The Montezuma Record, the small-town newspaper that the Ames Progressive reported on in March after its editor published a racist university salary report, is in for some major changes. The paper’s 84-year-old editor, Chuck Dunham, is retiring; James Jennings, 43, is taking over on July 1, and is already trying to lay the groundwork for a “complete redesign, modernization and refocus” of the paper through a modest Kickstarter campaign.
About two years ago, Jennings moved to Iowa with his wife, who took a job with the Isle Casino in Waterloo. He first took a job with Mid-American Publishing but for the past nine months or so, he says, he’s been working what he referred to only as a “regular job” outside of the newspaper industry, which he has worked in for a total of 12 years.
With 24 hours to go, the Kickstarter effort, part of Jenning’s plan to prove he can “buck the downward newspaper trend,” needs to raise another $269 to reach its $1,000 goal. (Update: Jennings did not meet the Kickstarter funding goal.)
“My goal is to prove all the so-called newspaper industry experts wrong and show that print journalism is not dying, just changing,” the Kickstarter page reads. “The redesign is the first step in creating a template for other small town newspapers to follow to success, and I plan to share it with anyone who will listen.”
The generally accepted wisdom is that journalism itself is changing, as internet publications cut into newspapers’ ability to sustain themselves. As local papers die off as a result, many towns are beginning to lose key watchdogs that traditionally sounded the alarm about city government corruption.
Jennings agrees with that perspective, to a point. “Bigger papers aren’t interested in the news that’s of most importance to small-town locals, he says. “They’re not going to care if the city council’s passed some new sidewalk ordinance. They don’t care. If there’s a bank robbery there, they care, or if there’s a murder.” But in his mind, the driving factor behind it is more the rise of profit-driven news than the demise of print media. “You’re getting fewer and fewer watchdogs, because everybody’s in bed with each other,” he says. “It’s more of a business than it is journalism.”
But Jennings realizes the importance of the internet. One of the first things he plans to do is launch a website for the paper, because “you can’t exist today without an online presence.” That alone will be a big change: after the Progressive‘s story on Dunham’s racist salary report got national attention, the editor told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that he hadn’t been aware of the controversy because he doesn’t even use the internet.
Jennings has rounded up a handful of people who have offered to help him overhaul the paper at reduced rates. He plans to redesign the paper, add a color front page, and buy a secondhand camera to help him with his goal to document what’s going on at the local schools, in city government, and with other small-town news that papers like the Des Moines Register would tend to overlook in favor of bigger headlines.
He bought the Record for an undisclosed amount. He’s been down to visit the town a few times, but is otherwise going in fresh. Asked to comment on the Progressive‘s story on the paper’s racist report, he says, “It’s not my place to make any comment on editorial decisions that I did not make at a paper that I was not involved with at the time.”
Jennings started his newspaper career with the Clarksdale Press Register in Mississippi after responding to an advertisement in the paper seeking a new staff writer. “I thought, Wow, that would be a cool job to have,” says Jennings, who at the time was an accountant with no journalism experience. “And somehow, I conned them into it,” he jokes.
Since entering the newspaper business, Jennings has also written for outlets including the Sentinel-Record in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and the Colorado County Citizen in Texas, before he returned to the Press Register to take a job as an editor.
The Press Register, he says, had a “really strong publisher who kind of taught me the old-school ways of journalism: don’t kowtow to your advertiser, have some ethics, don’t get in bed with the people you’re covering.”
That, essentially, is Jennings’s new mission statement for the Record.