Our fearless leader/publisher Big Brother John and I were on the phone Monday holed up in our homes a block apart, each 200 yards north of the lovely lake in our town of 15,000. I stared out the window onto another dank day of Lent seemingly without an Easter. For about 15 seconds we considered shutting down the Storm Lake Times, Buena Vista County’s Hometown Newspaper. We quickly came to our senses.
We are too Iowa stubborn to quit, neither of us golf or have any productive hobbies, and one of the biggest stories of our lives is staring us in the face like the Grim Reaper. We must publish if we don’t die trying.
Our ace reporter, son Tom, 27, is calling the hospital to see if they have gear, the sheriff to see if he will spring inmates awaiting trial, the school superintendent to see if she is ripping her hair out and how meal distribution is going in our town of meatpacking immigrants from around the globe – all at essential work, masked and covered and constantly disinfecting, yet still a couple thousand patriots in the packinghouses feeding us.
You could shoot a cannon down Lake Avenue, our main drag, and not hit anyone. The stores are closed. Better Day Café, which ran a weekly ad with us, is not having a good day. Closed until further notice, or worse, like so many others. Advertising accounts for about half our revenue (most newspapers depend on more on ads than we), and that revenue has dropped off the table. Single-copy sales of the paper tanked over the past couple weeks as most everyone hunkered down.
The newspaper industry has been in decline since I had black hair, which is a long time. John founded the newspaper in our hometown in 1990, about the worst possible time, as the Internet had just begun wiring itself into our lives and filling our heads with gibberish. He decided to compete with an incumbent, twice-a-week newspaper owned by a distant chain. The community responded with enough subscription and ad revenue for us to publish what we like to think is the best little newspaper in the world, honored with a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for editorial writing on surface water pollution by the agri-chemical complex.
Over three decades the big box stores and online retailers drove out many of the mom-and-pop stores that ran those $20 or $50 ads that were our bread and butter. Because so many of our residents are not literate in English, we have struggled to grow our subscription base. We have been able to hang on by our ink-stained fingernails to publish twice a week, rain or shine.
All it took was an invisible microscopic bug to plunge us into panic.
All it took was an invisible microscopic bug to plunge us into panic
We celebrated the Newell-Fonda Mustang girls winning the state basketball tournament – a rite nearly as sacred as the Iowa State Fair – a month ago. And then life just screeched to a halt. We sat at home and stewed over it. John woke at 2 am thinking about an income statement. We had a staggering loss in March. April will be worse. No Covid-19 cases here yet, which suggests that we will be on the tail end of the apex and whatever economic recovery ensues.
There we sat on the phone. How will we ever make it? How will we keep our staff of 10, half named Cullen? John, 70, already works for free, living on Social Security. I am about to join him on the dole at age 63 to lighten the payroll. We are of a mind that when the press breaks down you just don’t walk away from it while the trucks are at the loading dock. You get back at it, running ever harder.
Pride prevented us from begging. We got over that with the March financials. Sales manager Whitney Robinson created a Go Fund Me page to solicit donations with a letter from John. Boy howdy, how we were humbled by the response! In just a day $10,000 poured in. We hope to raise more. We bagged 20 new subscriptions (www.stormlake.com) on top of the donations. It will give us just enough oxygen to sustain us with a forgivable loan through the federal relief package. We keep everyone around, the loan turns into a grant. That should float us for the rest of the year as we try to lure more digital and print subscriptions, or grants. We fear the pandemic will knock out a lot of community papers living on fumes and hope, because we are not at all sure that those ads will return. We have to learn to manage on readers alone, something like The Guardian has, a tall task. National newspapers operate digital sites at much lower cost per reader than a tiny little county seat paper like ours. Where the Washington Post might need $20 for a trial subscription, we need double that, at least.
Yet the response from readers to our appeal so far tells us that communities do value honest, independent journalism. That’s deeply gratifying. People are reminded during a crisis like this that a local newspaper is a central thread that stitches neighbors together with birthday photos that make grandma happy and crime reports that chasten the scofflaw. The crisis helps us appreciate that nothing in life is free. So we would like to think.
I believe we can make it. I’m not so sure about others. The business model of not paying the editor and publisher is not sustainable most places. It works for us, for now. I hope that we can land on something other than panicked appeals.
Tom would like to assume my chair, with a salary. He deserves to because he works harder and is smarter at 27 than I was at 37. Our community deserves that – reporting honestly, fairly, even lovingly without fear or favor, and standing by an earnest opinion until the facts prove otherwise.
Storm Lake needs Tom Cullen hounding the sheriff and the school superintendent on the phone so we know the score. We don’t have much time to figure out how to pay for it. For now we simply beg support, hoping it leads us to a better day.
Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in Northwest Iowa, and is a Guardian US columnist. He is author of the book, Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope in America’s Heartland (Penguin).