A good-news story about Iowa newspapers

DENISON — Gordon Wolf was everywhere in Denison.

Until he wasn’t.

A trusted newspaper editor, a 24-year veteran of the Denison Bulletin-Review, a bespectacled journalist fond of button-down short-sleeve shirts that date to an earlier time of ink-stained work when most newspapers had their own presses, a reporter with the ever-present camera around his neck, Wolf built a considerable brand as the chronicler of City Council and other meetings, and parades and new business openings, and all that makes life, well, life in this western Iowa city.

Just weeks ago, though, Wolf saw his career ended abruptly in a major reshuffling of the newspaper by its owner, the chain Lee Enterprises.

Having started in 1999 in Denison, Wolf’s Bulletin-Review career came to a close April 21.

His newspaper run could have ended there, like those of so many thousands of journalists caught in the hurricane-force challenges facing American newspapers.

Amid the devastation in the newspaper industry, this is a bright opening brimming with potential.

But over the last 17 years, Wolf developed a working relationship with Lorena Lopez, the owner/editor of Denison-based La Prensa Iowa Spanish-language newspaper. They covered the same events, from high school graduations to local government meetings to joint interviews with dozens of presidential candidates — from Barack Obama in 2007 to Nikki Haley just weeks ago.

So Wolf’s plight turned into inspiration for Lopez. The formidable editor of the Spanish-language paper, distribution of 6,000, is expanding its coverage, and launching a weekly paper in English in the Crawford County seat — The Denison Free Press. Lopez hopes to use the skills of talented, experienced Western Iowa journalists who have lost jobs to downsizing.

Lopez and Wolf share a passion for Denison and its orbiting communities. Now they will share a newsroom.

Wolf plans to join La Prensa full time, continuing to cover issues in Denison and surrounding communities in Crawford County with funding from the non-profit Western Iowa Journalism Foundation. Wolf’s coverage will be published in English and Spanish on La Prensa’s platforms, a move that will elevate the 100%-Latino-owned publication in Denison, one of Iowa’s more diverse cities as the long-standing English newspaper experiences the effects of a significant downsizing.

“I’ve written about and photographed numerous individuals running for national and state offices, but I believe the most important people I’ve interviewed are those who go out of their way to make life better for others,” Wolf said. “Over the years I developed a kind of philosophy, or mission statement, about the purpose for my career – to inform readers about their communities, to allow people to learn more about where they live and work and themselves, to help them realize that they are the lifeblood of their communities, and that what they believe and do matters.”

With a $25,000 challenge grant from nationally recognized philanthropists Ron and Jane Olson, Crawford County, Iowa natives — Ron, from Manilla, and Jane, Denison — the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation now has more than $30,000 toward $48,000 for expanded coverage in La Prensa.

Lopez says it is essential that government-accountability, community and feature reporting continues to be published in English and Spanish in the Denison area.

“Gordon’s love of the community is admirable and he informs people in his outstanding local journalism,” Lopez said. “He reports the facts. He doesn’t confuse people. People respect him a lot in the community. We are so fortunate that he decided to stay in a rural community and inform the community. We were friendly competitors, but always supportive of each others’ work. It will be an honor to work with Gordon.”

Wolf, a graduate of Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa, previously worked as a journalist in Sioux Center, another western Iowa community.

Denison is for all intents and purposes a majority-minority city, one of the more immigrant-rich reaches of Iowa. I’ve followed Gordon and Lorena’s work for two decades and they are among the more committed community journalists in Iowa. This joining of forces, of sources and trust and credibility and their networks and deep, hard-earned local knowledge, will turn La Prensa, which is freely distributed in Denison and other communities with strong Latino influences, into even more of a force in Iowa journalism.

Historic populations of Iowans will learn more about immigrants and more recent Iowans will be connected to the generations of local folks who built western Iowa. Amid the devastation in the newspaper industry, this is a bright opening brimming with potential.

Lee Enterprises did not respond to a call for comment on this story.

This column was republished from Iowa Capital Dispatch under a Creative Commons license. Burns is an Iowa journalist whose family operated the Carroll Times Herald for 93 years. He is the founder and director of development for the non-profit Western Iowa Journalism Foundation.