Another birthday at Muddy River

MUDDY-RIVER-REVIEW

And that’s the way it was …

From 1962 until 1981, those were the words I and millions of others heard.  With those words broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite ended his CBS Evening News for those 19 years.

A couple of years after his retirement, I was in an elevator at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.  In walked Walter Cronkite.  We chatted on the ride up and I said, “We miss you.”  He smiled, shook my hand, and replied, “I miss you too.”

It’s that sense of connection – we the public and the journalists who bring us the news – why Muddy River News is thriving as we reach another year.

On April 29, we celebrate three years of operations.  We are now not just Muddy River News but also Muddy River Sports and Muddy River TV+.  What’s next … that’s our secret!

Out of curiosity …

How many of you look at Muddy River News or Sports or TV+?

Every week?

Every day?

One local media outlet asserts it is the “news leader.”  I’m not convinced that’s still the case – whatever “news leader” really means in the fabric of modern media.  Today we don’t look to one source for news and information, but a wide range of sources.  Muddy River News is one.

Just think:

In the past year – April 25, 2023 to April 25, 2024 – on Muddy River News … there’s been:

  • 8.98 million page views 
  • 1.98 million unique IP addresses
  • More than 2,000 regular viewers from Canada, England, Germany, Australia, Ireland, Sweden, Indonesia and India.
  • After Quincy/Hannibal/Chicago/St. Louis axis … the most popular users by city are Dallas and New York 
  • Users by gender: 50.6 percent female, 49.4 percent male
  • Users are mostly even among ages 55-64 (82,000 users), 35-44 (77,000 users), and 45-54 (76,500 users)

That’s not all.  There’s also Muddy River Sports. This past year:

  • 1.58 million page views
  • 655,911 unique IP addresses
  • Users by gender: 35.1 percent female, 64.9 percent male

And Muddy River TV+ is ever expanding in popularity as well.

Muddy River News stories even have been picked up around the globe.

These statistics have demonstrated a more than a quadrupling of success since our first year of operations.

Decline in Local Journalism

So, why is Muddy River News important?

Our area has been blessed over the years with media galore – television, radio, and importantly a daily newspaper.  Rather amazing considering our size.  But things have changed.  Our community isn’t alone.

A recent research project at Northwestern University provided these statistics:

  • More than half of all counties in the United States either have no or very limited access to reliable local news.
  • Since 2005 a third of the country’s newspapers have shut down – some 2,900 – and most of these are in small and mid-sized communities like ours.  
  • In 2023 alone, two and half newspapers a week have closed.
  • The shuttering of newspapers has resulted in the loss of employed journalists, some 43,000 – more than the size of Quincy – in the last 20 years.  Illinois is among four states that have seen the greatest attrition.

Where newspapers have survived, they are a shadow of what they were.  With the Internet, broadcast media is suffering as well.

Results of Acquisitions

We can all speculate on what is happening to media.  Many if not most folks no longer get their news from a single newspaper or broadcast channel.  We graze a smorgasbord of many sources and use multiple platforms – written, video, podcasts, social media, and others.

That supposed “choice” is hallow.  The reality is that 95% of all news outlets are owned by six corporations, each with its own agenda, political bent, and message.  News is repackaged.  The media giants expect the local folks to drink their bathwater mostly unconcerned about local needs.  

When I was in law school, I had a job driving a beer truck in the blue-collar areas of the Quad Cities.  Interesting experience!  I wanted to get to know the products.  I asked about two beers I hadn’t heard of.  One was called “Jack’s Brew” or something like that.  The other, “Hauf Brau”.  I asked the difference.  Answer:  The label!  Some folks like a German beer and some do not.  Ha. That’s the news now … same agenda … different label.

As large media groups acquire smaller and local outlets, so goes local news.  Notice how there are fewer and fewer local stories.  Notice how reporters are no longer “from” the local media but provide stories “for” a news outlet.  These stories are seldom generated here and now, but somewhere for who knows, repackaged for local viewers.  

Despite the resources of media giants, local coverage shrinks when they take over local media.  The loss is 25 percent and more.  There are fewer truly local stories and fewer local reporters.  Local news is too expensive and too little revenue generating. 

A major exception locally is an icon like Chris Duerr.  But I’d challenge you to name any or many others outside of Muddy River News.

Even when there is local media, they do not always evolve.  

The Herald-Whig at one time was a truly fine daily newspaper with a large following and, I suppose, still does its best.  Still, according to published reports, when I returned to Quincy in 1974 its circulation neared 36,000.  By 2019, the circulation had dropped to less than 14,000, a greater than 61% drop.  I don’t know what it is today but the U.S. Post Office reports that since the move to mail delivery, about 6,000 copies are sent out from Quincy.  Why?  We each can speculate but clearly legacy newspapers were less and less the way to reach readers. 

Because of these trends, it was unwelcome news when Quincy Media, Inc., sold its local broadcasting resources to Gray Communications, Inc., based in Atlanta.  It also was troubling when the Herald-Whig was jettisoned to Phillips Media Group based in Harrison, Arkansas, which is an arm of a private equity firm based in Florida.  Maybe great folks … but not our folks.  

We feared a loss of true local coverage … where you know the reporters … and can challenge them and their coverage if it gets wacky … and where you can share your opinions and story ideas … and you know what’s fake and what isn’t … and see local issues covered become topics of open conversation … and have media challenge and keep community officials and leaders accountable and in check … and be there for the folks.   Quite simply, as the motto of Muddy River News says: “Our Home.  Our News.

Birthing Muddy River News

And so, just how did Muddy River News come about.

In January 2021, Martha and I were having a cup of coffee perusing the Herald-Whig.  An article announcing that Quincy Media, Inc., was selling its media assets caught my attention.  Turning to Martha, I said what do you think about us trying to acquire the Herald-Whig?

Martha’s career was Senior Marketing Manager for Harris Corporation during its golden years here in Quincy.  She knows how corporations work.   

“It’s already been sold,” she said.  

“What,” I retorted. I explained the story said that they were looking for buyers and don’t we know that everything we read in the Herald-Whig is true.  She said, “Mark my words, they already have their buyers.’  

Not discouraged, I reached out to Bob Gough.  

I knew Bob casually – up to then the target of some of his stories – and asked him what he thought about trying to acquire the Herald-Whig.  He was preoccupied with the mayoral campaign but still took the bait.  We reached out for a meeting with the Quincy Media, Inc., folks, to possibly acquire the Herald-Whig and possibly its local radio station.  A couple of meetings were scheduled but cancelled by them.  The writing was on the wall … Martha was right.

In a Herald-Whig “Dear Reader” article published less than two months later Quincy Media’s president and CEO (Ralph Oakley, February 28, 2021, page 6A) announced that Phillips Media Group was the new owner of the nearly century old newspaper. 

I’m not one to be readily discouraged.  I talked with Bob and reminisced about his earlier efforts in the online media world.  He wasn’t quite ready to commit until after the mayoral campaign but the following week we agreed to take the leap in a new media venture along with my friend and our partner Mike Kinscherff.    

Martha and Bob’s wife Ellen both supported the idea. 

My kids thought digital was the way to go all along. It’s for the best that we didn’t get a chance to acquire the Herald-Whig they thought.  I had my ideas for what would be its future and a bit sorry we never had the opportunity to explore them. 

Muddy River News LLC was legally established on March 4, 2021.  Our ambitious goal was to go live by the end of April – two months later.  On April 29 we officially did.

Our Community Mission

Martha and I met as journalism majors at the University of Illinois  (I know Bob thinks Mizzou is a whole lot better, but remember, we U of I grads helped you get this thing off the ground).

Martha was a journalist for a time, among others, Lifestyle Editor of the Belleville News-Democrat.  Except for student ventures, I never was.  Neither of us, though, lost our love and commitment to quality local journalism – what journalists call the Fourth Estate. 

For us, Muddy River News isn’t a business … it’s a mission.  Just as we have soup kitchens and food pantries and charity clothing stores to feed and clothe the folks, we needed local journalism to fill our minds and soul and be a part of the fabric of the community.  Again, “Our Home.  Our News.” 

Local journalism makes a big difference in a community.  Don’t kid yourself.

Our Successful Beginnings

To what does Muddy River News owe its successful beginnings?  Just a few thoughts.

Bob Gough:

Credit must be given where credit is due!  Bob Gough has made Muddy River News a success. Yes, Bob can be a bit prickly.  Not everyone likes his volley of hard questions when it counts.  Or some of his views.  But he’s one of the best, hard-driven, and knowledgeable journalists I’ve ever encountered – OK, next to his fellow native Missourian Walter Cronkite – but his leadership has made the difference in our success and maintaining high level local news.

$1,700:

Then, there’s that $1,700.   

If I can identify any incident that truly launched Muddy River News to be a contender, it was WGEM’s claim for $1,700.

I wrote an article accompanied by a photo of Rocky Balboa.  The article was titled: “WGEM pounces on digital media newcomer Muddy River News with [a] $1,700 image claim.”  You can search for it on Muddy River News.   

Muddy River News published a story about Tanniger Companies buying the former Illinois State Bank building just a couple of months after Muddy River News launched.  We had not received the news release, but Bob saw it posted online by the Quincy Public Schools Foundation along with a photo of the iconic building.  Bob reached out to the Foundation and asked if there was any reason we couldn’t run the story.  With the answer “no,” we posted the story and the photo assuming the photo was a part of the release.

Unbeknownst to us, the photo was a WGEM photo.  This brought fireworks of emails and calls first by Quincy Media, Inc., and then Gray Media Group after its acquisition of WGEM.   We took down the photo, apologized profusely, and tried to move on.  Not enough for the WGEM folks.  Payment of $1,700 for the unauthorized use of the photo was demanded.  

That photo certainly wasn’t worth that.  We were offered an equivalent photo by the photographer.  Its position was petty in my mind.  Today, probably in theirs as well.  But they insisted on their $1,700.  Do we ignore it?  Or what?

The decision was made to pay it.  Bob walked over the check.  But we pledged to make certain everyone knew it.  That prompted my article.

Just like Rocky, we immediately garnered fans and supporters, some who sent in contributions to help the media startup or better described – upstart.  In less than four months, we were a contender.  If Gray Media Group felt we were worth the bother … we were somebody!  

Journalist Acceptance:

Another key factor in our success has been the reception of Muddy River News by Quincy’s legacy journalists. 

Kind words came from the likes of Les Sachs and Joe Conover and others.  More than that, some came on board or to help like David Adam, Matt Schuckman, Steve Eighinger, and Don Crim, among others.  For them, we were returning local journalism to what they loved rather than the corporate journalism of today.  

We also were able to hatch some new talent in Ashley Conrad, Brittany Boll, Frankie Murphy Giesing, and others.  We continue to grow.

Advertisers:

Our success also is the result of our acceptance by local businesses who advertise on Muddy River News.  They believe we are the place to be.  And we are!  

We are very thankful for this support along with those who don’t advertise but still make financial contributions to support our efforts.  Keep in mind, we may be “for profit,” but we are not yet “profitable.”  So, keep us in mind. Ron Kinscherf and Brittany Boll are handing the majority of our advertising accounts.

We are often asked when we will start a paywall – a pay site.  That’s not going to happen.  Our model relies primarily on advertising.  We have plans to establish a non-profit to support local journalism.  We really doubt … long term … a paywall model would work.  In Quincy, we love sales and discounts and what’s free!  Again, thank you to those who support Muddy River News. 

Balance:  

Another thing we believe has led to our success is that we are providing – at least we think – balanced, reliable, honest, and independent coverage.  We make clear what is reporting and what is opinion.

Some wondered about our focus from the beginning, and some still do … left, right, or out there somewhere?  People have said each of these to me … which means we are being true journalists … they really don’t know.

Martha was with a group not knowing her involvement.  The bent of Muddy River News came up for discussion – right, left, or what?  One in the group who had media connections immediately said: “They’re neither.  They are down the middle.”  News is news.  Opinion is opinion.  

We have left editorial decisions and judgments to Bob and his staff.  I can’t say we like all the stories or some of the things that are covered or better said – uncovered.  Friends might be involved, topics might be unpleasant, and rather not confront the controversial.  Still, they are worthy of coverage and should be.  Most people understand that in the end.  

I have a great deal of respect for one of our advertisers.  A story was published that he found concerning.  It did not reflect well on a group with which he was associated.  Advertising was pulled.  In time, though, he returned as an advertiser.  On reflection, he recognized that it was good that the story was told and improved the operation of the group of which he was a part.  That’s a person who deserves our respect as does a media source – Muddy River News – willing to report in a way that will better the community.

Edginess:

Muddy River News, Muddy River Sports, and Muddy River TV+ are still in their infancy.  We owe our success to our willingness to explore, experiment, and being a little edgy.  Long term, our success depends on providing not only news but entertainment in a way and in a format people will follow.  Not everything will work.  Some will.  We need to try.  And will continue to do so.  We always welcome new ideas.

Closing

As the founding partner of Muddy River News, I am very proud of what we are doing and our contribution to our community.

I again think of Walter Cronkite.  He said, “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”

In much the same way, local journalism is not just important to a community, it is the community.

For Muddy River News:

“Our Home. Our News.”  

Jim Rapp is a practicing attorney and founding partner of Muddy River News LLC. 

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