Let's talk about 'Rebooting the News'
Join a timely, newsy conversation Nov. 2 in downtown Des Moines.
Chris Martin asked the 120 university students in his Mass Communication and Society class to raise their hands if any of them regularly read a print newspaper.
Not a single hand was raised.
I doubt that any of you reading this Substack post—by a writer who once earned a living from his work published on dead trees—expected a radically different result.
Some hands shot up when Martin asked if students read a digital news source—maybe the New York Times, or the website of their hometown newspaper.
But the vast majority of Martin’s University of Northern Iowa students in Cedar Falls consume their news indirectly through whichever social media algorithm happens to rule their daily routine. We know this. Our modern media diets account for all the different ways we must sift through our digital feeds to try to be a more supportive neighbor or informed voter.
“On one hand it’s a really terrible time for the newspaper industry,” said Martin, a professor of digital journalism. “The economic model that worked so well for 150 years or more is not working now.”
“As difficult as the industry is economically, we probably have more news than we’ve ever had before. Twenty-five years ago, I might not have been reading the Guardian of London on a daily basis.”
Martin more or less sums up the corner that we—“we” meaning either news consumers or working journalists—have been backed into. We’re flooded with more news and information than ever while struggling over how to properly fund it.
Let me rephrase that: We’re flooded by an often toxic sludge of information but parched for crystal-clear news stories to refresh us. Exhaustive reporting on substantive issues by experienced professionals who have deep background on their local communities costs a lot more than covering celebrities and memes. And the path to winning over an audience with substantive news is hard, incremental work where you earn trust and credibility day by day.
I tend to obsess over these issues because I prefer to live in a healthy democracy with a functional Fourth Estate as a faithful watchdog. I also chair the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation (WIJF), a young and growing nonprofit helping to innovate how we build a sustainable future for news funding.
Guess what? There are fresh signs of legitimate hope.
Martin and others will discuss harsh realities and hopeful signs alike during a Nov. 2 event in downtown Des Moines.
It’s called “Rebooting the News” and will be held in the ground-floor auditorium. Food and drink from local Italian restaurant Baratta’s will be available. Tickets are free and can be reserved online.
IPR’s Charity Nebbe will moderate a panel that includes Martin, WIJF Executive Director Becky Vonnahme, Pulitzer winner and fellow Iowa Writers Collaborative writer Art Cullen, and others.
Some of Martin’s recent research on the news industry focuses on how the mainstream media, he says, in the throes of political and digital disruption, abandoned the working class in favor of a more upscale consumer audience. He published a book on the topic a couple years ago called “No Longer Newsworthy.”
Some awareness of the need to refocus on working-class issues arose in the heat of the pandemic, Martin said, through examples such as the deaths of COVID-stricken meatpacking workers. He also makes the case that the media still has a shot to win back a mass audience—not just leaving them to the whims of the tech titans—by refocusing more on everyday economic issues, less on inflaming the national culture wars.
Martin sees promise in nonprofit newsrooms as one model of future sustainability (informed by his status as an IPR board member). He’s also faculty advisor for UNI’s student newspaper, the Northern Iowan. As a modest example of daily journalism making a difference, Martin was proud two years ago when students journalists helped save the Honors Cottage, the former president’s house and oldest building on campus, from the wrecking ball.
“If the newspaper wasn’t there, that building would just be a grassy plot right now,” he said.
One vulnerable historic building in Cedar Falls serves as a handy metaphor: We work to preserve a healthy business model for independent local news so we don’t see much larger institutions swept away, such as a fully functioning and democratic federal government.
Please join us Thursday in downtown Des Moines to toast a sustainable future for local news—or contribute to the conversation and cause however and wherever it makes sense for your schedule.
Further reading: Chris Martin’s white paper, “What makes Iowa newspapers resilient?”
The Iowa Writers’ Collaborative
Have you explored the variety of voices in the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative? They are from around the state and contribute commentary and feature stories of interest to those who care about Iowa.
Nicole Baart: This Stays Here, Sioux Center
Laura Belin: Iowa Politics with Laura Belin, Windsor Heights
Doug Burns: The Iowa Mercury, Carroll
Dave Busiek: Dave Busiek on Media, Des Moines
Iowa Writers’ Collaborative, Roundup
Steph Copley: It Was Never a Dress, Johnston
Art Cullen: Art Cullen’s Notebook, Storm Lake
Suzanna de Baca: Dispatches from the Heartland, Huxley
Debra Engle: A Whole New World, Madison County
Arnold Garson: Second Thoughts, Okoboji and Sioux Falls
Julie Gammack: Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck, Des Moines and Okoboji
Joe Geha: Fern and Joe, Ames
Jody Gifford: Benign Inspiration, West Des Moines
Rob Gray: Rob Gray’s Area, Ankeny
Nik Heftman: The Seven Times, Los Angeles and Iowa
Beth Hoffman: In the Dirt, Lovilia
Dana James: New Black Iowa, Des Moines
Pat Kinney: View from Cedar Valley, Waterloo
Fern Kupfer: Fern and Joe, Ames
Robert Leonard: Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture, Bussey
Letters from Iowans, Iowa
Darcy Maulsby: Keepin’ It Rural, Calhoun County
Tar Macias: Hola Iowa, Iowa
Alison McGaughey, The Inquisitive Quad Citizen, Quad Cities
Kurt Meyer: Showing Up, St. Ansgar
Wini Moranville: Wini’s Food Stories, Des Moines
Jeff Morrison: Between Two Rivers, Cedar Rapids
Kyle Munson: Kyle Munson’s Main Street, Des Moines
Jane Nguyen: The Asian Iowan, West Des Moines
John Naughton: My Life, in Color, Des Moines
Chuck Offenburger: Iowa Boy Chuck Offenburger, Jefferson and Des Moines
Barry Piatt: Piatt on Politics Behind the Curtain, Washington, D.C.
Dave Price: Dave Price’s Perspective, Des Moines
Macey Spensley: The Midwest Creative, Norwalk
Larry Stone: Listening to the Land, Elkader
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Buggy Land, Kalona
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Emerging Voices, Kalona
Cheryl Tevis: Unfinished Business, Boone County
Ed Tibbetts: Along the Mississippi, Davenport
Teresa Zilk: Talking Good, Des Moines
The Iowa Writers Collaborative is also proud to ally with Iowa Capital Dispatch.
SAVE THE DATE: THURSDAY, DEC. 7, PAID SUBSCRIBERS ARE INVITED TO A HOLIDAY PARTY AT THE WITMER HOUSE, 2900 GRAND AVE., DES MOINES (former Iowa governor’s mansion). Let us know if you would like to attend: