There’s been a lot of talk lately about restoring trust in American journalism. The proliferation of the term “fake news” is probably the most prominent sign of a media industry currently under siege. A Pew Research study found that as of 2016, about 25 percent of Americans express high levels of trust in news they get from local news organizations, while about 15 percent trust information from their social connections.
Large media outlets could learn from small town newspapers about being authentic and winning the trust of readers. Small town papers have “been around since frontier days,” says Georgia College Journalism Professor Christina Smith and points out they are “doing relatively well in the chaotic media landscape.”
Take The Storm Lake Times, for example. It recently gained national attention when this twice-a-week newspaper for this town of around 11,000 people won a Pulitzer Prize for its editorials. They won the prestigious journalism award for challenging powerful corporate agribusiness interests in the state.
“We inform each other through the newspaper about the reality of Storm Lake,” says Editor Art Cullen. “Not the uber-reality of Facebook or Twitter.”
Cullen is a Storm Lake native. He worked at numerous different small town newspapers before moving back to town to start the Storm Lake Times with his brother John in 1990.
John still serves as publisher. It’s a family business. Art’s wife, Dolores Cullen, writes features, illustrates and takes photos, too. Their son, Tom Cullen, is a reporter.
Their classified section is pretty robust: the Tyson meatpacking plant is a big employer in town, and there’s even a section devoted to local birthdays. Art Cullen says newspapers like his are the thread that hold the fabric of a small town together.
“They know we’re honest and they know we love Storm Lake … that we stick to the facts of a story and we will argue, argue, argue on our editorial page,” Cullen says.
For years, Cullen says the biggest story here has been the booming immigrant population. Many small towns in Iowa are shrinking. This one is growing. The local meatpacking industry attracts workers from across the world. More than 20 languages are spoken in its elementary school. Cullen says the paper is respected.
Emilia Marroquin agrees.
“If you don’t find them, they find you,” Marroquin laughs.
Marroquin is the only Latina on the Storm Lake School Board. She says despite language barriers, The Storm Lake Times does a good job of getting a wide range of perspectives on local issues.
Marroquin has been quoted in the paper about a dozen times. She says the paper’s features on kids in town are just good for the schools. She says if kids see their classmates “doing something good,” they’ll be motivated to try and get in the newspaper, too.
One of the big differences between larger metro newspapers and community journalism is the staff has to face its audience every day.
“People have no problem coming up to me and telling me what they think of the newspaper,” says Jim Johnson, who owns newspapers in Kalona and Anamosa, two small newspapers in eastern Iowa. Johnson bought the papers after leaving the Omaha World-Herald five years ago to show community newspapers can do just as good as or better than large papers.
But big box retailers squeeze out local businesses. All of which means fewer ads in the paper. About an hour northwest of Storm Lake is the smaller town of Sheldon, Iowa. Jeff Wagner runs three newspapers and a large commercial printing press where they print about 80 different newspapers per week.
“We’re having to work harder with our customers to find avenues for them to advertise,” Wagner says.
For his part, Jim Johnson has the advantage of owning small town newspapers near metro areas. When this former Omaha World-Herald editor bought the papers in Kalona and Anamosa, he wanted to show community newspapers can do just as good or better than large papers.
He says feedback is immediate.
But these are “very resilient papers,” says Art Cullen at the Storm Lake Times.
“They refuse to die,” he says. “But they have one foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel because that’s the status of the communities they’re operating in.”