A two-story, brick building lies empty. Only darkness appears through the cracks on the shuttered windows. Large, white letters reading The Montezuma Record span the building’s exterior.
In a white, one-room building across the road, a short, 77-year-old woman named Shirley Dunham shuffles amid stacks of newspapers. Static, yellow light pours through the windows. A hand-painted, wooden sign reading “The Record” hangs from the banister.
Dunham is the last remaining employee of The Montezuma Record, an independent newspaper covering the 1,500 residents of Montezuma, Iowa, since 1924. Except for the help of a small number of occasional volunteers, Dunham writes, photographs, edits, manages and designs the Record by herself. She has been the only employee since the previous executive editor, Shirley Dunham’s husband, Charles Dunham, died in 2018.
For 50 years, Shirley Dunham and the rest of the staff had operated the Record out of the brick building. But as readership of the newspaper declined, the Record lost the funds to pay for heating and cooling in the larger building. Four years ago, Dunham switched premises to the white building.
The Record boasts a circulation of 600. Every Tuesday, Dunham sends the week’s paper to the nearest printing press, located an hour north in Marshalltown. On Wednesday, the publisher mails the copies to Dunham’s house in nearby Deep River, population 250. Dunham’s son drops the paper’s off at the Montezuma post office and newsstands in town.
When Dunham took over as executive editor in 2018, the paper had been losing money. Dunham could only continue the the Record even with its minimal profits because she survives off of biweekly Social Security checks, she said. The Record continued to operate at a loss into 2019.
When the pandemic hit in 2020 and the U.S. economy contracted, many newspapers shut down, a fate which threatened the Record.
Even when newspapers didn’t close, newspapers laid off staff, reduced print circulation and lost revenue. The only other independent newspaper in the county, The Grinnell Herald-Register, struggled to keep staff employed. If it hadn’t been for financial assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program, the Herald-Register would likely have gone defunct, said the paper’s managing editor Peggy Elliott.
Yet in 2020 and 2021, the Record’s revenue climbed, making over $19,000 in each year.
Dunham said more businesses in Montezuma, Deep River and other nearby areas had requested advertisements to publicize their businesses in search of new buyers when the economy shrunk.
Local nonprofits have also kept the revenue stream alive during the pandemic. Montezuma Lions Club member Roger Allen, 83, said much of the Lions Club relies on the Record for advertising and that the Record is important for the club’s publicity in Montezuma, even though they’re increasingly reliant on Facebook to send announcements.
“And we think it’s important that our community still has a newspaper,” said Allen, “We try to support it just on that principle.”
Dunham’s subscriber base expanded as well. She said she thinks that with more residents staying at home, some began to gravitate towards the Record to stay up-to-date with local news, but she can’t be certain.
Nineteen thousand dollars would not be enough for most newspapers to survive on. Dunham still lives off Social Security checks, she said, and her volunteers are paid with cookies and coffee.
“If I had to pay a staff, I couldn’t be doing it,” she said.
Every Thursday, Friday and Monday afternoon Dunham compiles legal notices, advertisements, photos and articles into an eight-page broadsheet newspaper. She leaves the creation of the front page for Tuesday morning, right before her 2 p.m. deadline, keeping the space open for the most recent news of the day.
On some Tuesday mornings, if Dunham doesn’t have stories for the front page, she picks up her DSLR camera and heads out the door. She wanders east on Main Street, past the Montezuma State Bank and Yolanda’s Tacos, a local Mexican restaurant, searching for a story or an image that will captivate readers. One winter morning, she snapped several photographs of the season’s first snowfall, and her front page came to fruition with these large photos above the fold.
Not all news from Montezuma can be captured as quickly as photographs of snow. On May 27, 2021, 11-year-old Montezuma resident Xavior Harrelson went missing. He was last seen near his trailer home earlier that afternoon. In the weeks after his disappearance, hundreds of residents from Montezuma and the surrounding areas searched for him and raised over $35,000 for the family. On September 30, a farmer found Harrelson’s body in a soybean field north of town.
Little information on the circumstances surrounding Harrelson’s death circulates online. The investigation is still ongoing.
Dunham covered this case. She reported from the field during his disappearance and discovery. She’s since shifted her attention away from the case, due to its standstill status, but keeps an eye on it today. Regardless of when the next update comes, Dunham said, she stands ready.
Dunham said she receives phone calls from readers criticizing her work when she makes mistakes, but that the fulfillment she finds in producing the Record keeps her staying, despite the criticism.
“It’s when you’re doing something you enjoy. That’s what makes a difference, even with the drawbacks of the paper,” Dunham said. She feels an inexplicable tug toward her work, she explained. She can’t let go.
Dunham will emphatically state that she has at least another ten years’ left at the Record before retirement. When that time comes, she said she intends to sell the Record to a publishing organization like Gannett Company or another publishing house.
In 2000, Gannett Company had purchased the other Montezuma newspaper, called The Montezuma Republican, and The Brooklyn Chronicle, from nearby Brooklyn, Iowa. Gannett merged both papers in 2009 due to declining circulation. The new paper, called The Poweshiek County Chronicle-Republican, does not circulate widely in Montezuma.
“I would love for it to stay at least in the community. But it probably won’t. They’ll probably combine it,” she said. Her one condition when she offers the Record to buyers is that, if the newspaper is merged, at least one full page must always be allocated to coverage of Montezuma.
“Of course right now no one is interested in buying a newspaper,” said Dunham.
She added that some smaller newspaper publishers have tried and failed to purchase the Record in the past. One bidder set the price at $5,000. Dunham said she found that laughable, given the Record’s positive revenue trend.
If Dunham cannot find a buyer, the Record faces likely obsoletion. In Iowa, 62 small newspapers closed between 2004 and 2019, and more have shut down since then. The U.S. has lost a quarter of its newspapers since 2005 and could lose up to a third by 2025, according to a report by Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative. A fifth of the nation is at risk of losing access to local news or has already lost its local media, the report says.
Dunham resists suggestions to shift the Record to a web-based model. She wouldn’t want articles to lie behind a paywall, she said, but without an incentive for readers to purchase the Record in print, she worries circulation will drop. Dunham also said she doesn’t like the internet and she wouldn’t use it if she didn’t need to. She suspects some of the Record’s subscribers feel the same.
“I never thought it would come to the point that the papers couldn’t make it,” Dunham said. “And it’s just progress I guess, in a way. I just want to hang on to the past.”