The Tenacity of a Small Town Newspaper

Mar 3, 2014

For 125 years, four generations of the Sidey family have delivered the news of Adair County.  While many small, independently owned papers perished or became parts of large conglomerates the Adair County Free Press persisted.

According to the new Iowa Public Television documentary, "The Sidey Report: Life and Times of an Iowa Icon," today the Free Press has a circulation of 2,000 with 1,200 subscribers.  Many of the paper's subscribers are no longer live in Adair, but still read the weekly as it is a touchstone to the city of Greenfield and surrounding area.

When taken into account that the Free Press has an over 90% penetration of its community, the modest circulation becomes impressive.  Such a market share would be unimaginable for larger papers like The Des Moines Register or Chicago Tribune.

The Free Press was started in 1889 by father and son, John and E.J. Sidey.  E.J.'s son K.H. Sidey took over the paper in 1938 and under his leadership the Free Press began publishing photos thanks to a darkroom in his home basement.

"They’re really beautiful works of art…they have the proper composition," says June Bower, author of the "The Sidey Collection," a companion book to IPTV's documentary. "The lighting is just excellent." 

Prior to writing the book, Bower worked for several years as a photographer and reporter at the Creston News Advertiser.  About 20 miles away from Greenfield, in the late 1990s the News Advertiser began printing the weekly when the Free Press could no longer afford to publish onsite.

After K.H., his eldest son Ed Sidely helmed the paper and younger son Hugh went to Washington, D.C. Hugh. 

Hugh covered presidency for Time Magazine for several decades and became one of the most respected names in journalism. President George H. W. Bush even delivered the eulogy at his funeral. 

While other siblings might become estranged or bitter due to distance or career success Ed and Hugh remained remarkably close. 

"Ed respected what Hugh did, and Hugh thought Ed worked harder than he did, and did such a wonderful job," explains Ed Sidey's widow Linda Sidey, who now servers as the Free Press's publisher and editor.  "They both were quality, gentlemen journalists and I think we miss a little bit of that today."

Linda Sidey took over the paper after Ed's death in 2008.  She will likely be the last owner to bear the Sidey name. 

However, when she does retire, Linda plans to leave the paper in good hands. "It’s wouldn’t be a conglomerate, it would be family owned. It would be someone who would take care of the staff and the town."

"The Sidey Report" premiers Wednesday, March 5, at 8:30 p.m. on Iowa Public Television.  Below is Charity Nebbe's interview with filmmaker Laurel Bower Burgmaier, June Bower and Linda Sidey.