Weathering the storm

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Last week we hosted a screening of “Storm Lake,” the documentary about the Storm Lake Times, a two-times-a-week newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa.

If you missed the viewing at M.V. Film Center, you can still catch the film as it streams on PBS. The film hits home for us. It’s a story of survival in a time when it’s becoming increasingly difficult for newspapers to hold on. All across the country, newspapers have been gobbled up by hedge funds. That’s led to consolidations, and some newspapers being shuttered. According to “Storm Lake,” 65 million Americans are living in news deserts. That means they have no source of news targeting their communities.

The film is about a small-town, family-owned, resilient newspaper, but it’s about more than that. It’s a microcosm of what’s happening in the news industry — a story we don’t tell often or well enough — and a warning about what happens to accountability when the local newspaper shuts down.

The Times, your Times, is not immune to the situation facing newspapers. Just a few months before the pandemic hit, we went to a paid subscription model. Things were going well, and then all of our lives were thrown into turmoil by COVID-19 and its impacts. Recovery of advertising revenue has been slow, but through it all we’ve kept our commitment to bring you the most comprehensive coverage of the Island — appreciative of those advertisers and supporters who have stuck with us.

Though it’s been tough times for the news business, we are buoyed by those who see the value in journalism — especially after the dark days of being called the “enemy of the people” by former President Donald Trump.

Indeed, Pope Francis on Nov. 11 gave an impassioned speech about the news industry. “We need journalists who are willing to ‘wear out the soles of their shoes,’ to get out of the newsroom, to walk around the city, to meet people, to assess the situations in which we live in our time.”

The Pope went on to discuss the importance of reality in journalism. “Today we are in great need of journalists and communicators who are passionate about reality, capable of finding the treasures often hidden in the folds of our society and recounting them, allowing us to be impressed, to learn, to broaden our minds, to grasp aspects that we did not know before.”

His words are powerful, given that it was journalists who uncovered the abuses of priests and the cover-up of the Catholic Church. “Thank you all for the work you do. Thank you for your search for the truth, because only the truth sets us free,” Pope Francis concluded.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen attorneys general, including Massachusetts AG Maura Healey, have called on Congress to pass legislation that would provide tax credits for newspapers, digital publications, television, and radio.

“Local journalism performs an integral role in our society by keeping our communities informed and holding every level of government accountable — but it’s no secret they are struggling,” Healey said in a press release. “I am proud to join my colleagues in support of this legislation that will help give local news organizations in Massachusetts the financial boost they need to survive and thrive.”

The letter calls on congressional leaders to pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act of 2021 (H.R. 3940 and S. 2434). The act provides:

 

  • Up to $250 in tax credits to local newspaper subscribers to offset subscription fees;
  • Up to $5,000 in tax credits for some local businesses who buy ads in local newspapers, television, and radio; and
  • Up to $25,000 for local news organizations to hire journalists.

 

“Local newspapers are responsible for half of our country’s original reporting, although they only account for one-quarter of media outlets. In many rural communities, local news organizations provide the only information and updates about issues impacting the community,” the letter states.

In an eloquent letter welcoming his son, Tom, into the family business, Art Cullen wrote, “You can change the world through journalism. Tom Paine did it with ‘Common Sense.’ Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post did it with Watergate. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams did it — with one brutal photo, he started the end of the Vietnam War. That’s the only good reason to get into this business. Because, when you’re looking for a friend, remember that the dog can’t read.”

We appreciate the support of the Pope. We’re hopeful that Congress will see the value in providing support to community journalism. And we’re fortunate that producer Beth Levison and director Jerry Risius decided to tell the story of the Storm Lake Times and the Cullen family.

We welcome your continued support, we need the support of your friends and neighbors, and we promise to always strive to be worthy of it.

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