Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Rural Iowa editorial nails why local journalism matters

A twice-weekly small daily newspaper in rural Iowa makes a compelling case for the importance of strong watchdog journalism at the local level. 

Doug Burns
The staff of the Carroll Times Herald got "some ugly and highly personalized pushback" on its coverage of a former local school superintendent who sent a sexually suggestive email to a teacher and then collected a huge salary for months while on leave. Some of that pushback borders on "calls for violence on our reporters," says the editorial by co-owner Doug Burns.

"We are more than willing to print letters to the editor, or otherwise absorb comments challenging our coverage. But the taxpaying public should be concerned with increasingly aggressive online efforts to intimidate or chill our coverage of the use of taxpayer dollars."

Carroll and Carroll County (Wikipedia map)
The paper, family-owned for 90 years and until recently a daily, has a "three-generation-deep commitment to education in Carroll," the editorial says, making it "especially outrageous" that many commenters who want its watchdog reporting silenced don't even live in the town of 10,000.

The editorial objects, too, to the common narrative that community newspapers thrive on controversy and that they make their money from such stories. The opposite is true in small towns, it says:
Covering crime and courts with a trained eye, or writing about local government without lapdog obedience, requires more skills than retyping press releases, attending ball games or parroting back what local businesses want to see written about them. We have to dedicate more time and money and resources to covering the hard news, and sometimes bear the brunt of backlash, of modern cancel culture with abandoned subscriptions and lost advertising, when people don’t like inconvenient truths, painful facts. 
An easier and more profitable model would be to stand down from the tough stories, look the other away at misdeeds, maybe just comfortably stay silent in complicity with the culprits who would no doubt advertise more with us if we granted them such breaks from shame and even jail. Yes, we could be a newspaper that feeds people San Diego-sized helpings of sunshine, and no one would ever be angry at us again — except maybe parents of 17-year-old girls involved with police officers or parents and taxpayers concerned about tens of thousands of dollars in school waste after a superintendent resignation. 
Most rural newspapers, based on financial challenges and cultural changes, have opted for the latter approach, the balloons-and-cupcakes-for-all model, becoming, in the process, mere church bulletins with news on who died and where to find a Friday fish fry, community newsletters with limited, if any, critical investigative reporting or hard news — and very, very little crime and courts coverage beyond simple tracing of police reports, what the officers give us, no questions please, ma’am. 
We think you deserve better.

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