You get what you pay for

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

A friend called Monday to ask if we would consider writing a piece on the importance of immigrants to Iowa agriculture. We have written the book on it, literally, to be published Oct. 2. We were having a friendly conversation about our mutual interests when she lamented that she was having a hard time selling a $50,000 house after having advertised it on the radio. I told her that was the problem. It is hard to see a house on the radio. Print is the answer. Run that ad once with us and we will run it again for free a week later with “SOLD!” marked on it in red.

She chuckled but did not bite.

Another “friend” on Facebook said she wished that our editorials and opinion columns were published every week on Facebook so that she might read them for free. I don’t eat much, but I do need to eat. I cannot eat that Pulitzer Prize paper weight.

The phone is still hooked up so our friend could call 1-800-732-4992 toll-free. And the lights are on. But Fearless Leader John sits five feet away working like a beaver on a frozen river for next to nothing when, at 67, he should be preparing for spring training in Florida. He chooses to persist. He is considered by his peers to be one of the best editors (and press photographers) in the nation. This community benefits from his expertise. It is worth something.

It’s not just us. If you want journalism or hits from the country singer, we each need a pair of cowboy boots.

Independent county-seat newspapers owned by our friends are trying to absorb the loss of major grocers and car dealers who are playing around with Facebook and cutting out print. These are not good but great newspapers that shout for their towns and hold the school board accountable and announce your granddaughter’s birth to the world. I have no doubt but that our friends will have to lay off a reporter or a woman who shoots photos at the Friday night football games. And their newspapers will be great, but not as great. Their towns will still be home, but not quite communicating like they used to.

The Des Moines Register was one of the nation’s greatest newspapers when it was locally owned. Now it is a good newspaper owned by a corporation in Virginia: Gannett. It is like every other newspaper Gannett owns. It is still worth the price of a subscription, which has gone up a lot in recent years. The Register still covers the legislature and competes hard against the Cedar Rapids Gazette for bragging rights. A friend of ours who covered the Iowa State Cyclones for the Gazette just got laid off. He got his start here at The Times. We wish we could afford him back.

The Mason City Globe Gazette on its flag was proud to proclaim “Making All North Iowans Neighbors.” When I worked there in 1989, the daily paid circulation was 27,000. The daily press run is now a third of that, according to the Iowa Newspaper Association. The Globe Gazette covers every high school game from Forest City to Charles City. If a garage band is playing at The Surf in Clear Lake the G-G is all over it. It’s still worth the price of a cup of coffee every day.

You don’t get that on Facebook. You can get the free classified ads that the newspaper used to publish for a dollar.

You want us to publish your point of view. We want to publish it, too. To do that, you need to subscribe to our newspaper. It costs money to pay our friend who lays out that page and posts it online. Really, it does. You might think it looks fun to play a guitar in a bar, but it looks like work to the guy playing it.

We don’t pay my reporter son, Tom, much. That’s why he dresses like me. Yet, he does important work. He dug in and found out who was paying for the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit. He reported on squalid living conditions at an Alta mobile home court. He reports on how much your property tax bill will go up before you get the bill, so you can complain to the Board of Supervisors if you want to.

Facts are important. Newspapers spend a lot of effort and money finding facts. What your tax rate is. How immigrants impact the Storm Lake School District budget. We wouldn’t know about the problems with Medicaid reform in Iowa were it not for The Des Moines Register and Cedar Rapids Gazette. Those are facts, too. It took Gov. Reynolds two years of disaster to admit that there was a problem.

The newspaper industry is challenged by market forces and technology. It is under direct attack from the White House. The President has talked about rewriting the First Amendment to the Constitution. Really. The Washington Post and The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are breaking huge stories every day on which democracy depends. They are big enough — the category killers — that they can capitalize on digital critical mass that attracts paying advertisers that subsidize the cost of investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails and Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.

It was local newspapers that uncovered recent sex abuse scandals at Penn State and Michigan State.

The Carroll Daily Times Herald does not have that scale to make it work. Neither does the N’West Iowa Review, considered widely to be the second-best community newspaper in America. And neither does The Storm Lake Times. An ad for a house subsidizes the cost of reporting on what its property tax load is. And, that ad will sell the house. That subscription pays for the cost of printing your wedding photo for free, that is clipped and put in a picture book that might outlast any newspaper in which it was first printed.