The future of Iowa newspapers?7/4/2018
Surprise: It all depends!
A feature story I wrote in this month’s CITYVIEW offers some context for considering a question that reflects how much affection Iowans have had for their hometown papers: Will the print newspaper survive?
Here are some reflections on the lengthier piece, which was written with the understanding that just because you can ask a question doesn’t mean there’s a ready answer:
• The question about the future of the Iowa press often focuses on whether there will be a print newspaper or mostly online information that lacks the comfort and convenience of print we’re accustomed to. The key question is not format, however, but content. What does it matter if you get the day’s “news” in print or electronic format or by carrier pigeon if that “news” is only to amuse, entertain or lend credence to misguided views? If you don’t know what the school board or city council is doing, how can you be an informed citizen? The core purpose of the First Amendment is not to report news about restaurants and craft beer, but to have an informed electorate capable of self government. Much of today’s content does not serve that purpose.
• If you focus on print, the cost of newsprint comes into play — millions of tons come mostly from Canada. An Iowa weekly newspaper will consume five to a dozen tons of newsprint a year, a daily publication consumes hundreds of tons each year. The price per ton may be $650 by year’s end, and a tariff that Trump has proposed, and is on hold, would increase that price by 20 to 30 percent. An Arizona Republic editorial warned that while Trump’s targets might be the New York Times and Washington Post, his tariff could damage weeklies more, like the 240 in Iowa.
• We have woeful accounts of staff cutbacks and a revolt at the Denver Post where staff members used the Sunday opinion section of April 8 to say the Post owner, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital ( a “Vulture Capitalist”), is destroying the paper. We also have accounts of papers surviving and thriving — like the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (once owned by the Des Moines/Minneapolis Cowles family).
• Funding publications solely by readers is not an easy answer. Consider the Voices of Monterey Bay — https://voicesofmontereybay.org// — now several months old. An acquaintance says VOMB has “succeeded to a degree but we have found that it is difficult to be a supplement when the public’s basic journalistic needs aren’t being met. We would prefer to add context to issues but have found that we first must address the core issues because they aren’t being covered.” In reading desperate online pleas for support for such publications, it is apparent that many of those calling for such an option don’t put their money where their mouth is.
• Not all Iowa newspaper purchases are made by outsiders, and that may bode well for readers. Last September, Woodward Communications Inc., owner of the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, bought seven weeklies that were part of West Branch Communications in eastern Iowa; in December 2016, the Gazette Company of Cedar Rapids bought three dailies in Fairfield, Mount Pleasant and Washington, Iowa.
In an email, Gazette editor Zack Kucharski wrote of the opportunities: “We’re working…to do some enterprise reporting that they can all share, but is relevant in each town…there’s also an opportunity to innovate at the community level, and that’s important for us. These papers have a unique value to their communities… I think the opportunities will come by blending some of the very best of community and daily journalism going forward. That’s an exciting space, but it takes a lot of work to get there.”
At the time of the West Branch purchase, Bob Woodward III, a vice president of WCI, was quoted as saying, “In my mind, synergies sometimes have a bad rep. Our approach is, let’s…look at ways we can work better together to provide more benefits to our readers and advertisers. I don’t think newspapers can slash their way to success — it’s just not very viable.” ♦
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.