Staff Columnist

Iowa needs newspapers

Cedar Rapids, city of. Gazette, The. (Gazette Company, Gazette Communications, GFOC). Gazette newsroom employees, Merv Perry (left) and Arlo Jacobson. Perry was an intern. July, 1960. (Published 7-10-60).
Cedar Rapids, city of. Gazette, The. (Gazette Company, Gazette Communications, GFOC). Gazette newsroom employees, Merv Perry (left) and Arlo Jacobson. Perry was an intern. July, 1960. (Published 7-10-60).

A  small-town news organization’s reporting on a bad cop could “jeopardize the local ownership of the newspaper,” the publication’s owner says.

The Carroll Times Herald, a locally owned newspaper in Carroll County, launched a fundraising campaign this week to help cover its legal expenses in a libel case brought by the police officer who lost his job for having sexual relationships with teenagers.

In 2017, Carroll Police Department officer Jacob Smith resigned from his job after the Times Herald reported on its investigation into Smith’s contact with teenage girls. Journalists were reportedly pressured by the police chief to nix the story, but they persisted.

A court later found the paper’s reporting was accurate and dismissed Smith’s libel case, but the fallout continues.

“Standing up to the patriarchy, particularly in a rural reach of the nation, and especially now, is a financially perilous choice, one fraught with pressures from a host of sources and power centers, many of whom sought to kill the story and then retaliated against the newspaper,” Doug Burns, Times Herald co-owner and an occasional Gazette guest columnist, wrote in a GoFundMe.com solicitation.

Carroll provides a particularly powerful example of the need to support community journalists who challenge the powers that be, but it is not altogether unique — small and medium-size news organizations across the country are doing vital work, and they need money to do it.

The Quad-City Times recently won a lawsuit brought by a former Davenport city administrator, who sought more than $1.5 million in damages after the paper’s reporting led to his ouster. Last week, a jury ruled in favor of the Times and two of its journalists.

The Gazette, thank goodness, has managed to avoid any major legal challenges in recent history, but we still need resources to do our jobs — to fund public records requests, for example, or even to pay journalists so we can feed and house ourselves.

Last year, The Gazette — which is employee-owned and the state’s second-largest newspaper — introduced a paywall on TheGazette.com. Under the new model, readers who visit a certain number of pages in a month are asked to subscribe.

A digital subscription is a bargain at about $0.30 per day, and even cheaper with introductory rates for the first two months.

At least once a week, I hear complaints from readers — usually internet strangers, but sometimes my real-life friends and acquaintances — that they shouldn’t have to pay for online news because it has usually been free.

It is an insulting proposition. I bet journalists don’t come to your job to demand free goods and services.

Frustratingly, the vitriol exchanged between federal politicians and the national press has trickled down to the local level. Community journalists are frequently accused of being partisan hacks or corporate mouthpieces.

But the bread-and-butter reporting Iowa newspapers dedicate their resources toward — rooting out predatory police officers and holding city managers accountable — bears little resemblance to the politically charged national storylines.

Iowa needs newspapers. You’ll miss us when we’re gone.

Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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