Newspapers are still struggling to survive and provide the coverage needed for voters and democracy.
But there are signs of hope and local owners are emerging to save and revive their community papers.
One is that Congress is consolidating an important bill to keep the local news industry afloat.
Another is the recent flurry of newspaper acquisitions in Iowa, where several local publishing families have acquired shorter papers from shrinking chains.
Instead of closing the papers, as more than 2,000 did over the past 15 years, local owners looked to needs and opportunities.
“I have a long time before these properties pay off, so I’m really anticipating and betting the future of the local eyeballs,” said Christopher Hall, a third-generation publisher in Charles City, Iowa.
Hall’s family this month bought a conglomerate of Iowa papers from Rust Communications, a Missouri media company that sells properties in several states.
This could be a precursor. I’m predicting that the wave of investment will revive local newspapers, especially in smaller towns, if Congress agrees on another measure to help save the JCPA and the industry.
The Local Journalistic Sustainability Act would provide a temporary tax credit to news outlets that hire and retain journalists. Families can also get credit for news subscriptions, as can small businesses advertising locally. The idea is to provide immediate, short-term assistance to prevent further job losses.
In the long run, continued support will come from the JCPA. It would give local outlets a better chance to compete in an online marketplace that state and federal regulators say are unfair business practices by Google and Facebook.
The JCPA will allow news outlets to interact collectively with digital platforms that benefit from local news content without paying fair compensation to publishers. The biggest newspapers have an advantage to make such deals. Small people don’t have to work together like agricultural cooperatives to negotiate.
A similar policy in Australia helped a consortium of small, rural newspapers negotiate a recurring payment. It is believed to be about 30% of the cost of their newsroom.
It is only fair. It will also provide the protection local publishers need to invest in finished newsrooms and the technology needed to grow and survive.
Iowa hints at other benefits if platforms start paying for their overdue subscriptions to local news content. This will encourage new local owners to start or save a local news outlet, especially if content deals make it easier to finance them.
“If something like this were to happen it would definitely be a game changer for every newsroom, not just in our markets but in small-town USA,” Hall said. “We are 100% behind a paywall and have been for a long time but that doesn’t stop other media from taking a lot of our stuff.”
The acquisition of Hall was a multilateral deal facilitated by outside support.
After acquiring the Rust paper, Hall sold two to the family that published The Storm Lake Times, helmed by Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Art Cullen and profiled in a documentary last year.
John Tu, a billionaire immigrant in California who co-founded Kingston Technology and believes deeply in democracy and the American dream, was impressed by the film. he made one Big donation to maintain paperThe amount of which was not disclosed.
Thou’s gift and the others go to a foundation, which in turn grants the for-profit newspaper. It was modeled on an approach developed by Greeley Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
That lifeline provided the security for Cullens to buy out its local competitor, the Pilot-Tribune. They will be merged into the twice-weekly Storm Lake Times pilot, in which Cullens will offer jobs to all employees at the same or better pay and promise “A stronger news report with more ads and pages.”
Both the Storm Lake papers on their own were on the verge of failing.
“We had 3,000 paid (customers), and they had 720 so they were almost dead and we were bleeding profusely,” Art Cullen told me. “Within a year there could have been a news desert here. We were about to go down during the pandemic, were it not for these charities. It is clear to me now that the Pilot-Tribune does not last another year.
The Cullens also acquired the twice-weekly Cherokee Chronicle Times 22 miles away through the deal.
“Our real goal is to somehow return the Cherokee to local ownership,” said Art Cullen. “These communities need to take stock of themselves… Everywhere you look where there is a successful existing paper, whether it is locally owned, or independently owned, I should say.”
The recent surge of philanthropic support is giving Cullen some hope, but otherwise it is going hard.
“I think all the newspapers have tremendous cash flow problems, most of the community and regional newspapers are just in a tailspin,” he said.
Yet Cullen still needs convincing that the JCPA will help papers like The Storm Lake Times pilot.
Influential Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who played a small role in the movie “Storm Lake,” may also need convincing.
Grassley has yet to join fellow Republicans, including Sens John Kennedy and Lindsey Graham, in co-sponsoring the bill. But spokeswoman Taylor Foy told me that doesn’t mean he’s protesting.
A recent investment in the Iowa Papers shows what’s possible with a little help.
This needs to happen across the heart and across the country, and it will happen if Congress gives America’s local newspapers a fighting chance.