Old publishers never fade away



Leafing through page proofs last Thursday morning, I was surprised to find Fearless Leader John Cullen’s “Fillers” column announcing that he is retiring as publisher and dumping the title on me. He has ruddered this leaky ship of state the past three decades since he launched Buena Vista County’s Hometown Newspaper, and has had enough fun with that as he tipped over 70 years.

We talked about this last Tuesday, when he told me it was time for a title change. Okay, but I am not listening. I read his column as a statement of intent and did not find an air of finality in it. John will still hang around and cluck cluck if he feels like it. He still owns the majority of stock. He will continue to get nervous around every payday. John does not golf. This and cable news are his hobbies, along with mowing, and so in February he might as well proofread and complain about property taxes.

Frankly, we all need him at The Storm Lake Times. I sure do.

I don’t do well with irritable people or money. He does. I will continue to try to learn from him. After all, John really did raise me up from a cub when he got me my first job at the Algona Upper Des Moines and Kossuth County Advance. In fact, John was responsible for Bill, Jim and me landing the cushiest job in the world as projectionists at the Vista Theatre for Del Farrell. Dad could accept that we were showing the “Swinging Cheerleaders” or “Last Tango in Paris” so long as we were getting paid. Damn automation, or I would still be in the booth.

John taught me to write as you speak, and to speak well. Do not write a paragraph longer than three lines or a two-sentence lede (as I did above). Never crop one of his photos. Ask them how to spell their names. Never ask a yes or no question in a hed — “Will the world end if Donald Trump is re-elected?” Of course it will. Try to stay friendly with bankers and lawyers. Stop the reader on every page. Get the paper out on time. We’re trying.

John learned on his own. He got a job at the Camera Store, earned a Kodak, studied film at Notre Dame, intended to be a movie producer, heard Dad tell him to get off the couch and get a job, wrote sports for the Storm Lake Register and Pilot-Tribune, grew a mustache, edited a weekly in Washington state for a year, came back to Algona and put out the best community newspaper in the world (where he was named Iowa’s Press Photographer of the Year), moved to Storm Lake to work in public relations for Buena Vista University, found Mary Tolan and married her, welcomed Bridget and Justin to the world, and launched The Times in a tempest. I came home to help.

I never aspired to the publisher title. This thing is John’s baby, and his declarations can’t change that. So I am sure that he will look over my shoulder to make sure I did not spell Mayor Tucker’s name wrong, and warn me when the till runs low.

As John noted in his column, Jon Robinson will take on more management responsibilities that I intend to slough his way and back at John Cullen, even if he is emeritus. The buck, unfortunately, will stop with me since John might be taking a nap. Jon Robinson has been operationally large and in charge since this pandemic locked the brothers Cullen in their homes. John and I creep in to help crank out the newspaper Tuesday and Thursday mornings but otherwise isolate. A generational changing of the guard is occurring. Tom Cullen just closed on a home purchase on Terrence Street. To John and me, that’s a vote of confidence in the future of journalism for Buena Vista County.

John’s stepping back coincides with an existential moment of truth for journalism. The pandemic nearly sunk us and every other newspaper in America. Were it not for the Payroll Protection Program we might be folded by now. We also launched a GoFundMe page that has brought in nearly $30,000 when advertising cratered. Three newspapers in Iowa did close in May — Perry, Knoxville and Centerville. Because we never depended as much on advertising revenue as most newspapers, we have been able to stay afloat through John’s penny pinching and your subscription support.

We’re not certain what the advertising landscape will look like in a year. What we do know is that we will have to find new sources of revenue. First, we will continue to invest in our news product, and we will put much more of an emphasis on delivering news to your mobile devices as it happens. Our digital revenue is increasing, and we must make that turn to the future while maintaining a strong print publication.

Second, we will greatly increase our fundraising efforts. Last week, the board of directors of the Western Iowa Journalism Institute met for the first time and approved a charter for the non-profit that will raise funds from foundations to support The Storm Lake Times, the Carroll Times Herald, the Jefferson Bee and Herald, LaPrensa of Denison and the Harlan News-Advertiser. These are all family-owned publications with long-time connections to us. Doug Burns of the Carroll Times Herald is a close friend of ours. John worked for Leo Mores of Harlan when Leo helped John B. Anderson buy the Register and Pilot-Tribune a lifetime ago. Leo’s sons, Alan and Steve, now run the Harlan paper. Dr. Andrea Frantz, professor of digital communications at Buena Vista University, will represent Storm Lake on the board. Kyle Munson, former Iowa columnist for The Des Moines Register, will serve as an at-large member.

We intend to raise enough money from foundations to fund the work of a reporter at each publication, and to advocate for rural areas by sharing our journalism with a wider digital audience in new ways. For example, The Storm Lake Times and Buena Vista University just produced a deeply reported audio segment on COVID-19 and meatpacking that is on Sound Cloud. Expect more in the future.

The Storm Lake Times, as always, will strive to offer increasing value for the tremendous community support it receives. We will ask for that support. John always believed that if you build a better news product the eyeballs will come to your doorstep, and the revenue will follow. We’re making that bet again as we try to expand our journalism through awfully choppy waters and a foggy forecast. I trust that my big brother is back there with at least one hand on the rudder. We can’t afford for him to bail.

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