The state of The Times

FILLERS

BY JOHN CULLEN

Every January, since we started The Storm Lake Times in 1990, we have issued this annual report to you, our readers, on what we have accomplished during the past year and what we hope to accomplish in the coming year.

We do this not because we have to — we are, after all, a private business — but because we believe a community newspaper is a public trust, endowed with special rights in the First Amendment because our nation’s founders understood the necessity of a free press for the functioning of a democracy.

We like to think we have been serving our readers well. Our circulation, the measure of the health of a publication, is 70% more than our nearest competitor and we continue to reach more readers than all other newspapers in Buena Vista County combined. This translates into results for the businesses who know they can reach these valuable customers by advertising in The Times. Both our circulation and advertising revenues have remained stable while other media have stumbled.

Newspapers aren’t alone in facing challenges. Radio and TV are also challenged by declining audiences as the media landscape becomes more fragmented by hundreds of cable channels, streaming video, satellite radio and podcasts. In that respect, broadcasters face stronger competition than print, which in recent years has received most of the media attention.

SOME OF THE biggest challenges to traditional media come from social media like Facebook and Twitter. Some politicians have declared open season on the Fourth Estate, upset when newspapers call them out when they are wrong. Some people aren’t interested in reading the truth anymore. They would rather spend their time reading fake news online that aligns with their prejudices.

There are a lot of news sources out there nowadays, and a lot of them are just plain made up. Now more than ever we need the honest reporting that you get from a trusted news organization like The Times rather than internet fantasies cooked up by some unemployed nut living in his mother’s basement in Mississippi. Facebook is great for watching cat videos or pictures of your nieces and nephews in California, but 99% of the stuff on the internet that is portrayed as news is just plain propaganda.

The Storm Lake Times has never knowingly reported false information and as long as Art and I are here, never will. We’ve made honest mistakes and when they have been brought to our attention we have corrected them. It’s hard not to make mistakes when you consider the volume of content that is published in our newspapers over the course of a year. Most people can’t write a Twitter message of 140 characters without misspelling several words. Our goal is to be mistake-proof with some 150,000 typewritten characters per issue. I do a lot of the proofreading here and sometimes my tired old bifocalled eyes miss a few things.

When we report a story we try to present both sides to be fair. We have followed this practice in our reporting about the most important issue facing Buena Vista County during the past year — the lawsuit by Des Moines Water Works against drainage districts in BV, Sac and Calhoun counties. It is a matter of national significance, and The Times has been on top of this important story from the beginning. In fact, Art Cullen reported a year before the lawsuit was filed that DMWW was considering legal action over nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. The entire state ignored the story. If people had been paying attention to that first story in The Times in March 2014, this $100 million lawsuit with enormous consequences for agriculture may have been avoided. That’s why The Times is essential reading if you want to know what is happening in our community. It’s what good newspapers are supposed to do.

And nothing can beat a newspaper when it comes to recording important events in your life. When your kid wins the spelling bee at school you can’t paste a picture from Facebook on the refrigerator.

AS WE HAVE noted previously, if news is the heart of a newspaper, then the editorial page is its soul. We are tremendously proud that The Storm Lake Times is widely acknowledged as having the best editorials in the state, written by Brother Art. He knows what he’s talking about, whether it’s city budgets or the farm bill. And for those who disagree with our opinions, we are pleased to offer space to respond in the dozens of letters to the editor we print each year. We feel The Times should be a marketplace of ideas for the community.

The Times voice, heard across the state, has been a powerful supporter of everything that will make Storm Lake a better community.

THE BIGGEST NEWS The Times this past year was shutting down our cranky but lovable old press. The luxury of having our own press no longer made economic sense. Our mighty Harris, cranking out hundreds of thousands of papers since it was erected in our Times Square  headquarters in 1993, roared for the last time on May 13.

Our equipment was getting old and so were the people operating it. I turn 67 this year and Jim Robinson and Art, who ran the press, will be 63 and 60.

We also faced significant expense in keeping the equipment operating. We anticipated spending more than $100,000 on our platemaker and press in the next year or so. When we got our platemaker 13 years ago, only one other newspaper in the state had one — the Des Moines Register. Now every newspaper plant has one. We were the first newspaper in the state to be composed entirely on computers back in 1990 and we have been technological trendsetters ever since.

We may have been the smallest newspaper in the state to operate our own press. The independence was nice, but we had no economy of scale. It is hard to get good prices on newsprint when you buy in small quantities like we did. It made more sense to farm out our printing to White Wolf Web in Sheldon, where a much larger and more sophisticated computer-controlled press can print more color on more pages more easily.

ENDING THE PRINTING has also allowed our staff to focus their talents in the newsroom rather than in the pressroom. We are blessed to have a loyal and professional team dedicated to presenting the best community newspaper in the state.

We remain committed to serving the community as the only locally owned media outlet in the county. We understand that we succeed when Buena Vista County succeeds. We appreciate your support as we continue our goal of delivering the news honestly.

And if you ever have any suggestions or concerns, you’re always welcome at our Times Square office, just five blocks from where Art and I grew up. The press may be gone, but we’re still here, working as always for the betterment of Buena Vista County.