Iowa Media Back to the Future

In the first week of February, every four years, coastal correspondents decamp to Iowa to cover the first-in-the nation nominating contest. Face-to-face, caucus by caucus, what the state lacks in demographics, it makes up for in down-home democracy, we’re told. And down-home democracy rests on down-the-street media. That’s why when the Des Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren, it makes national news. When Bernie Sanders leads in the Register’s celebrated Iowa Poll, it sends shockwaves through the Democratic establishment. But much as we may want to believe that Iowa takes us back in time, it’s not a time capsule. It’s the frontier face of our media future.

Last November, GateHouse Media, the nation’s largest newspaper chain gobbled up the Register when it merged with Gannett, the second largest, in a merger valued at $1.2 billion. The new company, called Gannett, now owns one in every six papers in the country, and the paymasters are a private equity firm, Fortress Investment Group, which itself is owned by a Japanese conglomerate, SoftBank.

Local news brought to you by profit predators is as American as apple pie. The most recent study by PEN America reads like an obituary for the US news business. At least 3.2 million Americans in 200 counties have no local paper. Most of the rest have only one—usually a weekly.

Casino capitalists have been vacuuming up the press, not to spruce things up, but to suck what remains dry. It’s not scoops they’re after, it’s so-called “synergies.” Gannett says they’ll be seeking some $300 million of those, and across the network, layoffs are already happening.

What’s a synergy in a  newsroom? It’s Tony Leys, veteran Register reporter, writing a feature, an analysis of the Iowa Poll, a human-interest piece and two explosive investigations in 3.5 weeks. He described his job to Politico.

Journalists from the Register, or papers like Sioux City Journal or the Quad-City Times, may still appear on your screens caucus night, bringing authenticity and some actual local knowledge to national coverage, but beat reporters in rural states are not some quaint exotic species. They need to eat too, and all across the country, they’ve been taking a beating from the very same monopoly capitalists and finance vultures who control commerce, communications and even our consciousness through buy-outs, buy-ups and advertising.

Local broadcasting is faring no better. Two leading TV stations in Des Moines and Davenport changed owners in the last year. Christian stations dominate the airwaves and Iowa has very few national public radio affiliates. The state’s solitary community station, KHOI in Ames, is funded by listeners and staffed by volunteers. That’s where I’ll be this Monday, co-hosting for the Pacifica network so that those volunteers can go caucus.

“We will go directly to the people—from farms to cities to the Meskwaki Native Tribe—for the important insights and context driving the results. It’s not your typical national news coverage,” says station manager Ursula Ruedenberg.

It may not be typical, but it may be the future. If local residents want local media, they’d be smart to volunteer or pledge for it, and maybe that’s not so bad. After all, do we really want our reporting on Warren, Sanders or Klobuchar—all of whom support bills to defend local media and block media mergers—brought to you by the world’s biggest wealth-suckers? I don’t. 

Laura Flanders interviews forward-thinking people about the key questions of our time on The Laura Flanders Show, a nationally syndicated radio and television program also available as a podcast. A contributing writer to The Nation, Flanders is also the author of six books, including The New York Times best-seller, BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species.  She is the recipient of a 2019 Izzy Award for excellence in independent journalism, the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing women’s and girls’ visibility in media and a 2020 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship for her reporting and advocacy for public media.