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Building a community-funded model of journalism

A look at three Iowa examples


Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series looking at challenges to business models in the media industry and the possibility of more community-funded models. This piece looks at three examples in Iowa.

Across the United States, new models of community-funded journalism have emerged over the past several years as news organizations have recognized that traditional business models that rely on advertising and subscription revenue are increasingly less relevant in a highly fragmented, digital media market. 


Nonprofit news organizations in a number of cities are receiving sustainable philanthropic funding through community foundations and a range of other public and private foundations that are recognizing the value of maintaining the watchdog role on government and public institutions that independent news reporting provides.


While the development of community news funds and philanthropically supported journalism is in nascent stages in Iowa relative to many other states, there are several models operating in Iowa. The Business Record spoke with leaders of three organizations — IowaWatch, the Iowa Capital Dispatch and the Western Iowa Journalism Fund — for an update on what they have accomplished and

their outlook. 

The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism – IowaWatch 

IowaWatch, a nonprofit news outlet that provides free shared content to news organizations, was launched in 2010 with a vision of “leading investigative journalism in Iowa through collaboration, training of future journalists and efforts to increase the understanding of the role of journalism in a democracy.” 


It was founded by Stephen Berry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and an associate professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, and Robert Gutsche Jr., a journalist who helped launch the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2009. For the past decade it was led by veteran Iowa journalist Lyle Muller, who was succeeded in 2019 by Suzanne Behnke as its executive director and editor. 


Over the past 12 years, the nonprofit has trained and mentored student journalists in writing  investigative articles for publication by local news organizations, with the aim that their work meets the high standards expected of professional journalists.


In April, IowaWatch announced plans to merge with a larger regional nonprofit news outlet, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, also known as Investigate Midwest. 


Behnke, who spent the majority of her 25-year journalism career in various editing positions with the Des Moines Register, was most recently editor of the Business Record. In her current role, she has been directly involved in fundraising for IowaWatch, and has kept the pulse of efforts nationally. 


“I really feel like in the last four or five years nonprofit news funding has grown nationally,” Behnke said. “I think there have been a couple of efforts in Iowa that have also shown growth, such as the development of the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation.” 


IowaWatch, in particular, has usually had consistent funding from year to year, but from different sources at different times, Behnke noted.

“There are some years where there might be more stipends or grants for IowaWatch projects, then sometimes there might be a business that offers a corporate donation over a certain number of years. Woodward Communications did that at one point. In the early years of IowaWatch it received some donations from newspapers, but you don’t see that as much these days, and I understand why.” 


Behnke said that because IowaWatch was founded by a University of Iowa professor and was housed in the journalism school there, there was a widely held misperception that the university provided financial support, which it did not. 


“The second issue is that IowaWatch has always given its work away for free, which is great. I love the public service mission of that. However, a lot of times our work gets picked up by other news outlets, and they might forget the tag line we ask to include … so we lost recognition, and that kind of watered down the IowaWatch brand.” 


Asked if securing more sustainable funding was a primary reason for merging with Investigate Midwest, Behnke said it was more about “honestly looking at how we reach our mission’s goals.” 


“Our goals of in-depth reporting on topics that may not get as much [attention] as the others and doing public service journalism in a bigger way, that was really the bigger consideration,” she said. “Yes, I think it’s fair to say that, sure, that opens us up to a wider audience. Joining together also exposes us to a greater number of potential donors.” 


The acquisition removes the fundraising responsibilities from her plate, “so I’m actually excited to focus much more on the journalism side,” Behnke said. 


Investigate Midwest, whose stated mission is to “expose the dangerous and costly practices of influential agricultural corporations and institutions,” practices ethical journalism, and does not engage in undercover reporting or similar tactics, she said.


“They are driven a great deal by data — that is critical. I think that is a critical piece of what sets the reporting for Investigate Midwest apart from other news outlets. So going undercover is not a piece of that — that’s not data-driven. 


“There certainly always is the interest in talking to the people who are doing the work in agribusiness that are being affected by different things, but it’s always driven by data or looking at the data for the trends and stories. … They have principled, experienced people on their team — and we just joined them. I think this is a strong, seasoned and ethical group of journalists pursuing agricultural news coverage.” 


Among the benefits of being part of a larger, regional organization will be increased reporting resources. In addition to having one or two of Investigate Midwest’s interns possibly focused on Iowa, this summer the Iowa newsroom of Investigate Midwest will bring on a full-time Report for America reporter. 


IowaWatch had applied for a Report for America position in recent years, but was unable to compete against larger organizations. “But we were able to make a strong case by joining together to say that this would be a great addition not just for the Iowa newsroom — there will be stories that also are important for Illinois and Wisconsin and Minnesota and other parts of the Midwest,” Behnke said. “That position in particular is really looking at the agriculture and environment around the Mississippi River, which affects all those places.” 

Behnke said she is hopeful that donor support will broaden as a combined operation.  


“Some of the specific areas that Investigate Midwest has looked at in agriculture have also tied into the environment, labor shortages, and supply chain issues,” she said. “So that covers areas like manufacturing, economics, economic development. I think that those are topics that appeal to groups beyond farmers, beyond people who are tied to specific agribusinesses, and that those people may be interested in the work that the IowaWatch newsroom of Investigative Midwest is pursuing. 


“And we have seen from some of our partners on the East and West Coast that community foundations have become much more interested in supporting journalism in their communities. And that might be a nonprofit, or it might be a for-profit news outlet.


“My hope is that we also see some growth in that area in Iowa overall, because we’ve been pretty lucky in a lot of ways in the state that even though the number of newsroom employees has certainly decreased, most communities in Iowa have some local news outlet.”  

Iowa Capital Dispatch 

The Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of a network of affiliated newsrooms under the umbrella of States Newsroom, a growing nonprofit network whose aim is to establish its own affiliate or partner with an existing nonprofit news organization in all 50 states. The Iowa Capital Dispatch publishes an online newsletter that is sent out free to its subscribers six days a week. News organizations across the state are free to pick up any of its content. 


States Newsroom supports each of its affiliates with a share of funding that covers each newsroom’s largest expenses — journalist salaries and office space. The organization takes a centralized approach toward distributing funding raised nationwide to its state affiliates, and gives each affiliate newsroom broad latitude in discerning topics most important in each state. 


“We have a really significant level of autonomy at the different affiliates, including what we want to cover, what areas we want to focus on,” said Kathie Obradovich, who leads a four-person newsroom based in Des Moines.  


“I think it’s understood that we’re going to cover state government and the state Capitol — that’s part of our mission,” she said. “But there are different areas in our state where we see holes in coverage. One thing in Iowa, for example, we thought it was important to have somebody focusing on agriculture and the environment, because we saw that over the years, the number of reporters who are dedicated to covering those really important topics for Iowa have dwindled way down.” 


Launched just over two years ago, the Iowa Capital Dispatch is now averaging about 60 articles per week that are picked up by other news outlets or linked to by other news organizations, not only newspapers but Iowa Public Radio and a few other radio stations as well, Obradovich said. 


“I just got an email from a small newspaper editor who just realized he could make use of this content and was asking me, ‘How does this work?’ and ‘It seems too good to be true.’ He said, ‘I feel bad taking all this great stuff for free.’ I told him, you can donate, but whatever you donate is entirely up to you, but it’s part of our mission to provide this content. So I think that even two years later, word is still getting out to some extent.”  


Chris Fitzsimon, co-founder and president of States Newsroom, said recruiting high-quality journalists like Obradovich has been a key to the newsroom affiliates’ success, combined with working to build the nonprofit support to sustain their operations. 


“Anytime you’re trying to scale something, there are challenges, and finding high-quality journalists like Kathie and some of our other editors took a while,” Fitzsimon said. “But overall, it’s been relatively smooth. We’re really lucky to have Kathie on board; I think she gives us a lot of credibility in Iowa, and we are proud of the team that she has assembled.” 


States Newsroom’s funding support has increased significantly over the past couple of years, he said, which has helped drive momentum for both staffing new affiliates and continuing to build centralized support operations for areas such as information technology and human resources.  


“Sometimes, in some places, starting something new is harder than other places, but we’ve been really gratified by readers’ support and local business support,” he said. “So we’re confident that we’ll continue to grow, not only expanding into new states but also we’re always looking for creative ways to expand in the states we already have.” 


The overall goal is filling the gap in news coverage, not replacing for-profit newspapers, Fitzsimon said. 


“We’re never going to replace the Des Moines Register, and we’re not trying to,” he said. “I always encourage people to subscribe to their local newspaper. But [local newspapers] can’t with the current business model cover things the way they used to. That’s where we come in, to try to fill the gap. You’ll notice the Register reprints a lot of our stories, and we’re thrilled about that, just like we’re thrilled when the Oelwein Daily Register reprints them.” 


Regarding collaboration with other nonprofit news organizations, some of States Newsroom’s affiliates have entered into formal partnerships, Obradovich said. “We don’t have any that are formal right now, but we are working on a project currently with Midwest Newsroom, which is an NPR organization. Their partnership is actually with the Missouri Independent — they’ve got some reporters on a fellowship working out of that newsroom. Because the project involves several Midwest states, we’re joining with them for reporting help and to publish their stories.” 


The Iowa Capital Dispatch does do some local fundraising for special projects, she said. “For example, I’m working on hiring an intern — so that is something that we would pay for out of our local fundraising.” Public records requests, which can amount to thousands of dollars for extensive requests, as well as training, notebooks and pens, are covered locally as well. 


“What we’re doing at the moment here is just trying to get more regular freelance help to expand our content availability and give our reporters an opportunity to work on some longer-term stories,” Obradovich said. 


“I am just very proud of the way we’ve managed to grow this news outlet from pretty much zero to the number of followers that we have,” she said. “We don’t rely too much on page views as a metric, but our page views have grown a lot.”  

Western Iowa Journalism Fund 

Kyle Muson loves all the experimentation that’s going on around the country.


“As the for-profit model is struggling, there are many more nonprofits that we could talk about all over the place,” said Munson, the former Des Moines Register columnist and now corporate communications specialist. He co-founded the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation with Doug Burns, owner and publisher of the Carroll Times Herald.  


“Our approach from the beginning was meant to be a deep, infrastructural solution to all of this,” Munson said. “So while there are a lot of organizations out there that are in some cases providing content that can then be shared freely and republished by existing newspapers and other news organizations, we from the start were trying to figure out the funding model.”  


The foundation looked at the Seattle Times’ ongoing project in which it developed investigative news funds to which community members could donate to support coverage of issues important to them, such as racial equality. “So there were some precedents,” Munson said. “But we were unique in tackling this region, arguably one of the hardest regions to tackle — an entire rural region of the state where the news deserts can be extreme.” 


Among the allies of the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation has been Microsoft Corp. 


“They have various projects that are intended to help local newsrooms, and even in just giving their time and counsel for great Zoom sessions,” he said. “That’s been an ongoing relationship, and we have relationships like that we have been developing. I think that’s recognition that what we’re doing with the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation is important for these newsrooms, and we have some great local, independent newsrooms. It’s also a lab to figure out how to tackle this funding more broadly. … I think the work we’re doing here can apply nationally.” 


The funding support to the newspapers is really keeping their participating newsrooms in existence, Munson said. “We are a nonprofit; we have a mission to inform and educate the rest of the residents of western Iowa through independent, local journalism. … Everything that we award is tied to the reporting and the results of that reporting. So we’re helping these for-profit newsrooms — it doesn’t have to be a for-profit newsroom [that receives funds] but that’s the traditional model in these communities.” 


Burns is the third-generation owner of the Carroll Times Herald. Because his news organization receives funding from the foundation, he is not a member of the foundation’s board and does not participate in funding decisions.


 “We started running into some rough waters, so we began looking at some alternative mechanisms for funding,” he said in March during a panel discussion on the future of journalism. “So with my friend Art Cullen and my very close friend Lorena Lopez, who is the editor and founder of La Prensa, we were able to secure funding and get nonprofit approval within the last year. … And I think I can speak for them that if not for the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, our newspapers would be closed right now.”


Both Lopez and Cullen concurred with Burns’ assessment in subsequent interviews. 


Lorena Lopez established La Prensa in May 2006, and for nearly 15 years has been publishing the Spanish language newspaper, which is distributed free on a biweekly basis. Currently, 6,000 copies of the newspaper are distributed.  


She began covering news of interest to the Latino communities in Carroll, Denison and Storm Lake, initially with help from her son, Carlos, who was in college at the time. After the initial four years La Prensa expanded to Perry and Des Moines, and later added Cherokee and Spencer to its coverage area. She has been a one-person news operation for a number of years, but that is changing with the help of the foundation. 


Lopez, who emigrated from Nicaragua, said free distribution of news is a model that she grew up with in her home country. However, the idea of raising money to support her news operation was foreign to her. Burns persuaded her to join him in putting the Facebook grants their papers had received into starting the foundation, so she risked the $5,000 grant she had received to help seed it. 


The foundation’s support, approximately $18,000 to date, has enabled her to supplement printing and other costs as well as to fill her gas tank to travel from one city to another to report on local stories.  


Through the foundation, a local family is funding two journalism students from Iowa State University to work as interns at the paper. She is looking forward to a grant from the foundation to fund a full-time reporter. 


“That has been a blessing, because advertising [revenue] continues to be bad,” she said.  


Lopez sees a clear mission in providing “good, objective information about what is going on in our local communities and our government,” she said.  


“I think God gave me a blessing to establish La Prensa for a reason,” Lopez said. “I cannot handle injustice in the minority communities. My blood boils when people are misinformed.” 


Art Cullen, co-owner and editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot, said the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation not only saved the newspaper from closing but also provided the funding boost needed to enable him and his brother to purchase the competing newspaper, the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune, earlier this year.  


“So we were able to realize our quest to have a hometown, locally owned paper for Storm Lake,” he said. “Now that we’ve merged the newspapers, there’s a path forward. We also bought the Cherokee Chronicle Times. We’d like to think local ownership is going to benefit these newspapers in the long run.”  


Through the foundation, a “computer guy from California” in November contributed $60,000 to the newspaper, Cullen said. “He just heard about us on the radio, and said, ‘I want to help these guys.’ That really saved us. Otherwise we would have had to borrow money, and I don’t know if we could have borrowed money, or if it even would have made sense.” 


The Storm Lake Times documentary “Storm Lake,” produced by Independent Lens and broadcast on PBS, resulted in a “flood of contributions” from across the country, Cullen said. “Frankly, I think a lot of the larger contributions are coming from expatriated Iowans in other states.” 


Cullen said the biggest contribution from the local community has been through increasing subscriptions, both for the print and digital publications. The newspaper now has about 800 digital subscriptions, a revenue category it didn’t have at all three years ago. “Paid circulation is actually increasing,” he said. “If you have the money, you can provide the content.” 


The continuation of local ownership of newspapers is an important topic the foundation is working to address, Burns said.


 “We didn’t necessarily envision how much something like succession planning for some of these local newsrooms would be on our agenda so early, but that’s something that’s bubbled up,” Burns said. “You see this crisis, and you have whole generations of publishers and editors stepping out of the business for various reasons. Well, who is the new generation that’s inclined to take up that work and sustain a local newsroom?”


Munson agreed that Report for America is doing well in helping local newspapers augment their reporting, but noted that the tougher issue is developing or recruiting the next local editors and publishers to continue those local newsrooms. 


“Because of the financial foundation of what we are, because we’re not actively reporting and we’re not producing journalism ourselves, we don’t have to put up any sort of wall that we’re not going to accept [corporate funding]. We don’t face some of those same issues that Report for America or States Newsroom would face. … We’re a hub for funding.” 


The PBS documentary about the Storm Lake Times provided a big publicity boost for the foundation last year, Munson said. 


“I think this year, we’re really going to start marching forward. We have a lot of grassroots support,” he said. “We’re really connecting with major funding and infrastructure. And so we’re talking about those big blocks of funding you need to have a full-fledged organization, full-time staff and programming, and so we’re getting all the details filled in and just fleshing out the organization. I think this year, we’re really going to come into our own.”  


Burns, who was joined on the journalism panel in Des Moines by several other Iowa journalists, gave a shoutout to his reporting intern in the audience, Tom Foley, whose paid internship the foundation has funded. He’s “doing a terrific job,” Burns said. 


“I don’t know if I’ll make it across the bridge … to the nonprofit model that supports community journalism,” Burns said. “But [those models are] there. I think there will be a renaissance, and there will be a new era of journalism led by people like Kathie [Obradovich] who have significant and sustainable nonprofit funding. And there are a lot of younger journalists out there who are just doing exceedingly good work.” 

UNI researcher examines resilience of Iowa newspapers 

In a study published in September 2020, University of Northern Iowa professor Christopher Martin investigated why some dailies, weeklies and news organizations in Iowa are more resilient than others, particularly in a time of financial distress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. 

After conducting interviews with editors, publishers and general managers of eight Iowa newspapers and digital publications, Martin developed a list of 10 dimensions that he found contribute most to the resilience of these organizations. They are: 

  • Local ownership. 
  • Centrality of journalism to the business. 
  • Nonprofit status.
  • Nonprofit funding support. 
  • Diversified business. 
  • Commitment to community.
  • Health of local economy.
  • Little to no reduction of newsroom staff. 
  • Historic reputation and civic institution status. 
  • No competing local media. 

Martin offered two potential solutions for enhancing the stability of Iowa’s newspaper ecosystem, one option being more consideration of employee stock ownership plans as a succession tool when private owners have no other viable buyers or next-generation interest. “Instead of a typical buyout or merger, ESOPs can be an option in sustaining local, community-oriented ownership,” he wrote. 

For Iowa newspapers that are still largely reliant on mailing out print publications to their subscribers, lower postal rates or enhanced subsidies could be helpful in enabling them to remain afloat, since for “most of the 270 newspapers in Iowa – and across the country – the print product is still the predominant format and the main generator of revenue,” Martin said. Given the dire economic condition of the industry today, newspapers should be freely distributed by the U.S. Postal Service, he said.

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