Writing for Newspapers

Solon Economist – 2016

I will insert seven newspaper articles I wrote from 2014-2015 in my autobiography. The insertion will display that form of writing and indicate my thinking at the time. They record some memorable events which advance the book’s narrative. I winnowed the articles from the 100 I wrote and picked these:

  1. Van Allen school to be expanded — Feb. 6, 2014. My first article in a newspaper was coverage of the Iowa City School Board meeting for the North Liberty Leader. This story was about the aspects of the meeting that affected residents of North Liberty. The challenges of covering the school board are many. Before the meeting there is a packet to read. It often exceeds 500 pages. The meetings themselves can be quite long. Capturing an interview or two can be challenging as key figures depart the meeting as quickly as feasible. When I conversed with the district’s chief financial officer, the superintendent intervened to break up the conversation, thereby controlling messaging. With all this work, a freelancer won’t make money on this important coverage. That was a lesson learned.
  2. Connecting Solon with trail system — Sept. 11, 2014. Doug Lindner was owner/publisher of the Solon Economist and North Liberty Leader when I worked there, first as a proof reader, and then as a freelance writer. I appreciate his giving me a chance to freelance. This article in the Solon Economist covered a joint meeting between the Solon City Council and the Johnson County Board of Supervisors about our local trails. They found funding and acquired land for the trail to connect Solon with the Cedar Valley Trail in Linn County. This new trail has been in constant use since it was completed. We can hop on our bicycles and ride all the way to Waterloo if so motivated.
  3. UI to mark 50 years since name change — or not –Oct. 22, 2014. I had to leave the Solon Economist to pursue freelance opportunities with the Iowa City Press Citizen. This front page article was about the State University of Iowa, as named in the Iowa Constitution. Because of the official name, the Iowa City university was often confused with Iowa State University in Ames. On Oct. 22, 1964, the State Board of Regents gave permission to use “The University of Iowa” as its name. I enjoyed interviewing former university president Willard Boyd for this article.
  4. White House Kitchen Garden inspires Iowan — Dec. 5, 2014. Scott Koepke worked at New Pioneer Food Co-op when I interviewed him for the Iowa City Press Citizen about his October visit to the White House Kitchen Garden. His sister arranged the visit and Koepke brought ideas back to Johnson County to use in his work. “If the president can do it, so can we,” he said.
  5. Advocating for the environment — Feb. 18, 2015. I pitched this story to my editor at the Iowa City Press Citizen, Emily Nelson. She said yes. It was an opportunity to travel to Des Moines and interview many people I know in the environmental advocacy community, as well as elected officials. It was great fun, although a freelancer won’t make a dime on a story like this because of the work that goes into it.
  6. Farm crawl to highlight women — Sept. 23, 2015. This article was publicity for an upcoming Women, Land and Legacy Farm Crawl in Johnson County. The purpose of the farm crawl was to address a need for more networking opportunities in the region. I interviewed three farmers at their farms, two of them I met for the first time. Like most articles I wrote, this one was a money loser because of the high number of hours invested to cover the event adequately.
  7. Bill Northey tours Local Harvest CSA — Sept. 26, 2015. Bill Northey was Iowa secretary of agriculture when I interviewed him. By the time I wrote this article, I had worked at Local Harvest CSA for three seasons. I first heard from Northey, “About one out of four rows of soybeans in Iowa ends up going to China.” Iowa governor Terry Branstad had announced a number of soybean contracts with China earlier in the day and I got the local scoop.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to write for newspapers. My role as a freelancer existed because news organizations were being squeezed about overhead costs, including the salaries of permanent reporters. In a transitional newspaper publishing economy, I am proud of my 100 stories.

Living in Society

What War Means

When I was in eighth grade at Holy Family Catholic School, we were required to keep a current events scrapbook. I still have mine. It has four sections: Vietnam, Nation and World, Local, and Misc. My grade on the project was an “A.”

I clipped this Associated Press photograph from the Times-Democrat, a precursor to the Quad-City Times. A soldier was shot, and in the image has just begun to fall. I thought of this image through the years because it reminds me of the reality of war. We need such a reminder.

The Vietnam War was ongoing during my high school years and prominent in society. That’s likely why one fourth of the scrapbook was clippings about the war. The idea we boys would all potentially face compulsory service weighed on those times.

Soon after my 18th birthday, Mother took me to the Selective Service office to register for the draft. Our 1966-1967 high school yearbook was “Dedicated to the struggle for peace in Vietnam, especially to those graduates who are or soon will be a part of that struggle.” Going to war seemed a real possibility that day.

While I was reluctant to get involved in anti-war protests, when four students were killed at Kent State, I participated in a demonstration at the Davenport Armory, carrying a mocked up coffin representing one of the dead. I also participated in a school strike, skipping our humanities class because there were more important things going on in the world. I gladly served detention for skipping class because I had done the right thing.

As a septuagenarian, we work to get rid of things that can’t be passed on. I’ll be keeping this clipping, my draft card, and memories from that time. The reality of war has become distant from us. It is sanitized by media and highly controlled public relations staff in the military.

It is important to remember what war means.

Living in Society

Newspaper Closings Cripple Our Democracy

Solon Economist – 2016

U.S. newspapers close at a rate of two per week, according to David Bauder of Associated Press, referring to a recent study. In most cases, there is no replacement, creating a news desert. Lack of local news is bad for our society.

The Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University recently updated their multi-year research on the status of newspapers in the United States. Bottom line? “This is a crisis for our democracy and our society,” the study said.

To resolve the issue of how we secure local news, we must first understand the problem and what it means. The following is from the executive summary of Medill’s 2022 State of Local News Report:

  • Newspapers are continuing to vanish at a rapid rate. An average of more than two a week are disappearing.
  • Digital alternatives remain scarce, despite an increase in corporate and philanthropic funding.
  • More than a fifth of the nation’s citizens live in news deserts—with very limited access to local news—or in communities at risk of becoming news deserts.
  • The surviving newspapers—especially the dailies—have cut staff and circulation significantly as print revenues and profits evaporated.
  • The largest chains control the fate of many of the nation’s surviving newspapers. Their business strategies and decisions continue to shape the local news landscape.
  • There is a new—often overlooked—media baron on the scene, aggressively buying dailies and weeklies in small and mid-sized markets.
  • Dailies are becoming more like weeklies, and vice versa, but their business models and strategies are diverging.
  • Despite the recent increase in both corporate and philanthropic funds, the footprint of digital-only news sites is small, and predominantly a big-city phenomenon.
  • The disparity between communities that have strong news organizations and those that don’t is primarily the result of market demographics, ownership structure and available funding.
  • Getting news to those communities that have lost the news involves rethinking both current journalistic practices—as well as for-profit, nonprofit and public funding policies at the national, state and local levels.

This is a nation increasingly divided journalistically, between those who live and work in communities where there is an abundance of local news and those who don’t. Invariably, the economically struggling, traditionally underserved communities that need local journalism the most are the very places where it is most difficult to sustain either print or digital news organizations.

The loss of local journalism has been accompanied by the malignant spread of misinformation and disinformation, political polarization, eroding trust in media, and a yawning digital and economic divide among citizens. In communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout.

The State of Local News 2022, The Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.

Click here to access the entire 2022 State of Local News Report.

Also be sure to support your local newspaper by subscribing.

~ First posted at Blog for Iowa

Living in Society

Goodbye Local Newspapers

Solon Economist – 2016

The North Liberty Leader, a local newspaper with about 300 subscribers, announced today will be their last issue. If that’s all the subscribers they had in a city with a population of more than 10,000 they deserve to go out of business. Harsh assessment, yet true.

The Dubuque corporation that bought them, Woodward Communications, Inc., likely knew this fate was coming before the acquisition. Today they informed readers of the Solon Economist unless something is done, they are on the chopping block as well.

Folding the Economist seems inevitable when community leaders surveyed felt ambivalent or indifferent about the newspaper’s future. I sent a note around to the Facebook group of neighbors to which I belong, encouraging them to subscribe. It may be too little, too late. Facebook is likely part of the problem causing a decreased subscription rate.

I’ll do my part by encouraging people to subscribe, providing free content if we can work something out, and advertising if I have need. In the transition of local culture, the demise of local newspapers is just one more unwelcome step.


Living in Society Social Commentary Writing

Newspapers Are Working – So Subscribe

Solon Economist – 2016

Despite significant decreases in staff and other expenses, many newspapers crank out stories relevant to our daily lives.

For example, Jason Clayworth and Brianne Pfannenstiel published a full-page article about Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell’s tenure at Younkers in the Gannett newspapers on Monday. I don’t know how many people will read the article but the fact newspapers crank out copy for Iowans addicted to politics says something positive about the fourth estate, even if having to re-litigate the quotes attributable to the Iowa GOP is somewhat annoying.

Also on Monday, the Cedar Rapids Gazette had front page, above the fold coverage of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney’s completion of a 99-county tour of Iowa. Delaney won’t likely be our next president but having the field to himself gives him name recognition he won’t be able to get once more Democrats jump into the presidential race.

I’m told newspapers run non-political stories as well.

Blog for Iowa encourages people who read newspaper coverage on line to subscribe. Without paid readership advertisers won’t buy ads. Without revenue, newspapers will cease to exist. If newspapers cease to exist… well that would be a much different bag of cats. In fact, I predict cats and dogs is all you will read about. While personal, funny, sad, and sometimes delightful, a story about pets is not news.

There may be no saving larger newspapers. As we’ve seen in our county, large news organizations are consolidating, and local coverage has been stripped from daily ink. Instead of getting the Iowa City Press Citizen, most people here read the Cedar Rapids Gazette because of its breadth and depth of coverage. There isn’t even a Sunday edition of the Press Citizen here, and the opinion page runs only a couple of times a week. Team Gannett produces valuable coverage, but it is not local. It is not enough.

Small, local papers with subscriptions of a thousand readers are doing well in Iowa, so if your community has one, spend the nominal annual fee and subscribe. It’s a great place to start and coverage of city council, school board and community activities is second to none. Even though your large local paper may be on the decline, subscribe. I prefer digital so I don’t have to recycle the newsprint. But either way would be better than the alternative.

Thomas Jefferson is reputed to have said, “Were it left to me to decide if we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Just imagine what our lives would be like with government but no newspapers. Subscribe.

~ First posted at Blog for Iowa

Living in Society Writing

What if the Jobs Don’t Come Back?

guest-columnSince the general election I’ve been laying low, listening to people talk — in person — about the new administration and what President Donald J. Trump means to them.

It was about jobs.

Most supporters found a lot of what the president said and stands for to be objectionable, yet voted for him because of the hope for jobs — a central campaign theme. Manufacturing jobs specifically.

In his inaugural address, Trump gave a name to something with which many are familiar, “the American carnage” of globalization and its impact on U.S. manufacturing jobs.

An issue page of the White House web site the administration laid out his position:

Since the recession of 2008, American workers and businesses have suffered through the slowest economic recovery since World War II. The U.S. lost nearly 300,000 manufacturing jobs during this period, while the share of Americans in the work force plummeted to lows not seen since the 1970s, the national debt doubled, and middle class got smaller. To get the economy back on track, President Trump has outlined a bold plan to create 25 million new American jobs in the next decade and return to 4 percent annual economic growth.

As a deal-maker, the president asserts he knows how to do it. His plan is not yet public so it’s difficult to evaluate.

I’ve worked manufacturing jobs during my life and as a director of a logistics company that evaluated countless others. While living in Indiana I interviewed thousands of people impacted by the exodus of jobs in the rust belt as part of a global restructuring of workforce and business operations. In this sense Trump is right about the carnage: real people were negatively impacted by loss of U.S. jobs. I met many of them.

At the same time, finding cheap labor and developing new technologies enabled companies to be competitive in a global marketplace. However, Trump’s “carnage” launched with intensity because of Ronald Reagan’s policies, not Obama’s. I believe Trump’s assertion about jobs is a bait and switch.

On Friday, Jan. 27, the White House announced a “Manufacturing Jobs Initiative.” Andrew Liveris of Dow Chemical Company is convening a panel of business leaders to advise the president. For the most part, it is a who’s who of companies that benefited from globalization. I am doubtful this group can do much besides inform the president what regulations and tax codes need revision to encourage large companies to locate manufacturing plants on U.S. soil. The two token AFL-CIO members represent labor interests on the panel, but even they are part of a gigantic dog and pony show expected to accomplish little in terms of direct results impacting real people.

The metrics to evaluate Trump’s job creation performance already exist in the Labor Department jobs report which shows the millions of jobs created during the Obama administration. Assume the methodology remains constant, fill out the chart as time passes and new results are in, and there is an objective basis on which to evaluate performance. A similar metric holds true for economic growth. We should have a solid couple years in before the 2020 campaign begins. Thumbs up or thumbs down. It should be that simple.

Trump’s discussion of bringing manufacturing jobs “back” is a bait and switch. Globalization of the manufacturing processes and automation that includes robots doing repetitive tasks has eliminated many manufacturing jobs permanently. It will eliminate more.

Like it or not, with Wall Street alumni occupying four key positions in the administration, whatever jobs are created are likely to be similar to those created under Obama.

I am not hopeful for resurgence in manufacturing jobs, nor was this my issue during the 2016 campaign. However, Trump’s assertions about job creation came from the lips of every Trump voter with whom I spoke, no exceptions.

If Democrats hope to win the next presidential election we need to understand why friends, neighbors and work colleagues voted for Trump. In part, it was about jobs that won’t be back the way we knew them, regardless of campaign promises.

~ An edited version of this post first ran in the Cedar Rapids Gazette Feb. 1, 2017

Social Commentary

News from the Lake

East Wall of George's Buffet
East Wall of George’s Buffet – People’s Climate March Advertisements

LAKE MACBRIDE— A steady rain fell and continued through the night, providing respite for the weary and sound sleep. Having thought I would retreat from society on a day mostly off work, it proved to be impossible, beginning with the trip into town to vote.

Two measures were on the ballot yesterday. Voters approved a $25.5 million bond issue to build a new middle school, a performing arts center to replace the one at the current middle school, and a special education classroom in a 698-294 vote. Voters also approved renewal of the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy of $1.34 per $1,000 in assessed value when the current levy expires on June 30, 2017.

To Change EverythingThe City of Solon was platted in 1840 and named for the Athenian statesman and poet. Ironically, the school district mascot is the Spartans, and the rivalry between Athenians and the Spartans has played out in the community ever since we moved here. Relevant to yesterday’s vote, debate has been about improvement of the auditorium facilities for use between the performing arts departments, and sports enthusiasts. Sports boosters defeated performing arts in the first battles and now we have a ginormous sporting complex in the city. Engaged residents of the district have decided it is time to invest in the performing arts. A ground breaking is expected in 2015.

In addition to passing through the city, I visited the county seat to pay property taxes. I also spent some time in the auditor’s office to see where my tax dollars go. My sense was that county government workers aren’t used to a lot of questions, but I received the answers I wanted.

Poster on the Unitarian Church
Poster on the Unitarian Universalist Society Building

Advertisements for the People’s Climate March on Sept. 21 in New York City have appeared in a couple of locations in downtown Iowa City. I have been engaged to speak for five minutes about the humanitarian campaign against nuclear weapons at a supporting rally in the Iowa City pedestrian mall. That is, assuming I can get off early enough from work at the warehouse.

September and the start of school is always prime time for social movement initiatives, and a lot is at stake with regard to mitigating the causes of global warming. As the saying goes, “to change everything, it takes everyone,” and we are a very long way from engaging everyone in addressing the climate crisis.

The other piece of September news is that every freaking politician I know is doing some kind of event. Between the frequent text messages, email invitations, snail mail and telephone calls, it is impossible to miss the fact that an election is coming, and a lot is at stake. My ability to contribute in kind and financially is limited this cycle, but it is good to know politicians are working. That in itself is a form of news.