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‘It shall be a welcome visitor at the fireside of every family in the city’

The Gazette stands behind its founding mission 140 years later

‘It shall be a welcome visitor at the fireside of every family in the city’
The front page of Jan. 10, 1883, the first edition of the Evening Gazette. (Gazette archives)

A century ago this month, throngs of Cedar Rapids men and women seeking fame and even fortune crowded a snow-covered Second Avenue SE outside the 730-seat Palace Theatre, hoping for a shot at stardom.

The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette had run an exclusive announcement reporting that Hollywood filmmakers were coming to town to make a movie, and locals could audition for principal roles and extra parts.

“You have a chance for fame and fortune right here in Cedar Rapids,” the Evening Gazette reported Jan. 8, 1923. “You need not go to Hollywood to be ‘discovered.’ ”

Forty years before that wintry report excited a community of avid readers reliant on the paper for news on neighbors, lawmakers, community leaders, weather, events, births, deaths and athletes young and old, The Evening Gazette on Jan. 10, 1883, put out its first edition.

It cost 3 cents and delivered national and local headlines about a “disastrous fire” in Milwaukee that might have killed “Tom Thumb”; smallpox “raging” in Virginia; and a steamer collision in Europe that officers and crew “managed with great coolness.”

It also came with a note introducing itself to the community and laying out its vision.

“The new newspaper venture in Cedar Rapids, The Evening Gazette, is before you this afternoon,” according to the column. “Its publishers do not think it necessary to enter into an elaborate statement of what The Gazette will be, but pass this point by saying that it will be their earnest endeavor to publish a paper worthy of the support and confidence of the people of this locality.”

By setting its price at 3 cents, the paper aimed to be accessible to all, “the mechanic and laborer as well as the merchant and banker.”

“While endeavoring to give a fair reflex of the current news of the day, as well as carefully prepared miscellany, The Gazette will make a special effort to attend fully to its local department, making that feature such that it shall be a welcome visitor at the fireside of every family in the city. Its publishers hope and believe there is a corner for them in the newspaper field of Cedar Rapids, and they enter that field full of courage, believing they will stand or fall as they deserve.”

One hundred and forty years later, The Gazette stands.

Although it looks vastly different from that inaugural 1883 edition, lined with front-page ads for “fine shoes” and “Gregory Stark, ‘The boss’ Cigar Dealer.”

Today, many readers see Gazette stories and ads on handheld screens and computers that early Iowans couldn’t have fathomed. They browse news about fires, weather, events, car crashes, elections, meetings and court hearings as they happen in real time.

Readers leap with a swipe of their finger from today’s news to related articles from years ago in only seconds — paying for the product without ever handling actual cash.

But while many features of 21st century journalism would be unrecognizable to publishers more than a century ago, many of its tenets and objectives remain the same: to tell the truth, inform readers, connect communities and enrich lives — while holding officials accountable and providing a forum for questions, criticism and compromise.

“The earliest journalists firmly established as a core principle their responsibility to examine unseen corners of society,” reporters Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel laid out in their book, “The Elements of Journalism.”

Watchdog

To achieve that watchdog goal, news organizations must maintain independence, according to the American Press Institute.

The Gazette, for more than a decade, has been 100-percent employee-owned. The company transitioned from a family-owned enterprise to an “employee stock ownership plan” in 2012 and since then its Cedar Rapids holding company, Folience Inc., has diversified by acquiring other brands — including manufacturers like Life Line Emergency Vehicles in Sumner.

Meanwhile, many of today’s newspapers and broadcasters remain owned by national companies like Gannett, Alden Global Capital and Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Regardless of ownership, the American Press Institute stresses journalists and the publications they write for “show an ultimate allegiance to citizens.”

“A commitment to citizens is an implied covenant with the audience and a foundation of the journalistic business model,” according to the institute. “Journalism provided ‘without fear or favor’ is perceived to be more valuable than content from other information sources.”

The Gazette over its years has fulfilled that mission through Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporting and investigations of City Hall and lawmakers, government systems and laws, organ transplants, sex offenders, prostitution rings, manufacturing plants, farming regulations, schools, universities and the administrators who lead them.

Its reporting has shed light on policy violations, impermissible practices, civil rights violations and money misuse — propelling audits, external investigations and meaningful change.

And, in times of emergency, The Gazette has served as a go-to source for digestible details on what occurred, imperative information on the impact, resources for those in need and specifics on how to help.

Dependable in disaster

On Nov. 2, 1991 — years before campus shootings became a tragically familiar occurrence — reporters for The Gazette stepped into the aftermath of a terror rarely seen at the time and shared survivor stories with their surrounding community.

Under a banner headline, “5 killed at U of I,” a staff photo showed a rescuer removing “one of the victims of a shooting rampage from Van Allen Hall at the University of Iowa.”

“God, I was in there the whole time,” one graduate student told Gazette reporter Lyle Muller. “This is like the safest place in the world I’ve ever been. I’m still in shock.”

A victim is removed from
A victim is removed from the scene after Gang Lu, 28, a disgruntled physics student at the University of Iowa, shot and killed four people and injured a fifth on Nov. 1, 1991, after failing to win an academic award. (The Gazette)

Almost two decades later, on June 13, 2008, bold black letters set the historical record of an “Epic Surge” in Cedar Rapids, backdropped by a two-page photo that showed the thousand words it replaced — the Cedar River drowning bridges and streets and submerging the historic Linn County Courthouse and Cedar Rapids City Hall.

The “Epic Surge” photo by
The “Epic Surge” photo by Gazette photojournalist Liz Martin wraps around the front and back covers of the June 13, 2008, Gazette, showing the Cedar River surrounding May’s Island and downtown buildings in Cedar Rapids. Martin took the picture from the Interstate 380 Bridge while stalled in traffic on the bridge, the only bridge across the river that was open. (The Gazette)

In the weeks, months and years after the historic flood, Gazette reporters churned out thousands of articles telling hundreds of stories of Eastern Iowans and their recovery efforts, failures and successes — connecting community resources with those in need and inspiring neighbors to pitch in.

“Not a single life was lost in the disaster,” Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz and flood recovery administrator Joe O’Hern wrote to The Gazette for the flood’s five-year anniversary in 2013.

“More than 1,400 residents participated in the Neighborhood Planning Process in 2009,” he said. “More than 1,300 housing units have been created, including hundreds of new single-family homes, and more than 2,300 housing units were repaired.”

Jump ahead another decade-plus, The Gazette — like every other media outlet — found itself covering a different kind of disaster: a pandemic that shuttered communities, overwhelmed hospitals and killed millions, including more than 1 million in the United States and more than 10,400 in Iowa.

Early in the virus’ spread, The Gazette began making its own COVID-19 calculations and graphics, showing weekly and monthly trends in cases, deaths and hospitalizations by age group and county, among other things. When the state decommissioned its coronavirus data site Feb. 16, 2022, The Gazette collaborated on an Iowa Newspaper Association project to launch an ongoing Iowa COVID-19 data website.

And in the midst of the pandemic, on Aug. 10, 2020, Eastern Iowa was further crippled by a powerful derecho that caused more than $11 billion in damages — with Cedar Rapids hardest hit.

Passing drivers stop to help
Passing drivers stop to help the driver of a tractor trailer after it overturned in the northbound side of Interstate 380 near 76th Avenue SW in Cedar Rapids in the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho. Two men worked to remove the windshield and the woman, a registered nurse, made her way into the cab to check on the driver who had no apparent injuries. The woman then took the driver to her car to sit with her and wait for an ambulance to arrive. (The Gazette)

The Gazette’s post-derecho reporting kept the community informed on storm damage, power outages, cleanup resources and needs — with more than 1 million views of its online coverage in the two months after facilitating a regional recovery that captured national attention and admiration.

Even with power and internet outages downing computers and printing resources, Gazette staffers in the moments after the storm found a functioning generator and connected a string of computers while reporters hit the streets, talking with residents with upended cars, trees through roofs and crumpled grain bins.

“They couldn’t access the wires, email or the internet, but 30 miles away, the Iowa City bureau had a connection,” The Poynter Institute wrote about The Gazette’s derecho coverage in the midst of a pandemic. “One staffer drove there and started pulling pieces of the news, putting them on a thumb drive and heading back to Cedar Rapids to get them on the page.”

In the end, The Gazette didn’t miss a single edition, although Executive Editor Zack Kucharski told Poynter, “It hasn’t been easy.”

Gazette copy desk editors work
Gazette copy desk editors work at 10:01 p.m. Aug. 11, 2020, to finish putting out the newspaper at Color Web Printers in southwest Cedar Rapids. Downtown Cedar Rapids — and almost all of Linn County — was without power after the Aug. 10 derecho, and the newsroom and other operations relocated to the printing plant, which had a large generator. Despite connection issues — the editors in the photo are plugged directly into the servers — The Gazette never missed a day publishing a paper or updating its internet site. (The Gazette)

Giving back

On top of its service through words on newspaper racks, door steps and computer screens, The Gazette has fashioned itself a literal town square — launching in 2016 the Iowa Ideas conference, aimed at bringing together thought leaders, officials, lawmakers, experts and everyday Iowans to discuss and debate issues facing the state and possible solutions.

The most recent session in October tackled health care worker shortages; name, image, and likeness changes for collegiate student-athletes; a rise in domestic abuse; and growing mental health needs. Speakers included legendary Hawkeye wrestling coach Dan Gable and new Hawkeye women’s wrestling coach Clarissa Chun, along with musician and humanitarian Simon Estes, who grew up in Centerville.

The Gazette — a leading newspaper in a state viewed as central to the American political machine — also regularly hosts a “Pints & Politics” event, bringing community members together over happy hour to discuss and debate current and future political topics across the political spectrum.

The Gazette regularly hosts a
The Gazette regularly hosts a “Pints & Politics” event, bringing community members together over happy hour to discuss and debate current and future political topics across the political spectrum. (The Gazette)

And — embodying its role as a community member — The Gazette annually prioritizes service through volunteer efforts, sponsorships and a “Gazette GivesBack” program. With help of sponsor Collins Community Credit Union, the giveback program provides more than $525,000 in free advertising credits yearly to select Eastern Iowa nonprofits.

“The Gazette’s importance for the community is so obvious to me,” said Diane Langton, `who worked as a Gazette proofreader and librarian from 1971 until retiring in 2016. She now writes the Time Machine history column for The Gazette.

“The paper and its leaders have been instrumental in the growth and development of the community at large,” she said. “A perusal of the archives shows many of our industries and institutions have benefited by support from The Gazette.”

On a personal level, The Gazette has made a deeper impact on millions of readers over its century-plus — capturing, for example, the triumph of a high school football championship, devastation of an untimely death, success of a new business venture or joy of a holiday rite.

“Neighbors” of The Evening Gazette in 1883 predicted as much in producing notices to their own readers that L.H. Post and E.L. Otis were joining forces to launch a paper in Cedar Rapids.

“It would be hard to find a better team,” according to one notice.

“With ample means and sterling integrity behind them,” another wrote, “they are bound to make the new venture a success.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com