National Newspaper Week

EDITORIAL

BY ART CULLEN

Rural communities live a large part of their lives through their schools. It is celebrated on Friday nights in the fall in the rite of football. Photographers from the state’s 289 community newspapers fan out from Aplington to Moville to record it all in word and picture amid the rain and snow and parents. Our own Jamie Knapp has been pacing the sidelines for 29 years with a telephoto lens and notebook, covering kids of kids he once covered. He covers our hopes and ambitions. A grandparent calls on Monday to complain that he gave too much ink from an interloper from Remsen St. Mary’s who put Newell-Fonda underfoot recently; the running back is bound for D-1 football and the area fans want to know who the raging bull is. Grandma is not among them. Newell-Fonda’s hopes and aspirations were not given their accord in her reading despite the 19-0 score. And that’s life, in the pages of your local paper.

It’s important.

It was important enough for her to call.

But we are out there on Fridays. And we sit through the city council and school board meetings. We sit outside when the board of supervisors locks us out. It might not be the most interesting news, but it is important how the county pays its legal expenses. Somebody has to look out for that stuff.

We do.

So does every newspaper across Iowa.

We have more newspapers per capita than any state. We have the highest literacy rate, thanks in part to newspapers. No newspaper dominated a market like The Des Moines Register — it provided us with a common set of facts with which Iowans could have an illuminating debate. Storm Lake has a long and strong tradition of great newspapers organized by independent publishers.

Yet these are troubling days for journalism and, we believe, democracy.

The President of the United States says we are dishonest losers. Phony news planted on Facebook and Twitter not vetted by any editor is taken as fact and acted upon. The Iowa Public Information Board fights disclosure of its own information. Attorney General Tom Miller works overtime keeping state secrets.

Newspaper circulation, especially at the big metro papers, has been in a freefall. The Register once boasted 500,000 paid circulation. It now has less than a fifth of that. As a result, staff has been shed and less space devoted to news, sports and culture, which leads to less business in a downward cycle. It is unquestionably a challenge to maintain a base of readership in Storm Lake when so many people are not even functionally literate — not to mention the rise of social media and baseless cynicism directed toward the press.

It is felt. Citizens operate in their silos — he gets his spin from Fox and she gets hers from MSNBC, he dials in to Breitbart News online while she looks up Buzzfeed. Never the twain need meet.

The real news, meanwhile, is gathered at considerable expense by local newspapers and the Associated Press and then birfurcated and polarized from there.

A single story published by The New York Times or Washington Post can keep cable news animated for a week. Those category killers are doing well, large enough to attract critical mass necessary to digital advertisers. It is not so easy to “monetize” digital content at the regional level or to reinvent the newspaper business model — advertisers cover the overhead, basically, and subscription revenue posts the profit.

As rural communities crumble so does the advertising and circulation base. Iowa publishers are having a more difficult time than ever, though they are loathe to admit it. They are at the football game, the garden show, the prom and the planning and zoning meeting about those low-income apartments. They are trying as hard as ever to provide the conduit of community, to look at it from every different angle and satisfy every last grandmother. In their mutterings to themselves they wonder how long the flag can fly. These are publishers who used to drive Cadillacs to their weekend cabin at Okoboji. It continues to stun us when we hear it, though we are not certain why. We have been battling the tide of “I don’t have time to read” for at least a generation; this from the folks who wonder why the city sprung that plan on them without notice, when in fact it had been covered in the weekly newspaper three times. You normally don’t find an analysis of commercial property tax breaks that raise your residential property taxes on Bud&Betty’s Facebook page.

Newspapers remain the vetters, the gatekeepers. You can trust that what you read on the Sioux City Journal’s front page is accurate and factual and, if Tim Gallagher wrote it, interesting to boot. If Steve King were to hold a town meeting in Storm Lake, which he almost never does because he doesn’t have to, The Storm Lake Times would be there to play it straight. And then we’d give him a pointy boot in the behind on this page.

That’s what newspapers are about, the facts and freedom and the First Amendment. We are there, 24/7. When the politicians lie, the newspaper records it. When they make plans in secret, the newspaper reveals them. When you win, the newspaper fetes your celebration. And when you lose, the newspaper tries to make it hurt less by saying that the kid from Remsen was some sort of a horse. We will try to do better by the grandmother next issue. Happy National Newspaper Week. Please tell a friend to subscribe and strike a blow for democracy.