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Art Cullen looks ahead at what's next for local journalism, after a small town newspaper war comes to an end

<em>Storm Lake Times</em> editor Art Cullen is moderating a forum on Saturday in Iowa with Democratic presidential candidates.
Clay Masters
IPR File
A 32-year newspaper war in Buena Vista County in northwest Iowa has finally come to an end. The Times and Pilot-Tribune now merge into a single twice a week publication called the Storm Lake Times Pilot.

A 32-year newspaper war in Buena Vista County in northwest Iowa has finally come to an end. April 1, the Storm Lake Times company announced it had purchased the Pilot-Tribune from Hallmark II Publishing of Charles City. The Times and Pilot-Tribune now merge into a single, twice-a-week publication called the Storm Lake Times Pilot.

Art Cullen is editor and publisher of the paper, and his brother, John Cullen, is the president, though neither brother is on the paper’s payroll. Art Cullen joined Ben Kieffer onRiver to River to discuss what the merger means for local journalism.

On resources and the decision to merge

“Over the decades, and especially as change came to the newspaper industry generally, over the decades, this newspaper war was killing both newspapers … we were losing gobs of money. Something had to change.”

“Gene Hall, who's the publisher and the owner of the Charles City Press and his son Christopher, wanted to buy these northwest Iowa newspapers. And they asked if we would like to buy Cherokee and Storm Lake's with them, or they'd peel them off to us. And we said, 'Sure, but we don't have any money.' We're broke, and we couldn't even make a downstroke. And so, I emailed this person who'd given us money. He was a California technology guy. His name was John, too, and he pledged to support us. And if he hadn't done that, we couldn't have bought these newspapers … We wanted to make sure that our employees had health insurance, and that they were paid a decent wage. Those are the only things he (John) cares about. He just wants to make sure that Storm Lake has a strong newspaper. And it's just incredible. It's like he's an angel. He's never been to Iowa, I don't think but he really cares about democracy.”

“We couldn't have done this without philanthropy, and we couldn't do the journalism we're doing. We wouldn't exist. We would have closed last year. And I bet the Pilot-Tribune was pretty close to it, I don't know. But we wouldn't be here if it weren't for the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, which is a nonprofit foundation to support independent, family-owned newspapers in Iowa. And, uh, so we really need philanthropy, I think, for the next five years until we can build these digital products that can sustain themselves.”

On the importance of local news

"I think every community needs a local owner. And I think that the evidence is all the newspapers I cited that are doing well are all independently owned. John Henry owns The Boston Globe. Glen Taylor owns the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Frank Blethen owns The Seattle Times, and the Sulzberger family owns The New York Times. So the formula for success, I believe, is local ownership, because people believe that you care about that community."

"The New York Times now has more reader revenue than it does advertising revenue. The Minneapolis Star Tribune is doing fantastic based on reader revenue alone. So are The Seattle Times and The Boston Globe. So we know it can be done. The question is, is the audience large enough in rural Iowa to help support real high-quality journalism? And I don't think it is."

Looking forward

“(The Pilot-Tribune) has a shopping guide called the Advertising Guide. It's a free publication that goes on all the households and that is profitable. And so that will help support the newspapers. But Hy-Vee and Fareway have pulled out of shopping guides all across Iowa, just recently. And so we're not sure how that will be going forward. Will shopping guides continue to provide all that advertising information in rural Iowa? We don't know. I'm not real confident about it. So what we're really concentrating on is trying to sell digital subscriptions, both to Cherokee and Storm Lake. And we believe that's where the future is, is in reader revenue. But that means devoting all these resources to reporting, rather than pointless newspaper wars where we're both covering the city council meeting. We're both covering the school board meeting when we could be using those resources much more efficiently and actually expand the number of stories we're doing for readers in Buena Vista County. So that's the whole idea, is to build more and more journalism into our product that people will want to read it on their cell phone.”

"I'd like to thank everybody in Iowa for all their support, and particularly Iowa Public Broadcasting, both public television and public radio. They are the provider of a common set of facts in Iowa, and we really need to support public broadcasting.'

You can hear the full interview with Cullen on theRiver to River podcast.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio