As a very, very long 2020 winds down to a close, I thought it would be good to take a look back at what Iowa Starting Line accomplished in our most successful year yet.
One thing I don’t always do a good job of is publicly touting our successes — I’m always cautious about sounding self-serving or boasting. I think when your journalism work is out in public, it can speak for itself.
However, the impact of Starting Line’s work is often far greater than what you simply see online. There are many times every month where there will be a story that ends up on CNN or in the New York Times or on KCCI that I know was a direct result from our reporting. I know that a producer or an editor who follows us noticed something we tweeted, looked into it more and wrote something about it themselves. But if you don’t follow all these social media connections, you might not know how so many storylines about Iowa politics are directly influenced by Starting Line.
That’s not the only way we have an outsized impact, but it’s an important one. When you’re running an independent, online-only news outlet, your real reach needs to go beyond your readership, though our page views were certainly very strong this year.
So, let’s go through and take a look at some key, post-caucus Starting Line successes (we won’t hit on every single one), as well as some things that could have gone better in 2020.
For starters, our biggest accomplishment was simply continuing to exist throughout 2020, retaining a sizable staff of reporters in a year where local news faced even tougher struggles and saw big cuts. For most of the year, we had five people on staff, four of them full-time.
I think most people still don’t fully appreciate how unique and successful Iowa Starting Line has been, with many just sort of taking it for granted that we exist at all. Ask around with national comms staffers and reporters — there really aren’t any other news sites set up like ours in other states.
Starting Line doesn’t have a board of directors. We’re no one’s project. We don’t have some big national donor or organization that comes in and funds everything. It’s largely just me piecing together bits of funding here, there and everywhere.
I think we’ll end out the year with over $300,000 in revenue/fundraising/grants for 2020. Last year during the Iowa Caucus, no single source of funding accounted for more than 10% of our budget. This year, the largest piece of funding made up just under 20% of the total.
Again, ask around. That is not easy to do, especially in a time when news organizations’ business models are in free-fall. We figured out how to make it work. You’re starting to see other independent, online-only news sites pop up around the country, but all of those are typically funded by by one large organization or a few wealthy donors.
As you might imagine, it takes a lot of time to raise that much money, but we were able to do that (thanks in part to having Adam Henderson as an administrative director for several months) while still managing a large staff, publishing stories every day, covering events, and handling the backend stuff with the business.
Expanded Readership And Reach
Since our expansion last year, we saw a solid spike in readership during the Iowa Caucus. It might surprise you, however, that our best website traffic has come in the months after the caucus.
We set an ambitious goal of 250,000 views per month for Starting Line this year, and ended up with an average of well over 300,000 views each month. That’s a lot for an independent news site that hasn’t been advertising to grow its audience.
Our in-state readership really deepened this year too, with the vast majority of that expanded readership coming from Iowans (as you can imagine, we get a lot of national and international readership during the Iowa Caucus). That means we reached a lot of Iowans outside of the political activist core that made up our initial base of support.
While we started as a political insider site, we’ve focused in recent years on making sure our stories are still digestible by those Iowans only somewhat interested in politics. I think we’ve developed a good balance — finding ways to package unique, interesting Iowa politics stories in a concise, engaging way that brings in a broad base of readers. And a massive collection of great file photos from Julie Fleming certainly helps as well with social media sharing.
Framing The Senate Race
I’m not sure how many people remember this, but Starting Line was created back in 2015 to act as a counter-balance to the conservative blogosphere/twittersphere that really impacted how the 2014 Ernst/Braley race was viewed in state and national media to Democrats’ detriment. A key part of our mission has been to influence how people talk about Iowa politics and lift up stories others aren’t writing about.
Unfortunately, there are limits to how effective that can be in yet another wave year (we’ll reflect on this a lot more in our next piece).
When it comes to federal incumbents like Joni Ernst, Iowa’s lack of a fully-dedicated federal reporter at any outlet often allows the senator to set her own media narrative before the election year, as most pieces written up on her result solely from press conferences. Starting Line changed that when we brought on Libby Meyer last year, who essentially became the expert on Ernst, her voting record, how she presents herself to voters, and scandals like her dark money ties.
Practically nothing Ernst or other top Iowa politicians said went without scrutiny or at least coverage in some way here. When Ernst presented herself in markedly different terms to Republican crowds than she does in press interviews, we highlighted that. When she simultaneously touted meeting with Black leaders and argued that systemic racism doesn’t exist in Iowa, we thought to, you know, go ask those Black leaders how they felt about it. When she privately apologized for her COVID conspiracy comments but didn’t publicly, we broke those stories.
And if you turned on a TV or checked your mailbox during the campaign, nearly half the Democratic ads on Ernst cited a Starting Line story, because we were one of the few who covered some of these topics in-depth.
Our coverage didn’t just appear there.
Viral Stories/National Reach
Again, a key component of Starting Line’s impact is the ability for our stories and/or tweets to quickly go viral and get picked up by much larger news outlets.
Our guest piece from Jeremy Dumkreiger on teachers preparing obituaries before returning to school led to his story being featured on Good Morning America, Rachel Maddow, CNN, and most Iowa news stations. Our videos of Jeff Shipley saying COVID-19 wasn’t killing anyone was featured on local TV. Our story of a Cresco teen talking about the racial bullying she received at school garnered her interviews on Iowa TV. We were the first with Paige Godden to get a story out on Trump leaving his supporters in the freezing cold in Omaha, which many national outlets linked to.
Among other places, our stories got cited quite regularly in the New York Times and Washington Post, from major pieces like Joe Biden’s thoughts on the Supreme Court to ones like how health care ads were shaping the 2020 race or opinion pieces on Ernst.
Our twitter account can oftentimes be even more impactful than a story on the website. A video we quickly clipped and tweeted from the third Senate debate went viral and got nearly 800,000 views.
Ernst’s biggest screw-up —her COVID conspiracy theory comments — received little attention in the hours after the Courier published a piece on it. But our subsequent tweeting of it and our piece caused it to rapidly blow up nationally in mere minutes.
We quickly highlighted Joni Ernst’s campaign text that was fundraising on the Supreme Court immediately after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. Let’s stick with the impact of this for a moment — that tweet went viral on Twitter right as every Democrat in the country was experiencing a mix of mourning but also anger at what Senate Republicans were about to do. So you had all these Democrats ready to donate to someone out of anger, and the first thing that popped up in their feeds was how Ernst was trying to take advantage of her death. With ActBlue reporting that over $100 million was raised on their platform during that day, how much money may have been directed Iowa’s way by that timing alone?
Our twitter coverage can also simply be a source of fun and joy in this otherwise hellish experience of Iowa politics — if that helps even a little in keeping some activists motivated and avoid burnout, that’s significant.
Back when candidates were actually on the campaign trail, we continued to catch the nice little moments that show the human side of campaigns.
— Iowa Starting Line (@IAStartingLine) January 26, 2020
Sometimes we’re in the right spot at the right time, with the online reach to amplify an important moment in Iowa politics.
Several minutes ago: State Rep. Ras Smith of Waterloo takes in a quiet moment by himself outside the House chamber following the unanimous passage of HF 2647, the police reform bill that he's been working all this week with leadership and the Governor on. pic.twitter.com/jwI8gqYIa5
— Iowa Starting Line (@IAStartingLine) June 12, 2020
And, of course, we should mention that time we captured the very moment that 2020 all went downhill.
At one Des Moines precinct tonight, an attendee brought in a concealed bottle of wine, dropped it, and it shattered everywhere pic.twitter.com/qHNMP6NLOH
— Iowa Starting Line (@IAStartingLine) February 4, 2020
Expanding Coverage/Lifting Up Diverse Voices
With extra funding coming in the past two years, we decided to invest in new reporting roles for coverage of people and communities that don’t get as much mainstream news attention in Iowa. Claudia Thrane continued her role from last year of covering immigrant communities. Rachelle Chase joined to cover the city of Waterloo. If you want to better understand the lives of Iowa immigrants, you really should take some time and read back through Claudia’s many great profile pieces. And, among other important topics, Rachelle brought the story of Waterloo’s racial justice efforts to a larger, statewide audience this year.
Not that any of you noticed, but Starting Line actually built one of the most diverse and women-run newsrooms in the state this year. Our four reporters for the back half of the year were all women, and half were people of color, as was our earlier administrative director.
And, as it turns out, investing in and developing relationships through reporting on diverse communities can translate into really impactful journalism. Here’s one example: from our connections with the refugee community, we learned about the dire situation at the Cedar Terrace apartment complex in Cedar Rapids, which had been blown apart by the derecho. They asked us to go bring more attention to the residents’ plight.
Starting Line’s Isabella Murray was the first reporter at the complex, five days after the storm hit. Our tweets showing the devastation and refugees who were impacted quickly went viral, and in the days to come, a flood of assistance and news coverage came to the neighborhood that had been largely ignored for days. After we tweeted that residents needed shelter, some of our readers showed up a few hours later with tents.
In-Depth and Features Stories
One very nice thing with having multiple reporters on staff is the ability to let some take several days or a week to really dig into a story. Isabella took on a lot of these pieces with the COVID pandemic, uncovering stories on out-of-state college students coming here to party, a mystery with a rural county’s outbreak, how the state was playing games with school restrictions, and more. She also covered important stories on policing, the Trump campaign, and the derecho.
I’d also like to highlight something about our state legislative campaign coverage. We did a lot of individual feature stories on candidates in key races. Those weren’t the inside baseball, number-heavy pieces that activists like yourself may love to read (though we had some of that), but were instead more feature-style, personal pieces on candidates that no one else is doing — ones that voters in the district may be interested in reading.
What You Didn’t See
Sometimes the news out of an event is that there was no news, though that doesn’t often make for a good story. After Ernst’s COVID conspiracy comment in late August, which would have been lost to history had one local reporter not been on the scene, I decided we needed to ensure none of her remarks ever go unwatched.
Starting Line was present in some form at nearly every single Ernst campaign event or appearance in Iowa for the last two months of the election — for almost all of them, we were the only outlet on hand. But Ernst stuck to script and didn’t make any major mistakes like the COVID one. Still, I think most folks would appreciate the effort. And if Ernst had messed up, you would have heard about it from us — and likely only us.
What Could Have Gone Better
I’ve never really liked organizations that put out rosy-sounding wrap-ups on their work for the year that make it sound like everything was perfect. Our team was spectacular this year, but there’s a couple decisions I made that I would redo if given the chance.
Split Focus Between Statehouse and COVID: The biggest problem with 2020 was there was simply too much news to cover, even with a larger team of reporters this year. We started the year thinking we’d focus a lot of our post-caucus attention on the statehouse and state legislative races, but COVID obviously took up most of our coverage in the spring and summer. Come fall, we tried to shift our resources to legislative coverage. Important COVID stories kept coming up, however, and two or three months wasn’t enough time to really delve into the legislative beat.
Basically, we should have just stuck to one of the topics and done that one really well. We still produced excellent stories on both fronts, but when you’re bouncing between beats so often it’s harder to establish sources or dig in further to a sprawling story.
My biggest regret was on the meatpacking plants — we were one of the very first outlets to realize how big a problem/scandal that was about to become. Claudia, Nikoel Hytrek, Joey Aguirre and Michael Aragon broke some stories and provided really insightful, unique coverage in early spring, but we got too overwhelmed with other news later on to stay on top of it well enough.
Not Enough Time For Me To Write: As Starting Line has grown, it has also meant my own job responsibilities have expanded beyond simply writing, raising just barely enough money for myself, and keeping the website functioning (quite a lot of work regardless). I love the teams we’ve put together and all the new great stories we’ve produced as this news outlet has matured, but it’s also meant the hours each week where I have time to write myself has dwindled. And there are specific political analysis and opinion pieces that I used to do a lot of — and what Starting Line was known for when it began — that I haven’t been able to get to now.
There also wasn’t enough time to keep the podcast going. Josh Cook did an amazing job producing it during the last half of the caucus, but even with a producer, it was simply too time-consuming.
What Starting Line really needs is a permanent middle-management position, though that costs more money. Regardless, I aim to better manage the entire setup in the future so I’m still able to write more. That includes trying to avoid burnout, which hit me very hard in the three weeks before the election (and is still lingering).
Too Many Short-Term Projects: Ever since I got much better at fundraising/the business side of Starting Line last year, my thinking has been that as soon as new money comes in, I should use it to hire more reporters to produce more content. I think most folks would appreciate that mindset.
However, because I’m still new to building up a real business with multiple staffers, I was always hesitant to make too many longterm commitments in case finding funding gets harder in future years (Libby and Claudia are our only reporters who have been on since they were first hired). That means we did a lot of shortterm projects, which did make sense with things like the caucus and the meatpacking plant outbreaks. And while we had excellent journalists for those roles who produced good work, it meant they were temporary and had limited time to build up sources and knowledge on their beats.
In the future, if Starting Line continues and we have a staff, my focus will be on securing more longterm funding commitments over many years (no easy task, but hopefully doable) and prioritizing funding permanent positions, even if that means less flexibility of adding capacity during periods of additional Iowa news. If those reporters’ beats changes during their time here, that’s fine, as overall it should be helpful to have their institutional knowledge of Iowa politics around for longer.
You haven’t heard much from myself or our team post-election. I am both completely burned out and am in the process of figuring out whether Starting Line will continue and, if so, what it should look like in 2021 and 2022. I’ll have a longer piece out on that, hopefully soon. I meant to have something written on it three weeks ago, but when you’re trying to write something important and introspective while you’re also incredibly burned out, it’s kinda hard to finally get it done.
As always, we want to thank all of our loyal readers and supporters, from those that were with us day one nearly six years ago to those who just joined this year. It really has felt like we’re doing meaningful work when we see you sharing our stories, your feedback, and the impact our journalism can have.
This being 2020 and all, I don’t want to say “thanks for helping us have a great year,” but I think you know what we mean.
by Pat Rynard
Iowa Starting Line is an independently owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.