Commentary

Welcome to Iowa Capital Dispatch: Community journalism for democracy

January 7, 2020 6:15 am

August 1947: Dick Pearce, selling newspapers on the corner of Douglas and Broadway in Wichita, Kansas. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Change has been a constant in my 30-plus years of working in Iowa newspapers.

Many of the industry’s technology-driven advancements seem almost magical in retrospect.  When I took my first journalism writing course at Iowa State University, we used ancient, manual typewriters with punishingly stiff keyboards, cheap yellow paper and carbons to make instant copies. I lived in fear of flunking, simply because half the keys I pressed never made an imprint.

I never used a typewriter, manual or otherwise, to write a newspaper story again.  But never did I imagine replacing the tools of my early years in journalism — and bookshelves full of phone books and city directories — with a phone smaller than a deck of cards and more powerful than a roomful of 1980s computers.

I also never imagined a roomful of journalists – reporters, copy editors, page designers and more – reduced to a skeleton staff. Some of the same technologies that seemed so magical have, over my career, pushed the newspaper business model to the brink of obsolescence.  The issues are industry-wide but are magnified as more and more newspapers fall under publicly traded corporate ownership. The obligation to meet shareholders’ expectations have spurred the widespread gutting of news operations.

I also never expected social media – something that seemed so full of potential for instant reporting and direct communication with the public – would largely replace traditional media outlets as the portal to readers.

The consequences of this “progress” are becoming more apparent.  A recent report by PEN America, “Losing the News,” outlined some disturbing effects related to the loss of more than 1,800 newspapers that have closed since 2004:

Citizen engagement: The loss of local news means citizens are less likely to vote, less politically informed and less likely to run for office, the report states.  I see this play out in my social-media feeds as people are increasingly unable to separate fact from opinion and instead retreat into tribalism and toxic partisanship.

Public costs:  With the decline of watchdog journalism, government officials  “conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness” and government corruption and costs increase,” the report states.  That means “salaries, taxation, and county deficit spending go up, and federal funding goes down.”

Corporate accountability: The report adds that “corporate malfeasance, such as environmental degradation, goes unchecked.”

All of these are reasons why Iowa Capital Dispatch was created and why our motto is “Community journalism for democracy.”  We are bringing over 100 years of combined Iowa journalism experience to coverage of state and federal government policy and politics.

That means watchdog investigations, such as Clark Kauffman’s two reports today on property records being kept secret in Polk County and the failure of the state agency charged with overseeing Iowa’s long-term care facilities.  It means well-informed – and always labeled – commentary, such as mental health advocate Leslie Carpenter’s guest column suggesting a source for much-needed dollars for struggling programs. And it means high-quality, nonpartisan reporting from Perry Beeman and Linh Ta on the environment, Iowa’s economy and jobs, education and many other issues that affect Iowans’ quality of life.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, which is a national not-for-profit corporation. It is funded by donations, not advertising or subscription fees. Our content is also provided free to community newspapers and other media, allowing them to beef up coverage of state government while freeing their reporters to dig deeper into local issues.

News isn’t free.  It wasn’t free under the traditional old advertising/subscription models and it’s not free as a non-profit. We’ll ask you to help support, through your donations, this opportunity to keep community journalism strong and hold our government accountable. But unlike many social media outlets, we won’t impose hidden costs by violating your privacy or selling your data.

Please add Iowa Capital Dispatch to your regular news sources and sign up for the Daily Dispatch, our free email newsletter.  It’s time to make technology work in your favor.

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