If it feels like some of your relatives and neighbors are living in a different reality than you these days because of how they consume information online, it’s because they essentially are.
We’ve all witnessed how the struggles of the local news industry have coincided with the rise of disinformation online, the rapid spread of dangerous conspiracy theories, and the growth of far-right echo chambers.
There are few other places in the country where the damage from these trends on democracy have been more apparent in recent years than Iowa. We’ve seen it in our elections, in the way state policy now gets decided, and in how people treat each other at the grocery store. We even saw it play out in the attack on the US Capitol on January 6. It was sadly a surprise to almost no one in Iowa that the man infamously seen chasing Officer Goodman through the halls outside the Senate was from Des Moines.
Social media platforms and algorithms have warped the way Iowans get their news, replacing local reporting with national, hyper-partisan sites and memes that rely on driving anger, resentment and controversy.
And every single year, it gets worse and worse, with the consequences getting all the more dire.
So… who’s going to do something about it?
The Iowa Starting Line team is very excited to announce that we are joining Courier Newsroom, a national network of local outlets that are taking on this exact problem. Courier Newsroom was founded to combat the impact of disinformation by countering it with local news that builds a more informed and engaged electorate. As the newest property in Courier’s network, we will benefit from the company’s staffing, resources, and expertise at reaching audiences left behind by mainstream outlets.
Our core mission will be much the same, but with a new audience in mind. The goal will be to get fact-based information about Iowa news, politics and government in front of the type of Iowans who don’t subscribe to their local newspaper or watch the evening news, delivering it to them in the places where they spend their time — online. We will attempt to regularly pierce the social media bubbles that many Iowans find themselves trapped in these days.
We all know that kind of Iowan: a server in a rural restaurant where Fox News is on the TV 24/7, working her second job, too cash-strapped to afford monthly subscriptions to local news outlets, surrounded most of her day by conservative friends, co-workers, family members and an echo chamber on Facebook. She may have been raised with values of compassion and community, but her social media feeds are filled with messages that run counter to all that.
When during her day would she ever see a factual news article about some policy being proposed that would help working-class people like herself? And how often does she instead see memes of wild conspiracy theories about the very people pushing those policies?
In our estimation, this is the biggest problem in Iowa politics today. Our democracy cannot survive if so much of the electorate is constantly surrounded by a deluge of lies, disinformation and conspiracy theories designed to divide us or to make a quick profit for those peddling it.
Until we come up with ways to fix this, anything else, be it new policy proposals, messaging efforts or local organizing, will all run into the same roadblock — many Iowans just won’t see it.
While Starting Line will still continue much of our usual Iowa politics coverage and analysis, we’ll do so with this new audience in mind first, rather than those who engage regularly with political news, leading us to compose our stories and content distribution differently.
The biggest change will be a focus on social media-first content. We’re testing out new strategies to tell local Iowa stories through video and graphics, formatted in a way to spread on social media channels where Iowans already get their news.
In the past, we’ve concentrated nearly all our efforts on written content for the website, largely because it was a big enough job just to keep that running smoothly. But there are many Iowans who won’t stop to read an 800-word story or even a 200-word piece. For them, we now finally have the time and resources to strategize how to turn local news items into an infographic for Facebook, a photo slideshow for Instagram, or a series of videos on TikTok. You don’t have to be a social media expert to have noticed how a simple photo or graphic on Facebook can often garner far more engagements than an in-depth news article.
On the written website articles side of things, you’ll see far more explainer pieces, some misinformation debunkers, and more pieces that connect how federal and state policies are impacting real people in a specific, local community. We’ll still do the occasional campaign insider analysis pieces that we’re well-known for — it just won’t be the priority anymore.
To help us in this new effort, we’re also very pleased to announce that Ty Rushing will serve as our new editor (starting in July), joining the team of Pat Rynard, Nikoel Hytrek and Claudia Thrane. Ty knows this challenge better than most in Iowa, having worked as the managing editor for a network of local newspapers in Northwest Iowa, where he saw how easily Facebook rumors ran out of control in small towns. He’s also deeply experienced in building trust in those same communities.
We’re also hiring! Starting Line has a content producer position, which you can view and apply for here. Once our new team settles in a bit, we’ll have other jobs, freelance opportunities and intern positions come open, so keep an eye out for that in the coming months.
We couldn’t be more excited to embark on this new chapter for Starting Line. We strongly believe that if no one has a plan for how to reach those Iowans left behind by traditional media, things will only get worse in this state. We hope our longtime readers will join us in our effort to bring factual, local, and yes, values-driven news to their neighbors.
Make sure to sign up for our emails to learn how you can support our efforts in the coming weeks.
More About Courier Newsroom
Courier has eight other properties/news sites. There’s UpNorthNews in Wisconsin, The Keystone in Pennsylvania, The Gander in Michigan, The Dogwood in Virginia (their first that property launched in 2019), The Copper Courier in Arizona, and The Cardinal & Pine in North Carolina. The Americano covers Latino issues, and The Floricua covers specifically the Puerto Rican community in Florida. Most were launched in 2020.
To get the best sense of what Courier does, we’d suggest reading through stories on our neighboring Wisconsin’s UpNorthNews and scrolling through their Facebook feed for some of their digital content. It’s a news outlet made up of experienced Wisconsin journalists that you’ll find has a similar feel and tone to Starting Line. They do a particularly good job at making fun, TikTok-like videos about Wisconsin news topics.
We hope that you’ll follow along with their work just as you have with ours.
by Pat Rynard