Poweshiek County papers keep their head above water as print dies

A map of Poweshiek County showing the distribution areas of papers headed by the Southeast Iowa Union media company.
A map of Poweshiek County showing the distribution areas of papers headed by the Southeast Iowa Union media company.
Contributed by Winona Whitaker

Three local newspapers in Poweshiek County exist mainly in print despite the steady decline in print circulation — the Grinnell-Herald Register, the Poweshiek County Chronicle Republican (PCCR) and The Montezuma Record.  

Since 2005, the newspaper industry in the United States has lost one-third of its newspapers and two-thirds of its newspaper journalists, according to a Northwestern University study released in November. The Alliance of Audited Media said that print circulation for the 504 newspapers it audited in 2023 was over 50 million in 2005, now down to 10.2 million this past year.  

 Many of the nearly 2,900 newspapers lost happen to be in small, rural areas, according to Medill’s Local News Initiative. A 2023 annual report from the initiative found that Iowa, North and South Dakota and Minnesota lost the most newspapers per capita over the past 18 years.  

Most small-town communities that lose their local paper, often due to financial concerns, do not receive replacements.  

In 2009, Gannett Company, the largest newspaper publisher in the U.S. and owner of the Des Moines Register, consolidated the Montezuma Republican and the Brooklyn Chronicle, two small local papers in Poweshiek, into the PCCR.  

“If you don’t have a local paper, you don’t have a trusted source of news about your community,” said J.O. Parker, ex-managing editor of the Chronicle and freelance journalist. He added, “I’m a firm believer that anytime you close a newspaper, you’re taking part of that community with you.” 

Parker resides in Montezuma, where the local paper, The Record, is printed and distributed weekly. He said that a significant portion of its news is sourced from content contributors within the town.  

During Parker’s time working at the Republican, the paper had a form that allowed community members to submit photos and details for local stories involving families. He said that when papers go online, they lose traditional elements of a paper’s layout that communities love.  

If you don’t have a local paper, you don’t have a trusted source of news about your community.

— J.O. Parker, former managing editor of the Chronicle and freelance journalist

In an increasingly digital world, Parker said that small papers must grapple with readers’ changing preferences in news consumption. “Online, news is immediate. There’s no need to wait for the newspaper to come out, it’s just there, it’s quick,” Parker said.  

According to Parker, the advantages of print papers lie in their trustworthiness and established history. “The drawback is that social media is less reliable than your weekly [print] newspaper. I find myself asking if I can trust an online source, while the paper has an established presence in the community. I like to know who exactly I am receiving my news from,” he said.   

Les High, an established publisher in a small town in North Carolina, estimated that approximately 20-25 percent of revenue for small community papers could be lost without legal notices. Parker noted that legal notices are a crucial part of print papers. “It’s important that people know what our government is doing,” he said.  

For readers who prefer online news, the website Our Grinnell functions as a breaking news source for residents who rely on digital journalism for information about local events. “I call these stories ‘canned items.’ They come from the library and the chamber,” Parker said.  

In fall 2022, the Southeast Iowa Union media company, a subsidiary of The Gazette of Cedar Rapids purchased five publications — the PCCR, Marengo Pioneer Republican, Williamsburg Journal Tribune, Belle Plaine Star Press Union and the Hometown Current.  

Winona Whitaker is the managing editor of Hometown Current, the regional paper that covers Iowa County, southern Benton and eastern Poweshiek. They produce four weekly issues with the Pioneer Republican, the Journal Tribune and the PCCR.  

Whitaker is the only full-time journalist writing news for three counties. The Hometown Current has a part-time sportswriter, and the other contributors are freelance reporters. Hometown Current has one correspondent in Benton County and another in Poweshiek.  

The situation remains difficult for local newspapers as circulation numbers continue dropping significantly. Whitaker said Poweshiek, Marengo and Williamsburg have under 500 subscribers each. Overall, Hometown Current runs news from all of these areas and has around 1500 subscribers in total.  

“I wonder if it’s just a change in society that’s not going to allow us to survive,” said Whitaker. She suggested printing quarterly magazines could be a valuable method of garnering more advertising support and keeping the tradition of print alive while maintaining an online news presence.  

Whitaker said that there is a balance between maintaining a presence in print for older generations and keeping up with the changing times. “The bottom line is that newspapers are, first and foremost, businesses, like anything that relies on the support of a community to keep their doors open,” she said.  

Whitaker said that maintaining print is a matter of supply and demand. “If there’s no demand for print or not enough demand for print, it has to go,” she said.  

I wonder if it’s just a change in society that’s not going to allow us to survive.

— Winona Whitaker, managing editor of Hometown Current

Parker remains hopeful, though, even as social media dominates readership. “I think papers will survive in small towns a lot longer than they will in bigger towns,” he said.  

Since 1868, the Grinnell Herald Register has existed as Grinnell’s semi-weekly town newspaper. The Herald-Register currently circulates around 2,000 copies. Peggy Elliott and Martha Pinder serve as the managing editors for the paper.

Elliott and Pinder wrote that readership would fluctuate upon the addition of a website and the eradication of print and that they wish the Herald Register was online. However, in their ideal world, both delivery systems are preferable.  

The S&B has been in print for nearly 130 years.  

“You’ve got tradition. You’ve got history. You’ve got the importance of truthful reporting. Fight for your history,” Parker said. “It would be a mistake to close print. It’s such a valuable source for the students.”

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