âThank you for your support, we need you and your friends. “
That was the title of a column written by veteran editor Art Cullen of the Iowa Storm Lake Times and appeared in a PBS documentary I watched last week.
Cullen knows the challenges of being a small editor at an American newspaper.
Like most journalists I know, the gangly, white-haired senior isn’t afraid to speak his mind about the stories that concern us, what he thinks readers want to know, and the future of the local journalism in America.
Cullen, 63, has become a bit of a hero in my business. He’s still fighting to save the future of his 3,000-copy print product that provides community news on topics like city council and, in his own words, “Who marries and is buried”.
Somehow, while doing this with his small staff, he also managed to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017.
Now Cullen and his family journal are at the center of a PBS documentary examining the future of local journalism.
In Cullen’s words, the best journalism builds communities. I couldn’t agree more.
We too fill our community news pages. We put a lot of effort and space into obituaries. Our journalists attend numerous meetings of municipal councils, school boards and municipal councilors. We stand on the sidelines of high school football games with our notebooks and cameras, and of course, we’re looking for interesting local stories to share.
In Cullen’s words we have to cover all this stuff “And still be old-fashioned enough to believe in the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment.” “
Unfortunately, this isn’t always enough to please everyone. In Iowa, Cullen struggles with similar issues.
“It seems that people no longer support journalism as they once did” he said. âNow people want to hear from them for free because apparently watching their breakfast on Facebook is all the information they need to live as an informed voter in America. And that’s not how you maintain a democracy. You need people who can talk about the facts and deal with the facts. This is what we are here for. But people say, âWell, it’s not worth a dollar. “
Thousands of American communities are now seen “Topical deserts” – the ominous name given to communities without local newspapers to expose local government corruption or cover high school football on Friday nights.
Here in our Mahoning Valley, we’ve become familiar with the term because just a few years ago Youngstown risked going down this route when The Vindicator, under his former ownership, teetered on the brink of closure. The Tribune Chronicle, of course, took over the post, and now The Vindicator and the Tribune Chronicle are alive and well.
Today, with our two dailies coupled with multiple TV news channels, a local trade publication, web publication and other smaller newsprint media, our valley, at least for the foreseeable future, is far from be a “desert of news”.
Not all parts of our country and the world are so lucky.
Over the past 15 years, the United States has lost more than 2,000 newspapers – 1 in 4 – leaving the communities it once covered without the surveillance reports that force elected officials to look over their shoulders or type. of positive publicity that leaves parents beaming with pride. .
The journalism training center and think tank Poynter Institute reported that more than 90 newsrooms were closed during the pandemic alone for the same reason countless other small businesses did not survive – loss of business and profit. Today, about 65 million Americans live in information deserts, according to the documentary.
So how long will a community support journalism? To paraphrase Cullen, a strong newspaper is the fabric of a small town. Without strong local journalism, the fabric crumbles.
So we can’t give up. As Cullen describes, the reporter is the cornerstone of an informed electorate in a functioning democracy.
I agree. And because you are reading this diary today, I have to believe you are too.
“Storm Lake” streams for free on the PBS Independent Lens website for a few more days at https: ///www.pbs.org/independentlens/documentaries/storm-lake.