Why Do We Do This?

The special relationship of a newspaper to its community


In our last edition we republished, as we do every year, the first editorial from The Storm Lake Times on June 29, 1990. It is entitled, “What we believe” and was penned by Brother John to explain the special relationship of a newspaper to its community. It remains an eloquent statement today.

Its publication reminds me why I got into the business.

It was not to make money. If it were, I was on a fool’s errand.

I was in the post-Watergate journalism class that dumped on US newspapers like a tsunami in the late 1970s. We wanted to make a difference.

More than 30 years later, my peers are wondering if they made the right choice. The newspaper in New Orleans just gutted its newsroom and will switch to three times a week publication. The Times Picayune is owned by a chain.

All the newsboys cheered when Warren Buffett bought the Omaha World Herald, then set off on a buying spree of 63 more newspapers. Their white knight has owned the Buffalo News in New York for many years, a decent if neglected daily. The World Herald will be as good as the Buffalo News and vice versa.

Warren Buffett may be a great guy and save short-sighted publishers from themselves for a time. But that’s how the chain concept works: The old family paper is bought with Wall Street money that expects a 25-40% rate of return, which is what monopoly daily newspapers sent home to investors from 1990 to 2008. And that’s the problem with the newspaper industry. It’s not the Internet. It’s not radio or TV or video games or reader indifference.

It’s greed.

Abe Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times, once said that the difference between a good newspaper and a great one is the difference between a small loss and a small profit.

The Des Moines Register was truly one of the nation’s great newspapers when it was family-owned and cranked out an 8-10% profit margin for Gardner Cowles and clan. The elder Cowleses might have been fat and happy, but the trust babies weren’t. Then Gannett bought it. It remains a good newspaper that puts out great profits, but The Register is not a great newspaper anymore.

Cowles’ first mission was to get Iowa out of the mud and pave the roads, not achieve a 40% cash flow.

If Advance Publications, owners at New Orleans and Mobile and Birmingham, could settle for an 8% profit margin, the Times Picayune, Press Register and Birmingham News would be running on all eight cylinders.

They forgot why they’re in the business.

It is to serve the community.

If you are a doctor in it for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. Your patients will not trust you. You will make bad decisions.

If you’re a banker in it for the money, you belong at Citibank — not Central, Citizens or Security, where their cause for being was to build Storm Lake homes, businesses and farms.

And if you work for a community newspaper hoping to get rich, you should have been a hedge fund manager. People accuse us of just wanting to sell papers. True enough. The reason we want to sell papers is to support our journalism, which supports the community.

All we care about is Buena Vista County and its people. We do not worry about some town in Nebraska or Indiana. We phone into no overlord with green eye shades. We make enough money to keep as friends the community bankers who have supported us every step of the way. The Rosenthal formula works for us.

We still believe that newspapers have an obligation to report news, provoke thought and hold government accountable. We believe that with our First Amendment freedoms come responsibilities to our readers that come before fattening the bottom line.

The bottom line of the community newspaper will do just fine if we remember that we are here first to present the news straight with semi-lucid commentary. That has been our experience.

I suspect that if the megabanks had stuck to making loans for homes and businesses to people they knew we would not be in the financial calamity we are in.

Towns with locally owned banks and newspapers — who care only about that town — will be the strongest. Sioux County? Strong local banks and two strong local newspapers. Carroll? Local banks, a local daily newspaper in the same family for more than a century. Storm Lake? Big local banks and one local newspaper.

Eventually Wall Street will figure out that it cannot continue to suck high levels of profit out of a mature industry — the news industry. When it can’t, it will call in the bonds and the newspapers will return to local hands. Maybe bluebloods, maybe rebels with a cause. Their communities will be the stronger for it.

There is nothing wrong with the news industry that a little passion for the profession can’t cure.

Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2012


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