Dec 082021

A while back my pal Barb Westerfield told me about an episode of the Independent Lens series on PBS called Storm Lake that I should watch. Barb knows I spent most of my working years publishing small town newspapers, and she said this one was right up my alley. To be honest, I forgot about it for a while, but then I remembered, and last week Terry and I watched it. What a trip down memory lane!

The show tells the story of the Storm Lake Times, a family-run newspaper that has served a small Iowa community for 40 years, and the changes to the newspaper business and the town over time as big agriculture replaced the small family farms and big box stores destroyed the small business community. As we watched, I can’t tell you how many times Terry and I both said something like “Oh yeah, I remember those days” as editor Art Cullen wore a dozen hats, doing everything from writing editorials to covering town council meetings, selling ads, and delivering bundles of the latest issue of the newspaper to local stores.

Unfortunately, small town newspapers, as well as those in big cities, are disappearing. Every year more and more of them fold as people get their news from cable television and online, and all too often know nothing more about what’s going on in their town or their country than what they see on Facebook or YouTube.

That’s a shame because only the small town newspaper is going to tell you the things that affect your everyday life. The small town weekly or biweekly newspaper is the one that’s going to tell you the stories of your friends and neighbors, the people you work with, the people having dinner at the table next to you at the restaurant, and the small business owners who are the very lifeblood of your community.

I consider myself very fortunate to have spent so much of my life in small town journalism. The hours were always long, and the profits were often short, but I loved every minute of it. Everything from the sounds of the pressroom to the smell of the ink and newsprint as each new issue rolled off, the conversations of people as they crowded around a wire rack in a store to grab a copy off the press, and yes, even the all too frequent times when someone told me I was an idiot because whatever I wrote that week went against whatever they believed at the moment. But through it all, I always felt like putting out each weekly issue was an accomplishment

Sure, there were frustrations along the way. I occasionally lost friends and advertisers who didn’t like the things I had to say, I got a death threat or two along the way, and there’s a reason I don’t breathe well through my nose. More than once, somebody took it upon themselves to adjust it for me when they were enraged about something I had written.

But then there were the times when we knew we were making a difference. Such as when the high school principal was busted for selling drugs on campus and the good old boy network tried to cover it up, or when that same good old boy network tried to keep a favorite judge in office even after he lost an election. (Gee, doesn’t that sound familiar?) And there were the times when someone shook my hand and said, “Well done. Somebody needed to say that.” Or the business owner who once said, “I only agree with what you write about half the time, but there’s never been a day I didn’t respect you for standing up for what you believe and putting it out there, come hell or high water.”

But my favorite stories were always the ones about the people. The young father with no medical training who delivered his own baby when their car got stuck in a snowbank on the way to the hospital during a blizzard. The couple who had taken in over 50 foster children throughout their marriage, some of them staying for only a few weeks, others for years, and the 17 they adopted. Or the quiet small town hero who came home from the war with a chest full of medals and a body covered with scars and never told anybody about it, his story only coming out when his granddaughter was cleaning out his house after his funeral and found an old footlocker with his medals and decorations in the back of a closet.

There were so many stories like that that I was privileged to share with our readers, and they always made up for the times when I worked around the clock getting an issue out and to the printer or when I had to make the decision to pay the electric bill and live on canned pork and beans for another day or two during the early days. Those stories made it all seem worthwhile. I never got rich being a small town newspaperman, if you count wealth in terms of dollars and cents, but trust me, knowing I made a difference in my little small corner of the world always made me feel like I was the richest man in town.

Thought For The Day – Happiness is an inside job.

Nick Russell

World-Famous, New York Times Best Selling Author, and All-Around Nice Guy!

  8 Responses to “Newspaper Days – Small Town Newspapering”

  1. I knew it would resonate with you. So glad you and Terry enjoyed it and took you back memory lane. We need those days.

  2. Nick you are so correct that without these local papers people no longer know their neighbors or what is happening around them. It was a way to keep up with the good (and not so good) things being done by those living around you. Yes, the news wasn’t immediate but we really miss our small town paper. Thanks for all you do, then and now.

  3. Outstanding blog that took me back to my own early days working in community newspapers and later in radio, TV, teaching, and now in retirement. I will have to track down this PBS series.
    While I never was an editor with your credentials, I did transition from selling “business card” ads at the age of 14 to working in both the editorial and the “back shop” at a community newspaper while in college. I never worked the Linotype equipment, but I could wield a fast Exacto #2 knife without “bleeding on the copy”.
    Eventually, my journalism background took me to college teaching about the role the media and solidified my commitment to “accurate, fair and balanced” journalism. Now I subscribe to a MEDIA BIAS research group and worry about where the media is going. I fear that “consumers” of the news are not as aware of what SHOULD BE unbiased reporting. I will stay on my soapbox!!!

    Keep on writing and I’ll keep on reading!!!

  4. Thank you Nick. I always enjoy your recollections and lessons from your career as a newspaper reporter,journalist publisher and historian. Well Done & much appreciated.

  5. I would like to donate my last two books to you for your drawings. “The Search for Grandma Sparkle” is a sweet mystery. “Callie and Natalie’s Dutch Family History” is a genealogy book with over 90 colored photos “about all things Dutch.” Do I send you the books or do I send them to the recipients of the drawing? You can see the books on my Facebook – Darlene Grace Miller

  6. We got a free month trial of Hulu just so we could see that movie. It had been at the Middlebury film festival but I had not seen it then because I was at a different movie. I never did watch anything on Hulu the rest of the month but it was worth the free trial just to see the movie.

  7. Nick….thanks for the reminder of how important small community newspapers are. We live in a fairly fluent community, 137000, that lost its only local newspaper about 12 years ago. We have a Community rag paper that prints stories and advertisements to promote what may be happening in the area. Keith, its publisher and owner says “we are found in the best bird cages in the County”.

    What caught my attention was that Storm Lake is where my wife attended Buena Vista College, now University. Having been there several times, it is definitely a rural agricultural area in the heart of Iowa. Good values.

  8. For me this was a small world story. Although I never lived in Storm Lake, for most of the years between the mid fifties and the early nineties I lived not too far from Storm Lake, and Storm Lake was were people in the little communities of Sulphur Springs, Nemaha, Early, and many others went for shopping and entertainment, so I saw all the changes in Storm Lake up close and personal.

    One early memory that sticks out is that when we first moved to the area people of color were not allowed to stay overnight in Storm Lake. Coming into town to do business was ok, but when the sun went down, they had to leave town.

    The next memory is of the meat packing plant which was the biggest and best employer in the area. They paid great wages relative to today, and the mostly men that worked there were part of families that may have a second car, a boat, or a camper or all three, but when IPB came into existence in the early sixties, there business plan was to drive out other meat packing plants in the area by driving down wages. They did so by hiring people who were in the country illegally who would work for less money than the union meat packing plants paid. IPB even went to the trouble of buying busses, driving then to the Texas/Mexican border and picking people who were in the country illegally, transporting them to their plants. Eventually, their scheme worked, and many union plants went broke. IPB purchased them and reopened them with illegal alien labor, which in turn changed Storm Lake from a fairly prosperous community to one of a much larger percentage of people living in poverty. It did bring a much more diverse community, as not only were there illegal aliens working at the packing plant, but legal aliens. Also Viet-Namese, Cambodians and in later years immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa came to settle in Storm Lake.

    I dont necessarily see the demise of small town newspapers as a small town problem, but lots of larger newspapers have gone out of business as well.People just dont get their news today as they once did. Time moves on.

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