen, publisher, Creston News Advertiser, Southwest Iowa Advertiser, Osceola Sentinel-Tribune: “I give the ‘Newspaper Are Not Dead’ speech quite often. The big newspapers are having the toughest time. It seems like small- and medium-sized papers are hanging in pretty well. From talking to a number of publishers in the Iowa Newspaper Association, most of the smaller dailies and larger weeklies are doing pretty well — most with a net operating income around the 20 percent range. The sense of community in many of our small towns in Iowa has been a big plus in making our newspapers an important part of the community. More small-town papers are doing online along with the print version, but I still hear from many readers who want the print version over the online version… Hometown businesses are still good about supporting the newspaper. Even some of the big (advertising) chains have opted out of the newspaper lately and have ended up coming back. [As reported in Civic Skinny in the March CITYVIEW, Hy-Vee pulled its ads from newspapers and shoppers and then went back because of significant loss of business.] The power of the local newspaper still has plenty of impact in each of our areas. The biggest hurt in our rural areas is the loss of population. Unfortunately, many of our readers are moving or dying off. The good thing is a lot of the millennials are starting families and need the advertising to keep their families stocked with supplies.

“Also, coverage of the local schools is very important for many of our communities.

“It isn’t always easy to keep things going…But I believe newspapers will still be around for quite a while.

“I remember coming out of college in 1979 and people telling me not to get into newspapers because they will not be around in five or 10 years. I’m working on my 39th year with newspapers. Papers just keep on adapting!”

Gregory R. Norfleet, editor, West Branch Times: “Yes, circulation is dropping, but not as quickly for community papers…. they hang on to subscribers for several reasons:

• Stronger connections — Readers are more likely to see their name or picture or someone they know in a community paper.

• Actionable news — Community newspapers print news that has a stronger personal impact on the reader…If City Hall wants to raise taxes — that will make a community paper’s front page but rarely appear in regional papers — you know right where to go, whom to talk to.

• Life news — Milestone events like births, obituaries, anniversaries, engagements and even birthday notices are more likely to make the pages of a community newspaper and family scrapbooks. Readers know friends and family are more likely to see their notices in a community paper.

• Responsiveness — Editors and reporters typically live in the towns on which they report, so they know better what interests people. Since I have children in the school system, I hear a lot about the schools at the dinner table. Since I shop local stores, eat at local restaurants, visit the local post office and attend local sporting events, I frequently see news and gauge the pulse of the community as I go about my day.

“I hear a lot that newspapers are struggling because of the Internet. The Internet is not the problem; it is only another medium people have learned to use to compete with newspapers…

“American capitalism constantly seeks to produce better products for less cost. Newspapers are no different. Fifty years ago, newspapers hired more typesetters and photographers and production staff because those were time-consuming jobs a reporter could not also do. Now, computers, cell phones and digital cameras have reduced staffing needs. I’m the only full-time member of our news staff, for example…We have employed a couple of stringers to help with sports and city council.

“I cannot say I’m entirely optimistic that print papers will forever survive. I can say community journalism will survive, and print will last longer in small towns…As time goes by, more people will learn to trust an online story because they trust the community journalist who posted it.

“Regional and state newspapers will, in the long run, likely turn into niche publications. Community newspapers are already there — our niche is our community.”

VIEWS FROM THE LARGER DAILIES

Daily editors, too, offered thoughts about the future:

Zack Kucharski, executive editor, Cedar Rapids Gazette: “I remain optimistic about newspapers…We’re in a different position from many papers, in that we were long-time family-owned and are now employee-owned. The corporate ownership concerns are less of a factor than what we’re seeing play out in other communities. We have a tremendously loyal audience, strong reputation, and I also recognize that we’ve got a newsroom that remains larger than many papers our size. There are many things we’re not talking about which also keep me positive: We aren’t talking about fewer publication dates, we aren’t tied to earnings goals, and we’re not making choices to cover…Whatever is popular online. We still get to cover plenty of news.

“We are, however, trying to be passionate about understanding our audience and providing better customer service than we ever have. The reason is simple: revenue tied to subscriptions is larger than advertising…We need to focus on and understand our audience, and we have to be damn sure we’re putting out a high-quality product because it’s easier than ever to jump to another source.

“…There’s no question that some communities will see the demise of their local paper — both at the small community and larger level.

“The newspapers that adjust to meet the needs, are tied into the community’s well-being, and connect with their audience wherever they are and can reinvent themselves have bright futures…There are parallels to many other industries; it’s not unique to journalism.”

Carol Hunter, editor, The Des Moines Register: “I continue to be a big believer in print newspapers. The Sunday newspaper in particular is an ingrained part of life for people across a wide spectrum of demographics. The Register as a whole remains a profitable operation, and print advertising and circulation continue to drive significant revenue.
“But that doesn’t mean there won’t be changes. Legacy newspaper advertising and circulation revenue, including digital revenue, dropped 63 percent from 2005 through 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, and that precipitous drop is projected to continue. To maintain profitability, newspaper staffing has dropped, too… Let me emphasize, though, that the Register is not in any current discussions about dropping publication days…

“I foresee print newspapers serving an audience that is more niche and less mass, with an emphasis on exclusive investigative reporting and enterprise…It takes skilled, experienced reporters and editors to dig out documents and data and produce investigative reports that hold the government accountable.

“For example, the Register has reported in recent months [on problems with the privatization of] Iowa’s Medicaid program. People are suffering, and Iowans need to know about that to press lawmakers to make changes. Funding that kind of journalism requires a sustainable business model.

“…Cat videos on YouTube garner millions of views. But dishing up a steady diet of them wouldn’t be a sustainable model for a news organization.

“A sustainable news business requires, as has been true for generations, offering an array of locally relevant content, from sports to business to politics, guided by principled news judgment.

“The critical question is whether a news organization can maintain enough skilled reporters to produce in-depth, sophisticated coverage of local government, not necessarily whether readers see coverage of every incremental decision by their local council.”

Bruce Miller, editor, Sioux City Journal: “Go to a high school graduation party, and you’ll see why communities still believe in their newspapers. There, on the graduate’s ‘wall of fame,’ are clippings from the local newspaper. That permanence says there’s still value in the medium’s ability to write the history of a generation.

“No other medium is as detailed about the activity in its community…Newspapers still editorialize, too, and hold elected officials accountable.

“Declining circulation? Add online and print numbers, and you’ll see newspapers still command healthy audiences. Local broadcast outlets can’t claim the same kind of penetration, yet they’ll rave about ratings that are a fraction of newspapers’ proven reach.

“While it’s not hard to see a future with our operations entirely online, the news-gathering techniques we’ve used in print will continue to serve us well, particularly in a world of ‘fake news.’ More than ever, readers will look for those outlets they can trust. Considering many newspapers have been around for decades — many more than 100 years — that says plenty about their value.”

NO COMMENT

Among editors not responding to requests for comments, however, were Michael Crumb of the Ames Tribune and Ellis Smith of the Burlington Hawk Eye, both dailies owned by GateHouse Media. (It may be noteworthy that in mid-May the Hawk Eye ceased print publication of its Monday edition, offering it only online — perhaps the first Iowa newspaper to do that.)

GateHouse with 770 newspapers in 36 states is chief among the private equity players pilloried by the American Prospect. Its Iowa holdings include Ames and Burlington and seven weeklies. In the 2010-2017 circulation check, the GateHouse dailies’ circulation dropped less than Iowa dailies overall (-23 percent/-41.1) and the weeklies more than the selected weeklies overall (-29 percent/-19.5).

Susan Patterson Plank, executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association, speaks highly of editors Crumb and
Smith and their involvement in the INA.

Plank links the future of Iowa community newspapers to the future of their communities, which is the broader question given population shifts — 2010 census figures put Iowa’s 3 million population at 64 percent urban. (The last time the rural population held sway was in the 1950 census at 52.3 percent.) If townspeople want their local papers to survive, she says, “buy local,” support local businesses and their local newspaper advertising.

HEALTH OF RURAL IOWA

Mark Hamilton, publisher of the Iowa Falls Times Citizen and a long-time INA leader, offers similar comments about the link between towns and their papers — pointing out that while weekly circulation figures may be low, the community press penetrates its markets in ways larger dailies envy. He also raises concerns about having healthy smaller towns and the controversy involved.

“More important than the newspaper’s health is the town’s health,” he says.

“Many towns have deteriorated. I blame state policy, mostly Iowa State University and its Extension service. This was a land grant university that aided agriculture efficiency with no regard for the cancer it caused in rural communities. Rural vitality is not their problem.”

Further, he says, “For rural papers, it is not the Internet that has caused consternation. It is computers… In the old days, the newspapers were diversified in printing, business cards, stationery, wedding announcements/photography and the like. The lowered barriers to those supportive lines of revenue have required newspapers to compete or find other lines of related businesses.

“Rural newspapers are linked to the future their communities envision. No vision, no future for either town or newspaper. The newspaper can choose to be either an observer or leader.”

Plank and Hamilton put a twist on Steve Williams’ motto about his newspaper caring about its community — rewording it to say, for example, “West Branch, Iowa, the only town in the world that gives a damn about The West Branch Times.”

And that’s why Iowans will continue to ask complex questions about the future of the print newspaper. ♦

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes the monthly Rants and Reason column for CITYVIEW.

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