In new media era, who feeds the watchdog?

by Joe Sheller / Guest Editorial

Nonprofit news media are going to become increasingly important in the years ahead.

In the past, news media in America and in the Corridor have been primarily free enterprise. This is tied to our entire system of government. The “press” is the only business explicitly specified as being free of government control in our First Amendment, as long as you don’t consider religion a business.

But the backbone of the media system that worked for much of our history has been the ink-stained wretch known as the journalist. And many of those reporters who supplied the lifeblood of our democracy worked for newspapers. Newspapers were and are an ad-driven local medium—the watchdog got fed from the hands of local merchants who purchased space to sell their wares.

As our whole economy undergoes rapid change, that system and its economic underpinnings have quickly transformed.

In the Corridor, we’ve seen plenty of local examples of the retrenchment that has hit the greater American newspaper industry. Whether the Press-Citizen, The Gazette or The Des Moines Register, our local newspaper today is smaller, with a leaner staff whose time is sometimes spent updating 24-hour websites or live tweeting coverage of key events.

Our Iowa newspapers have also placed more reliance on part-time or community correspondents.

In recent years, The Gazette in particular has seen a parade of new plans and reorganizations: shuffling the location of its news operations, the title of its editorial leader from “editor” to “content manager” and back to “editor,” and changing the relationship between its print writers and KCRG-TV9 reporters.

At the same time, other media sources, such as TV and radio stations, have also contracted, combined ownership and cut employment

Bottom line: There aren’t as many news reporters in the Corridor now as in the past. Nor are the ones left as free to focus their energies on reporting for a once-a-day story deadline.

Yet, I don’t feel a sense of doom. For one thing, in today’s online world, more data is available to interested people directly from sources — we don’t need a reporter to tell us what items are on a city council agenda, for example.

There are also local media innovations taking place as traditional media struggle. In the Corridor, new news organizations have emerged to fill information niches — publications like the Corridor Business Journal that focuses on local commerce, or websites like that provides coverage of local athletic teams.

The Corridor is also witnessing an exciting experiment in nonprofit journalism. It’s worth keeping an eye on IowaWatch.

The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism in Iowa City runs the website, and bills itself as “a vision for a public-spirited free press.” The organization makes its stories available to interested media outlets. Many papers, including The Gazette, make frequent use of IowaWatch material. But you can also access the information directly from their site, which has an unusual tagline for a media organization: “Like it? Steal it.”

Since 2012, the executive director and editor of the organization has been Lyle Muller, a former editor of The Gazette. The center was co-founded in 2010 by Stephen J. Berry, a University of Iowa journalism professor, investigative journalist and author of a textbook on investigative reporting.

IowaWatch puts its energies into what struggling old media outlets often no longer have time for. It investigates. Iowa Watch pursues not the news of the day, but trends and ideas.

In journalism, we use the term “enterprise” to describe what Iowa Watch does. An enterprise goes beyond reporting the passing parade of events to answer deeper question about the news.

In short, IowaWatch represents a new breed of watchdog seeking to promote one of the most important traditional functions of a free press. It is devoted to enterprise journalism.

One way IowaWatch has been able to accomplish its goals is through cooperation with Iowa colleges and universities to produce content — my students at Mount Mercy University have participated in IowaWatch projects, for example.

Of course, the long-term viability of an organization like IowaWatch depends on its ability to find watchdog chow — to feed itself and its activities.

Still, I think there is hope that the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, one of many nonprofit investigative organizations that have sprung up nationally in recent years, will find long-term success.

We may not always like the barking watchdog, but we need it.




Joe Sheller is associate professor of communication and journalism with Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at