Six and a half years ago Cedar Rapids was devastated by the fourth-worst public disaster in U.S. history. Raging flood waters from the Cedar River destroyed 10 square miles of the center city, including 5,000 homes, 1000 businesses, key infrastructure and numerous cultural amenities. The local newspaper, The Gazette, helped the city to come back with an outpouring of journalism that was in the grand tradition of its 130-year history as the diligent paper of record of Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa.
“It was our finest hour,” says Gazette CEO Chuck Peters. But then “the community fell apart,” Peters recalled in a radio interview last fall. “There was a lot of contention, a lot of animosity as people were grieving in different ways.”
Peters wanted the Gazette to capture how the great comeback had become a thudding letdown. But, very quickly, he realized that the traditional journalism that had shone so brightly during the flooding and in its aftermath was inadequate to describe the many-faceted angst that had settled over Cedar Rapids, much less help lift it away.
“Serendipitously,” with his wife’s help, he said, he came upon the book “Community: The Structure of Belonging” by Peter Block, which is about how “disconnection and detachment make it hard if not impossible to envision a common future and work towards it together,” even when everybody is well intentioned. With “Community” as the backup text, Peters explained how The Gazette struggled to rescue itself from its quandary:
“Several of us who had been thinking about this started meeting, and this continued for almost a year,” Peters said. “By this time, we realized we had to start from a fundamentally different premise. There are some local issues — education, health, economic development, neighborhood development, governance — where reporting of events just isn’t enough to give the context, understanding and connection needed for the community to develop a nuanced discussion, with all voices, to determine the next best step.
“Separately, we created an ESOP trust at the Gazette where all employers are beneficiaries [of how well the company performs], and they are deeply embedded in the community. We went to the community and said we want to try a different [journalistic] approach — we want to build local knowledge around central issues. But the community said they weren’t ready to play with us. Everybody has been conditioned for years to lock down with the media.”
The answer, Peters said, is “bringing in someone who has the perspective to know where the landmines are and can help the community work through issues. This aligns with author Block’s book on how guided conversations can help bring common purpose to fragmented communities — the predicament Cedar Rapids found itself in after its comeback from the great flood of 2008.
The first issue that The Gazette looked at in this new way was the complaint of entrepreneurs in Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa who said they were desperate to know where to locate venture capital in the region.
Peters and his Gazette team, with the help of a consultant, brought the entrepreneurs together — most of them had never met each other — and out of guided conversations, “we were not only able to do a white paper on availability of venture capital but also develop a series of informative stories.”
Next for The Gazette was a look at early reading in Eastern Iowa, where, mirroring the nationally trend, Peters said, “only 30% of fourth graders read joyously for comprehension, 30% can but choose not to, and 30% can’t.”
Peters emphasizes that The Gazette’s new journalism doesn’t mean that it is scrapping its traditional journalism. “This is ‘additive,’ he says. There will always be a place for investigative journalism.”
Display ads, even successfully targeted ones, aren’t likely to pay for the resources that go into The Gazette’s innovative journalism, where packages can take weeks, even months, to produce. There were no sponsorships for the package on local venture capital. So what is the business model to pay for future takeouts that venture well beyond traditional journalism? I asked Peters. “Sponsorships and memberships,” he said. Who might sponsor the early-reading issue? “It could be a school district or a foundation,” Peters said.
The Gazette is a profitable media company. It owns top-rated TV station KCRG, an ABC affiliate, which is awash from 2014 political advertising. Now that The Gazette is a 100% ESOP, it doesn’t have to pay a dollar of taxes on its profits. (Employees will pay taxes on the appreciation of their shares when they leave the company or retire.) So company can afford to experiment with new models for news.
Community news needs innovative business models for news. But it’s a safe bet that news publishers will wait and see what The Gazette achieves before they go down its path of new journalism.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched last year.