Suicidal thoughts, resilience in a small-town Iowa newspaper’s fierce last stand

October 18, 2022 12:53 pm

Douglas Burns poses in his office at the Carroll Times Herald. (Photo courtesy of the Carroll Times Herald)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.The talented and intrepid reporter Dave Hoekstra, a former 30-year writer with the Chicago Sun-Times, spent the better part of three years chronicling the struggle of independent newspapers like my family’s to survive amid a perfect storm of challenges and attacks that have shuttered thousands of locally owned papers or forced them to sell to chains with scavenger instincts that diminished once-vital community organs into ghosts of their former beings.

With penetrating questions, passion and empathy, a ready pen, and a trained observer’s eye for details we miss about ourselves, Hoekstra traveled the nation — from Charleston, South Carolina to Bakersfield, California, with stops in the Midwest, where he gave great care and interest to my family’s newspaper – the Carroll (Iowa) Times Herald — and its daily pursuit of survival through reinvention and relentless optimism.

The result is an inspiring book that officially released Oct. 11. The title: “Beacons in the Darkness: Hope And Transformation Among America’s Community Newspapers.”

We are forever grateful to Dave and his book.

I can think of no one with more preparation to tell our story. Dave spent hours with our family and staff inside the Carroll Times Herald offices, and he followed up with dozens of phone calls to me personally, generally on Sunday nights. I spoke openly with him about our family’s fears, my own sense of failure at this enterprise of newspapering in the modern era, while also detailing our fierce determination to out run the Grim Reaper engineering The Great American Newspaper Decline, a central reason for the rot eating our democracy from the inside, the insatiable whipworm of a growing fascism.

The book was both inspiring and painful for me to read.

Because I trust Dave, I was open and honest with him about our newspaper, my role in it, where we have thrived and fallen short, and the mental-health toll this essential, but often seemingly doomed, final charge at saving a newspaper took on me and those I love the most.

The Iowa Newspaper Association’s Newspaper of the Year in 2013 as a proud daily newspaper with 100 years of family ownership we were down to two days a week of publishing, a smaller staff and near-hourly conversations about our financial mortality, when Dave Hoekstra entered out offices in the years before the pandemic.

In some of my more desperate days, I talked about suicide, my own, and the summoning of the last traces of resilience in this fight.

“Doug Burns was frustrated and tired,” Hoekstra writes in the book’s introduction. “He told me he had considered suicide. He told me to go ahead and print that.”

Yes, I did.

Dave’s book is a love letter to America it its best, to towns large and small, and a cautionary tale about the proliferation of news deserts in which Americans don’t know what they don’t know about local government and the happenings around the block from them, not to mention in our courthouses and statehouses where the fourth estate is increasingly absent in a culture that values the whiz-bang silliness of Instagram influencers more than the grit of determined beat reporters on democracy’s guard duty.

“I see your book being incredibly relevant in two ways,” I told Hoekstra in August 2020. “Either it will be an instruction manual or inspirational book that will have ideas that have helped preserve or resurrect newspapers. It could be a big part in saving journalism. Or, even if we get to the point where coronavirus ravages the nation even more and the for-profit journalism model is largely done, your book will be like chronicling the last Comanches — those of us who are still independent and family owned. It’s almost surprising when you see one of us. ‘Whoa, you’re still covering county government?’ ‘Whoa, you’re still covering state government?’ ‘Whoa, you still print a newspaper?’ We’re at that point where if a lot of us are gone, even me gone, you will literally have written a book about the last stand.”

We are still publishing here in Carroll, Iowa. There is life in this newspaper, gasping as we may be at times.

Here are five observations about newspapering life in contemporary America from me that Hoekstra includes in the book. There are many more, but this is a sample:

“I was in my teenage years when I saw stories about family farmers killing themselves. I had a condescending attitude about it — just tough it out. ‘So you can’t farm anymore? Move to St. Louis.’ It’s what you would expect from a 14-year-old with the whole world in front of him and nothing built behind him to see. But now, I’ve thought about killing myself. You can quote me on that. I haven’t, of course, but I’ve spent 30 years of my life on this. We were best paper in the state (named by the Iowa Newspaper Association in 2013). What for? Maybe I’ll catch coronvirus. I’ve been flying around all over the country trying to find ideas and implementing dozens of them, working myself probably to an early grave trying to keep this paper from going to an early grave.”

“They (people) just don’t see community like they used to. They live in narcissism pods. Place doesn’t matter like it used to. Place used to be essential to identity. Now people have an online avatar that’s almost more important to them than where their physical being is. So if you’re in this narcissism pod where you have your Facebook friends, your Netflix queue, and your Amazon wish list, what the f— does it matter whether you live in Carroll, Iowa, or Dubuque, Iowa? What’s sad is watching this march of people to these soulless Des Moines suburbs like Waukee, Grimes, Ankeny. Every time I drive to Des Moines there’s a new subdivision, a new store going up. These places have no past and no future. They exist entirely in the present. They are purely consumer, commercial-driven monstrosities. Iowa is losing a lot of its character because of it. And that comes down to our business because people don’t feel the same way about community things thanks to f—ing Mark Zuckerberg.”

“I’ve heard ‘Let’s go all digital.’ I’ve heard to cut our staff as much as we can. You talk about building an airplane as it’s flying. I’ve built a squadron of f—ing airplanes in the sky. At this point anybody who will criticize a newspaper owner that is still open can go f— themselves. You can use the F-bomb, and I’ll be disappointed if you don’t quote me accurately using the F-bomb.”

“We got hit by a f—ing duopoly known as Facebook and Amazon. They wiped out the fourth leg of the table of democracy in the fourth estate. We can’t have the independent unattainable model. I used to be the guy in the room who could pretty much tell anybody they were wrong. I don’t have that leverage anymore. It’s tragic. Because the one person in the room that could tell people in positions of power to do that in smaller rural areas was the newspaper owner. He or she had the credibility of being a big community booster, and also, it’s our job.”

“The good thing about running a community newspaper is that I’ve always felt we’re just temporary stewards of the newspaper. The community really owns the newspaper.”

Editor’s note: We didn’t spell out the f-bombs in Burns’ quotes — he said he wouldn’t mind — but Hoekstra did include them.

This column was originally published by the Carroll Times Herald and Douglas Burns’ blog, “The Iowa Mercury” and is shared here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative and member authors’ blogs to support their work. You can support the Carroll Times Herald and other western Iowa community newspapers through the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation.

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Douglas Burns
Douglas Burns

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa journalist whose family operated the Carroll Times Herald for 93 years. He is the founder and director of development for the non-profit Western Iowa Journalism Foundation. Additionally, Burns founded a marketing and advertising firm, Mercury Boost, which is based in Council Bluffs. He is the business development director for Latino IQ, an Iowa-based organization. Burns, who resides in Carroll, writes for a number of Iowa newspapers with his work also having appeared in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Kansas City Star. You can subscribe to his blog, The Iowa Mercury, on Substack.