A Beacon, in Burlington
...an upstart newspaper in Burlington takes on what is known as the oldest paper in Iowa, the Burlington Hawk Eye.
This is the second in a series of columns by Julie Gammack from her trip to Burlington, Iowa. Next: UAW workers on strike.
Jeff Abell, owner, publisher, layout editor, reporter, and sometimes newspaper carrier of the Burlington Beacon, says he’s also a grief counselor.
When Burlington residents come into his office to subscribe to his upstart newspaper, Abell says it is as if they are ending an abusive relationship or mourning the loss of a deceased loved one. They aren’t talking about a person; they are talking about The Burlington Hawk Eye, one of the oldest newspapers in the state, and a fixture in readers' lives, for as long as they have lived there. The paper is an echo of what it once was.
Abell, 53, understands. He, too, broke up with the paper in 2017 when he took a buyout and left his job with the Burlington Hawke Eye. He joined the staff in 2004 as a reporter.
Stories about the decline of legacy local media are not new, but that doesn’t lessen its impact on towns like Burlington. If journalists aren’t covering the city council, board of supervisors, and other government entities, the area is now described as a ‘news desert.’ And deserts, as we know, cannot sustain much life. So, declining local news can be a serious issue for a community.
Iowa Writers Collaborative colleague Douglas Burns wrote a column published Tuesday about a book in which he is quoted extensively by author Dave Hoekstra; Beacons in the Darkness; Hope and Transformation Among America’s Community Newspapers. Burns was open with the author about how he has contemplated suicide as he tries to keep his family newspaper in Carroll, IA, afloat.
I met Abell an hour before participating in a local potluck in Burlington at the home of David and Susan Beckman. The attendees confirmed what Abell claimed. Local readership is shifting to this upstart alternative paper, but they still aren’t happy about the state of access to local news and information. Abell publishes once a week and has grown to a 16-page paper. A real print product, not just digital. But he has a five-person staff and not enough time in the day to cover all that needs attention.
Still, out of thin air, savings, sweat, and not a lot of sleep, Abell and his wife, Stacey, 43, and reporter Will Smith, have grown the Burlington Beacon from an idea to 1,800 postal subscribers and 2,300 sales when newsstand, single-copy, sales are added. They have accomplished this in one year. Impressive.
While most publications hope to wean readers off print and onto the ubiquitous iPad screen, Abell decided to create a traditional newspaper.
“I believe in my gut,” said Abell, “this area wants and needs a print product.”
Lots of folks thought he was going to fail. How could an upstart newspaper survive when traditional media outlets are imploding?
“Corporate types just don’t understand community journalism,” said Abell. “We put love in each paper.”
And their content is about Burlington and produced locally, not farmed out to a distant hub where stories are cut and pasted from a conglomerate of other papers and slotted in to fill a news hole to justify collecting money for ‘Legals’ and national advertising inserts.
Abell is still not taking money out of it personally yet, but Stacey receives a part-time salary. And he runs a comic and gaming shop next door.
“But we’re doing fine,” said Abell. “It won’t be long before we surpass the Hawk Eye in subscribers.”
And Volume II, issue III is a 16-page broadsheet with stories, mostly produced by Beacon writers, advertisers, TV and church listings, comics, and classifieds.
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Elaine Godfrey grew up in Burlington. She is currently a staff writer for The Atlantic Magazine. In October of 2021, Godfrey published an in-depth look at the demise of her hometown paper:
In the article, she wrote:
For the people of southeastern Iowa, knowing that The Hawk Eye was investigating [this fiasco] was a source of comfort. The paper’s reliable attention made us feel like our little part of Iowa mattered and that we did, too. This is what The Hawk Eye gave us. Back then, we took it for granted.
Zachary Oren Smith of Iowa Public Radio: U.S,’ largest newspaper owner cuts Iowa staff, leaving small papers’ futures in question
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