The State of The Times

Today marks our annual report of The Storm Lake Times, a tradition we have followed since we began The Times 30 years ago.
As we explain every year, we do this because we see newspapers as more than a business; they are also a public trust, so important that our founders enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment to our Constitution. Our founders appreciated that without the right to express ourselves freely — whether through speech, or religion or the press — no other rights would matter. That’s why we print the First Amendment every issue at the bottom of this page.
But free speech and free press are under assault today, at both a business level and philosophical level. Technology threatens the sustainability of traditional news organizations, while our president embraces dictators in North Korea and Russia as he condemns American journalists as “enemies of the people.”
We’ll survive the challenges of demagogic politicians. Technology is another matter. People have turned away from their local newspapers and TV stations to get their news free from social media like Facebook. Unfortunately, as we have learned in recent years, Facebook and other social media sites are dangerous places to seek information, infiltrated by propagandists from foreign countries trying to destroy our democracy.
Newspapers aren't alone in seeing audiences fragmented. Broadcast television news is a shadow of its former self in the face of competition of hundreds of cable TV channels and streaming services like Netflix; traditional radio stations are similarly challenged by satellite radio and streaming services like Apple Music that provide ad-free entertainment.
Reporting real news doesn’t come cheap. On our talented 10-person staff, five are devoted to news and sports reporting. Most newspapers our size have a news staff of just two. These are the dedicated people who cover city hall, courthouse, schools, farm trends, traffic accidents and fires, births and deaths, birthdays and anniversaries, high school and college sports (sports editor Jamie Knapp hasn’t missed a Storm Lake football game in 29 years!), favorite recipes and so many other community events that would go unnoticed and unsaved in scrapbooks were it not for your local newspaper. You don’t see anyone from Facebook sitting at a school board meeting on Wednesday nights or shopping in one of our local stores.
Our commitment to be the best community newspaper in America was recognized in 2017 when Art Cullen was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor in journalism, for his editorial writing. We are the second smallest newspaper in history to have been so honored. Art’s recognition has also brought positive publicity to our community as the eyes of the nation have turned to Storm Lake. The City Beautiful is a must-stop for Presidential candidates seeking Art’s counsel and evaluation. In addition to his editorials and columns in The Storm Lake Times, he is a frequent contributor to the international newspaper the Guardian, the Washington Post and The New York Times, in addition to appearances on MSNBC and CNN, plus lectures and appearances throughout the nation in the wake of his book, “Storm Lake.” Last summer he was a guest at the famed Aspen Institute in Colorado. At the end of this month he will be the featured speaker in a conference at the University of California in Berkeley.
Despite this national acclaim, our focus remains concentrated on shining a light right here on Buena Vista and surrounding counties. While most newspapers have experienced circulation declines in recent years, readership of The Times actually increased slightly last year. Our circulation revenue rose 10%. More people read The Storm Lake Times than all other newspapers in Buena Vista County combined.
The challenge we and all newspapers face is in advertising sales, which traditionally have provided about 75% of a newspaper’s revenues. Subscriptions were discounted to keep the numbers high to attract advertisers. We never relied as much on advertising as other newspapers, so when that well began to run dry, we weren’t affected as much as most newspapers. But it still made a difference. Advertising revenue for us last year declined 9%, but because of cost controls and increased circulation, we were happy to report a profit for the year — all of $2,900. It’s not much, but it’s better than losing $2,900.
The other issue affecting advertising is the changing face of retail. There are far fewer independent businesses than 30 years ago, victims of big box stores and online merchants like Amazon. There were four new car dealers when we started The Times; now there are two. Independent farm supply stores and feed mills — which numbered nearly a dozen 30 years ago — have been nearly eliminated in the face of corporate livestock production; now there are but one or two. We once had five men’s stores in town; now there is one. There were more than a half-dozen women’s stores; now there are just two. We went from five locally owned drug stores to three corporate pharmacies. All of these reductions mean less advertising for small town newspapers.
That’s why we announced in the past few weeks that we were looking to save money on our TV listings, which cost us nearly $20,000 per year to produce. We are heeding your calls to keep the listings in a new format at the end of this month. You told us the 31 channels you watch most, and we’ll keep them and eliminate the stations that didn’t get votes in our recent TV Times referendum.
Higher printing costs — due in large part to Trump’s tariffs on Canadian newsprint earlier last year — and postage increases as well as a 24% jump in our health insurance premiums also put the squeeze on us. We’ve tried to hold our prices down. It isn’t cheap running this little newspaper.
In November we opened Northern Lights, a little bookstore in our office in cooperation with the respected Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City. We carry around 50 or 60 titles, ranging from best-sellers and children’s books to titles that Prairie Lights management think would appeal to our readers. Stop in and check our little reading room out.
 Despite the challenges, we love what we do and the community where we live and raise our families. Storm Lake is a great town and deserves a great newspaper.
We try harder because we’re locally owned. If you have a complaint, some praise or a suggestion, the owners aren’t hiding in some headquarters Out East. You can talk to Art and me every day right here at Times Square, five blocks from the house on Geneseo Street where Pat and Eileen raised us.
We appreciate your readership and your friendship and look forward with all of you to a prosperous New Year.

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