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Paying for local news—or the lack of it
City council minutes and school budgets add up in the equation of maintaining a free press.
First let’s focus on some good news about news: Younger generations see value in news coverage when you follow their dollars.
A report from the Media Insight Project found that 60% of Americans between the ages of 16 and 40 pay for some type of news. That’s a hopeful stat at first glance. Most Millennials and Gen Z see fit to support some version of a free press. Our democracy sorely needs that support as we’re flooded by a rising tide of propaganda barely disguised as news.
But this demographic of news consumers also is more than twice as likely to subscribe or donate to (cough, cough) email newsletters or similar streams from independent creators (47%) than traditional news sources such as print or digital newspapers (22%).
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In the words of the report, “News organizations should evaluate potential reasons for this, such as perceived authenticity of individual voices; the formats or style of content; or even the often-multiple ways individuals can support creators, through recurring or one-time payments.”
In other words, the old business model for news continues to crumble, with influencer culture and social algorithms storming in to fill the void.
One alarming additional way the business model for independent local news may be crumbling in the Hawkeye State: An Iowa Senate bill approved by a subcommittee would remove the requirement for cities, schools, and other public bodies to publish public notices in newspapers of record spread throughout our 99 counties.
Economically, this represents yet another existential threat to our state’s 241 community newspapers that, according to the Iowa Newspaper Association (INA), reach 84% of Iowa adults in print or online.
Editor Art Cullen in Storm Lake says that without this chunk of reliable revenue his family would be forced to close the Aurelia Star. They’d need to scrounge another $100,000 annually to keep the Storm Lake Times Pilot and Cherokee Chronicle Times afloat.
Proponents of the bill claim that yanking public notices away from local newspapers—costing dimes per line of type—will save taxpayers millions of dollars. Lawmakers propose establishing a state website as a new online hub, in addition to all the old-fashioned paper copies of city council minutes that get pinned to post office and library bulletin boards.
Guess what? INA already provides free and convenient public access online through iowanotices.org, where you can search statewide by a name or phrase and other criteria. The current language of the Iowa Senate bill doesn’t even guarantee equivalent service from a state website, requiring that notices be searchable only be county, city, school district, and type of notice.
Less transparency. Less scrutiny. Less sunlight.
More potential problems—and costs.
Communities with fewer reporters or no local news sources tend to experience deepening political polarization. And counties with newspaper closures tend to see greater government inefficiency and borrowing costs.
The point isn’t that public notices inspire a devoted readership and should be published on Page One. (Although they’ve certainly yielded their share of headline news.) It’s about maintaining independent publishing and archiving of public notices through local newsrooms as an essential component of a healthy democracy. We’re a nation founded on the principle of a government by the people where we can readily access the basic dry facts of public business. Most days our eyes glaze over when we scan past these notices to read the obituaries or a sports story. But this is the type of info we don’t realize we need until a controversy or crisis erupts—and then we crave it desperately.
Letting public notices get siphoned off to a government website, where agencies could shuffle items on or off with less awareness, isn’t anything resembling progress, efficiency, or common sense.
I do have a dog in this fight. In my nonprofit life I’m proud to serve on the board of the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation where we’re working to evolve the business model and infrastructure for independent local news far into the 21st century. I don’t pretend any one revenue stream is a panacea for news funding—including paid public notices. That’s why our team is currently in the throes of an ambitious campaign called “Protecting Democracy, Building Community” with a goal to fund 10 reporters in local communities ahead of the 2024 election. If we truly want to combat misinformation and disinformation up and down our main streets, this is a good place to start.
Whatever your perceived authenticity of my individual voice, I argue that paid public notices published by local newsrooms remain an overall cost savings—especially when factoring in the price of letting our democracy slip away one line of small type at a time.
Check out our full lineup of writers:
Iowa Writers’ Collaborative columnists
Laura Belin: Iowa Politics with Laura Belin, Windsor Heights
Doug Burns: The Iowa Mercury, Carroll
Dave Busiek: Dave Busiek on Media, Des Moines
Art Cullen: Art Cullen’s Notebook, Storm Lake
Suzanna de Baca Dispatches from the Heartland, Huxley
Debra Engle: A Whole New World, Madison County
Julie Gammack: Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck, Des Moines and Okoboji
Joe Geha: Fern and Joe, Ames
Jody Gifford: Benign Inspiration, West Des Moines
Nik Heftman, The Seven Times, Los Angeles and Iowa
Beth Hoffman: In the Dirt, Lovilla
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
Tar Macias: Hola Iowa, Iowa
Kurt Meyer, Showing Up, St. Ansgar
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 Curtains, Washington, D.C.
Macey Spensley, The Midwest Creative, Davenport and Des Moines
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
To receive a weekly roundup of all Iowa Writers’ Collaborative columnists, sign up here (free): ROUNDUP COLUMN.
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