Thursday, October 07, 2021

Dispatch from Iowa: What happens when a newspaper chain lets a community's small daily newspaper deteriorate

The building is for sale. (Photo by KC McGinnis for The Atlantic)
All across America, small newspapers are shriveling, mainly because digital media have taken much of their advertising base. Quantifying that on a national scale would be very difficult; the U.S. has more than 6,000 newspapers, most of them small. But a story about one, The Hawk Eye of Burlington, Iowa, is emblematic of the problem, which is worst for small daily papers bearing a burden of debt incurred by hedge-fund buyers like GateHouse Media, which took over Gannett Co. and its name.

Elaine Godfrey, who grew up near the Mississippi River town of 24,000, writes for The Atlantic about The Hawk Eye under the new Gannett: "Its staff, now down to three overstretched news reporters, still produces a print edition six days a week. But the paper is dying. Its pages are smaller than they used to be, and there are fewer of them. Even so, wide margins and large fonts are used to fill space. The paper is laid out by a remote design team and printed 100 miles away in Peoria, Illinois; if a reader doesn’t get her paper in the morning, she is instructed to dial a number that will connect her to a call center in the Philippines. Obituaries used to be free; now, when your uncle dies, you have to pay to publish a write-up. These days, most of The Hawk Eye’s articles are ripped from other Gannett-owned Iowa publications, such as The Des Moines Register and the Ames Tribune, written for a readership three hours away. The opinion section, once an arena for local columnists and letter writers to spar over the merits and morals of riverboat gambling and railroad jobs moving to Topeka, is dominated by syndicated national columnists."

Using the recently created Burlington Breaking News Facebook page to solicit comments, Godfrey got dozens: "Readers noticed the paper’s sloppiness first—how there seemed to be twice as many typos as before, and how sometimes the articles would end mid-sentence instead of continuing after the jump. The newspaper’s remaining reporters are overworked; there are local stories they’d like to tell but don’t have the bandwidth to cover. The Hawk Eye’s current staff is facing the impossible task of keeping a historic newspaper alive while its owner is attempting to squeeze it dry."

Social-media sites that pop up when a newspaper withers "can be a useful resource, and a good source of community jokes and gossip. But speculation and rumor run rampant" on the Facebook page, Godfrey writes. "When a member hears something that sounds like gunshots nearby, she’ll post about it, and others will offer theories about the source. Once, I read a thread about an elementary-school principal suddenly skipping town. Some thought he might have behaved inappropriately with a student; one person said he’d been involved with a student’s mother; another swore they’d seen security-camera footage of the principal slashing tires in a parking lot at night. I checked The Hawk Eye and other outlets, but I couldn’t find verification of any of those stories."

The guessing is hard for Dale Alison, former Hawk Eye editor, to watch. "He often interjects in the comments to correct false information. Sometimes he posts news himself. . . .  People want to know what’s going on, Alison told me; they just don’t know how to find the answer, whom to call, where to look. That’s what reporters are for."

Godfrey touches on another national trend seen all over the country: "In the absence of local coverage, all news becomes national news: Instead of reading about local policy decisions, people read about the blacklisting of Dr. Seuss books. Instead of learning about their own local candidates, they consume angry takes about Marjorie Taylor Greene," the radical Republican congresswoman from Georgia.

And she senses an even more disturbing trend, relayed by Mayor Jon Billups, who was fired as The Hawk Eye's circulation director in 2017: "Since the purchase of the paper, he’s noticed a growing negative self-image among residents, he told me. Fewer people see Burlington as a nice place to live; they seem to like their neighbors less. 'We’re struggling with not having [this] iconic thing.' As mayor, he helped start a newsletter to keep residents updated on city projects. 'It’s a matter of time before our local paper does not exist.'"

Godfrey reflects, "When people lament the decline of small newspapers, they tend to emphasize the most important stories that will go uncovered: political corruption, school-board scandals, zoning-board hearings, police misconduct. They are right to worry about that. But often overlooked are the more quotidian stories, the ones that disappear first when a paper loses resources: stories about the annual Teddy Bear Picnic at Crapo Park, the town-hall meeting about the new swimming-pool design, and the tractor games during the Denmark Heritage Days. These stories are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors, and they encourage readers to listen to and empathize with one another. When that tissue disintegrates, something vital rots away. We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another."

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