The I-80 corridor in eastern Iowa, for those motorists interested only in hastening their way between Des Moines to the west and Iowa City to the east, may appear empty save for fields that produce part of the state’s 2 billion bushels of corn each year.
But north and south of I-80 lie many small towns, populated by only a few hundred or few thousand Iowans. Towns like Belle Plaine, Brooklyn, Benton, Marengo, Montezuma, North English, Williamsburg, Parnell, Homestead, Oxford and Holbrook. These are towns whose median household income is less than the $47,000 statewide average.
The people who live in those towns need information to effectively make political and consumer decisions. They need it just as much as people in big cities do. But come Monday, local news may not flow quite so freely in Benton and Poweshiek counties.
For Christmas, the good folks of Victor, Iowa, received a lump of coal: The East Iowa Herald newspaper announced that it would suspend print operations Dec. 31. Mitch Traphagen, the paper’s owner, wrote that a lack of subscriptions and circulation were not the problem: “As local businesses cut back due to concerns over an economic recession, that left only limited advertising dollars available to competing newspapers. As a new business, we haven’t been able to build up the resources necessary to overcome the financial hurdles during this period of economic slowdown.”
That’s not the only publishing insult to strike that I-80 corridor. Marengo Publishing Corporation, which publishes three weekly advertisers, seven weekly newspapers and a monthly magazine, plans to repackage the seven newspapers into four weekly newspapers on Jan. 5. Of the seven newspapers — The Belle Plaine Union, The South Benton Star-Press, the Brooklyn Chronicle, The Marengo Pioneer-Republican, The Montezuma Republican, The North English Record and The Williamsburg Journal-Tribune — the Chronicle and Republican will become The Poweshiek County Chronicle-Republican; the Star-Press will add the readership area covered by the Union; the Journal Tribune will add a page of North English news. Subscription prices will rise.
Said a statement from MPC Publisher Dan DeBettignies and editors Nick Narigon, Dann Hayes, and Jim Magdefrau:
The names and the faces of the newspapers will change, but the content will not. We remain dedicated to serving as the premier news source of Iowa County, eastern Poweshiek County and southern Benton County. [Emphasis added]
Premier news source? The content won’t change? How? Reducing seven weeklies to four means reducing the number of pages on which to place the news nearly in half. There will be fewer staffers to produce the stories to place on those fewer pages.
From that same MPC statement:
Gannett Inc., the parent company of Marengo Publishing Corporation (MPC) and Poweshiek Publishing, announced a staff reduction of 10 percent in late October. Plans and decisions were made during the month of November and now the repercussions are hitting home.
MPC and Poweshiek Publishing have been running with a relatively bare bones staff for quite some time. We have gone through several cuts to our expense budget and have been learning to do the same amount of work with fewer people for several years. [Emphasis added]
Gannett says it owns 85 daily newspapers including USA Today, and nearly 1,000 non-daily publications and USA Weekend, and 23 television stations, reaching more than 20 million households, in about three dozen states. After years of proclaiming ever-higher stock dividends, Gannett has been fiscally contracting for many months by rigorously cutting expenses. In August, Gannett cut 1,000 jobs, so its stock price got a bump. But that didn’t last: Its stock price hit an 18-year low in October. Gannett’s in a death spiral.
But this isn’t about slamming Gannett. How will the information needs and wants of residents of Benton and Poweshiek counties be served now? By whom?
The nation has far more weekly newspapers than it does dailies. Historically, weeklies generally have been Mom-and-Pop enterprises run on shoestrings by people who believed in finding out stuff and telling their readers what they found out.
But some media companies figured out that they could buy a bunch of individually owned weeklies in a narrow geographic region, run them all out of one common newsroom and ad sales site, and make oodles of money. For example: Community Newspapers Inc., headquartered in Athens, Ga., includes 29 newspapers in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. Check their locations; they’re tightly bunched geographically.
Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. owns about 90 daily and more than 200 non-daily newspapers, television stations, Web sites and niche publications in more than 150 communities throughout the United States in nearly two dozen states. Many of its newspapers are geographically grouped.
Brown Publishing has a cluster of 8 daily newspapers, 27 paid weekly newspapers, 15 Total Market Coverage (“TMC”) newspapers, and 11 TMC shoppers that it says reaches more than 1.8 million people and 750,000 households in 31 counties in south, central and west Ohio.
Freedom Communications Inc. says its has more than 33 dailies and 77 weeklies, including shoppers, magazines and other specialty publications coast to coast.
Now, these and other companies that have substantial numbers of weeklies serving readerships more rural than suburban may in fact be financially healthy. But Gannett used to be one of the soundest operations in terms of balance sheet. Look at what’s happened to its subsidiary of weeklies serving east-central Iowa. Seven papers, already thin in resources, will become four.
The United States has more than 6,500 weeklies. The economic factors affecting dailies — declining advertising revenues, declining readership, rigid adherence to a failing business model — affect weeklies as well.
“Go to the Web,” readers are urged. But in rural areas, served by weeklies, is that really a credible option? Until broadband access in offices and homes becomes as universal as telephone and electricity, going to the Web may not be a rural choice. Readers whose newspapers fold may lose access to the local journalism they need to make informed consumer and political decisions.
And, as in the case of the readers of the East Iowa Herald, they might end up with nothing: The paper’s owners have not yet decided if they have the resources to produce a viable online newspaper.