As you’ve probably noticed, Iowa Starting Line has been rather quiet lately. I’ve decided to stop publishing for the time being as I consider significant changes to our operation or whether to continue on at all.
In reality, this hiatus began at the start of December, it’s just taken me this long to finally write the official post about it. I had intended to only take a personal break for a couple of days, but ended up crashing so hard that I’ve barely been able to string together a few sentences for weeks. Working 60 to 80-hour weeks for the past six years straight with practically no breaks probably contributed to that.
This decision is for two reasons, both related to the 2020 election.
The first is financial. While we’ve had considerable success in building up a news outlet from scratch and expanding it significantly in the past two years, our funding situation is always fluid and comes from different sources each year.
With Democrats getting blown out in Iowa yet again this November, I’m concerned about how much left-leaning money will be coming into Iowa in the immediate future. Starting Line was able to expand how it did in part thanks to interest in the Iowa Caucus race and competitive 2020 general election campaigns, along with the advertising revenue that came with those.
If the general mood is that people believe Iowa to be a red-leaning, non-competitive state, getting investments here for the broader progressive infrastructure gets more difficult. I actually think that our race for governor will be very close, but it will probably be early to mid-2022 when some polls come out showing that, and national folks will then engage here in a big way again. My concern for Starting Line is getting through 2021.
As such, if we do continue publishing at Starting Line, the staff will unfortunately be reduced to just myself going forward, though I hope to add back on as things improve. Still, it’s a very frustrating decision to make, as I very much wanted to keep longterm, permanent positions intact after expanding.
The second reason is with the disappointment in how those November elections turned out — not so much that Republicans swept nearly every contested race, but how and why it happened.
There’s three major issues that made this election so particularly demoralizing.
Too Many Wave Years
Since 2010, Iowa has experienced four Republican wave years (2010, 2014, 2016 and 2020), one good Democratic year (2018) and one relatively neutral year (2012). This has become an exhausting phenomenon to live through, where it seems that everything gets decided by the “national mood” or larger factors far outside the control of any person or campaign or issue. So you end up with good public servants that just get wiped out regardless (that’s not to say there haven’t been many bad campaigns run in Iowa — there most certainly have — it’s just that the good ones lose too). And then you have total idiots unfit for office elevated by blind party voting.
These wave years have essentially made everything that happens on the ground seem that much less important, including good journalism, which is my next point.
Journalism’s Limited Impact
Iowa handled the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 worse than nearly any other government in the entire world, resulting in thousands of unnecessary deaths. And at every step along the way, Iowa’s press corp held Gov. Kim Reynolds and other leaders’ feet to the fire, asking tough questions and exposing ways in which the state was covering up the extent of the outbreak and failing to contain it.
And it feels like none of it mattered. Iowans continued to engage in reckless behavior that resulted in killing their neighbors or themselves. And Reynolds and her fellow Republicans were rewarded for their ineptitude — we found and heard stories of many first-time voters who came out to support the GOP ticket as a backlash to how they felt COVID changed their lives (despite living in a state with some of the weakest restrictions).
I do want to be clear: I don’t think the worth of a Brianne Pfannenstiel or Dave Price or Tony Leys or Kate Payne article rests on whether it costs Republicans votes. Nor does a good piece of journalism’s impact need to have anything to do with an election — good policy decisions or consequences from reporting can happen regardless of who’s in power.
But good lord, you’d think Iowa’s disastrous experience with COVID (or, you know, everything else) would have at least given Iowa voters second thoughts about delivering a massive political win to the party in charge of this mess. It would have been one thing if Joni Ernst and Iowa House Republicans had just barely hung on, where you could attribute the narrow victory to other issues. But Ernst’s comfortable victory and Republicans’ upsets to improve their House majority were striking given the environment they ran in.
There are many, many reasons as to why journalism’s impact was limited, all of which we won’t even begin to get into here, but the bottom line is this: good journalism should hold the powerful accountable, but it should do so in reality, not just theory. And if voters aren’t listening to it, then what are we doing here?
Everyone Just Digging Back In
When Reynolds held her first press conference after the election, I sat down ready to type up something on it. But as I looked around on Twitter, I noticed how everyone was reporting on her latest COVID briefing in the exact same manner they had before the election. There were the same righteous outrage takes, the same in-depth informative posts on the numbers. We just had an election where voters said resoundingly “we don’t care” to Iowa’s COVID disaster, and no one was trying to present that information in a different way.
In fairness, there hadn’t been much time for reflection yet, but as the weeks drew on, I mostly saw a similar lack of introspection on the political front.
The way Democratic campaigns are run in this state is not working. The longterm infrastructure here is lacking. And many of the suggestions of how to do things differently are the same things I’ve heard after 2010, 2014, 2016…
So many of the post-2020 takes boiled down to “this simply proves what I’ve said all along.” Others are in denial that anything needs to change (in part because it would mean they’d need to) and are dismissing the election results as solely due to it being a bad year.
I am deeply skeptical that the Democratic campaigns run in 2022 (or the broader party/progressive infrastructure) will look much different from 2020.
So, what to do? I see a couple of different options of what Starting Line and I could do in the future and would be happy to hear your feedback on it. It may be another month or two until we get started back up, as if we do keep going, I would actually like to put deep thought into how we can do things better.
Here’s some possibilities:
1. Shut Down
In some ways, I just want to be done with politics. I’ve been involved here in Iowa for nearly 18 years, and I feel like I’ve more than done my part. Starting Line has been exhausting, sometimes unrewarding work, and the amount of toxicity you have to put up with in Iowa politics increases every year. It might be nice to have a job with normal hours and reasonable pay for once.
Meanwhile, everything in the U.S. feels like it’s on a continual downward slide that nothing is going to reverse. And if we’re really in a “lol nothing mattes” world, then what’s the point of spending all this energy in a broken political system when facts simply don’t matter?
And the most depressing aspect is this: if you’ve followed my work over the years, you know I like to highlight younger political leaders. Regardless of their backgrounds or ideological stances, it’s good to have fresh eyes and new ways of thinking in politics. But lately, I see some of Iowa’s up-and-coming leaders making the exact same mistakes their older predecessors did.
Of course, we have built up something important and rather influential here at Starting Line. Making a complete break with it might be good for the mental health, but there’s a lot of potential still here. And I unfortunately think that operations like Starting Line could be a big part of the solution to today’s news/disinformation problem in politics.
2. Sell It/Partner With National News Organization
We have quite the property here with Starting Line. I try (and often fail) to explain this to Iowa donors, but Starting Line’s influence and national reach with our social media feeds and behind-the-scenes relationships is immense. Nearly every national political reporter follows us. Any time I see an interesting tweet from a national policy leader, elected official, well-known activist or opinion writer, I find that they’re already following us.
For any national news outlet or organization who wanted to make a big jump into Iowa political reporting, purchasing the Starting Line outlet or doing a partnership with us could make a lot of sense.
Like it or not, Iowa always finds its way into the middle of national politics. The Republican presidential primary will likely still start here regardless of what happens with Democrats’ caucus. The campaigns for the Senate seat and governorship here in 2022 will be important. Starting Line could retain its left-leaning bent or just go straight analytical as it covers all of this for a larger organization.
3. Stay The Course
While I’m extremely frustrated by 2020 and the lack of change afterwards in everything, I’m also hesitant to just throw out our current model. I’ve always tried to keep our focus narrow with Starting Line so that we could be really good at one thing — this wasn’t ever supposed to revolutionize journalism as we know it or single-handedly change Iowa politics. And we have really excelled at what we do — go back and check our accomplishments post in case you missed it.
But if we’re only playing a role in a larger broken political system, how effective is it? A big part of our success is in influencing the broader Iowa politics conversation and how the media covers certain topics, but if voters aren’t paying attention to those outlets, what can we accomplish?
Still, I also wonder if this could end up as a situation of “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone” if we move away from this model. This past year, Republicans did a far better job at pushing their oppo research on Democrats out to friendly outlets like the Free Beacon, Breitbart, Daily Caller, Fox News and even the Epoch Times. They produced countless stories damaging to Iowa candidates, but it had a limited effect coming from national outlets.
If that continues unchecked, however, we could end up in a situation where right-wing outlets funded by billionaires produce the majority of content on key Iowa races, and that could have a big impact over time.
I also know how to fund this kind of operation, which is extremely cost-efficient for what it produces and accomplishes. If I’m feeling more optimistic of where Iowa politics is going in the future, sticking with what we’re good at (while still constantly working on what we can improve, obviously), might be the smarter thing to do.
One other quick note: if we’re to continue this, I hope people actually take better advantage of what we’re producing. We’ve written countless stories that you would think campaigns would want to get in front of an audience with digital ads. There are many legislative candidates who we’ve written up profiles of that would seem to benefit from voters reading them, but instead their Facebook ads are all just replaying their TV ads. I truly don’t understand what some Democrats’ digital teams are thinking — if a problem is that there isn’t enough news about your candidate, then maybe you should boost the news that is there into people’s social media feeds.
4. Mass Readership Model
The biggest problem we have right now in American democracy is the spread of misinformation and voters getting trapped in media echo chambers where not only are their views reinforced, they also plain don’t hear about a lot of actual news that happens. How many Donald Trump voters will literally never hear of his impeachable phone call to the Georgia Secretary of State from yesterday?
Many in politics do not fully understand the role of what you could call “outsider voters,” people who are deeply distrustful of the system, don’t listen to mainstream news, and who respond strongly to any kind of anti-establishment or anti-expert messaging. Their news comes up in YouTube ads, online forums, and in their social media feed. Those are the kind of people who voted for the first time for Trump and who political ads and factual news articles simply aren’t getting to.
And it’s getting easier for people to tune out mainstream news as that news gets harder to access. Newspapers’ increasingly strict paywalls are dramatically reducing their influence in the world. If the Register has a big investigative report that’s a subscriber exclusive that only several tens of thousands of people will read at best, what’s its real impact? We know that Reynolds and other Republicans can simply ignore these things when their political base doesn’t even know about it or doesn’t believe it.
Starting Line does have a very large and rather influential audience, but it’s largely made up of people already engaged in politics. The most impactful mission we could focus on might be figuring out how to present factual information that is more engaging and trusted by people who are outside the normal political process.
ACRONYM attempted this by establishing local online progressive news outlets and pushing their and others’ content out through social media ads, which had some fascinating successes and setbacks.
I also have a theory that might be fun to test out: if you make regular news items sound mysterious, they might resonate more with those who distrust the system. I mean, there are legit, real-life, true conspiracies being perpetrated on Iowans all the damn time — powerful, wealthy interests working with corrupt or complicit politicians to enrich themselves and screw over working-class people. And yet, the way the news and political campaigns present these facts somehow get dismissed by voters who at the same time believe wild Q-Anon theories about every elected official being involved in a child sex trafficking ring.
Anyway, this approach would require a significant retooling of how we write and who our audience is, which would abandon some of the advantages we’ve built up over six years. And this idea also veers very close to my concern of trying to do too much — can one news outlet with a small or one-person staff fundamentally change how a significant number of Iowans get their news? I’m not so sure, but it might be worth it to try.
5. Investigative News
Perhaps what I would personally enjoy most is doing a one-man investigative site, spending days and weeks at a time digging into stories no one else is and uncovering what I can discover. Don’t worry about website traffic, just break stories that people can’t ignore. There’s many little unsolved threads from Iowa’s COVID pandemic that we didn’t have enough time to chase down even with a full staff.
But, as discussed above, how much impact would it have if so many people can just ignore it or would never see it through our site or even mainstream news outlets? I’m also less sure how to fund this approach.
6. YOLO It
I am not happy with how Democratic campaigns are run in this state. I am not happy with how nothing ever changes cycle to cycle.
Throughout this past year, I expressed my concerns and suggestions to friends who work on campaigns privately. Sometimes it has an effect, sometimes it doesn’t. My own personal preference is to not put people on public blast on decisions that have already been made, where your criticism isn’t going to change anything — I personally see that as performative, but to each their own. People also simply cannot handle public constructive criticism in any manner, and I cannot single-handedly change human behavior on that front.
However, the number of bad strategies that get repeated year in and year out is just ridiculous, and I may have finally hit my breaking point. There are many individual bad actors in Iowa politics that need to get called out and see their influence reduced or removed, and I certainly know who those people are.
The problem is, would it actually change anything? The power of self-interest in literally everything is strong, and doing a one-man crusade against it, as good as it may feel to do, could go nowhere. And I certainly don’t see other folks making sacrifices, so why should I?
Thanks For Your Readership
As always, I’ll end with a very big thank you to our readers and supporters over the year. Continuing to write and operate just for our many loyal fans is very nearly worth it alone. But we do have some decisions to make.
While we likely won’t get back to regular publishing for a month or two (if we do at all), I’ll probably write stories every now and then or post some guest pieces. With this overly-long piece out of the way, it may be easier to write up some of the many, many ideas I’ve had since the election that I simply haven’t had the energy to do.
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.