Can Neighborhood Newspapers Survive?
This illustration appeared on the final issue of the Southwest Journal in December. of the Southwest Journal in December. Wacso

Can Neighborhood Newspapers Survive?

People may be at home, but that doesn't mean their local rag is thriving.

The pandemic was fatal for many community newspapers. After three decades in business, the Southwest Journal folded at the end of 2020, pummeled by the loss of advertising dollars as neighborhood businesses struggled. Several suburban titles— the Bulletin in Woodbury, the Hastings Star Gazette, Eden Prairie News, and Minnetonka’s Lakeshore Weekly News—all shut down shortly after Covid hit last year.

Despite casualties, two venerable publishers are still standing.

Southside Pride newspaper front pageLast year the St. Paul-based Villager (once known as the Highland Villager) started asking readers to shell out $59.88 for 26 editions per year. That works out to $4.99 per month. “It’s the cost of a cup of coffee,” says Michael Mischke, publisher and owner.

But it’s also a tougher sell.

“It’s a very difficult thing for a paper that’s been free since 1953 to begin asking for subscriptions when I’m still forced to [home] deliver for free for the benefit of our advertisers,” says Mischke. “[But] the advertising dollars just don’t support it anymore, and that was the case even before Covid.”

Mischke says that he started to see a gradual decline in advertising dollars in 2006 as everyone was gravitating to the internet. He says revenue was down 20 percent in 2020, but he adds that 2018 and 2019 were already challenging years.

The Villager is approaching 2,500 paying subscribers, but Mischke says that he’d ideally like to see 20,000. At its peak, the Villager was printing 60,000 copies. Today it’s closer to 42,000 after cutting distribution in sections of Minneapolis and Mendota Heights to focus on core neighborhoods between the Mississippi River and downtown St. Paul.

The Southside Pride newspaper was founded in 1991 just a few months after the Southwest Journal started. Founder Ed Felien wears many hats—owner, publisher, editor, and columnist—and operates on a shoestring budget.

Read more from this issue

“We’re still alive. We’re a bit more of a modest operation than Southwest Journal was,” says Felien. “We’re on the poor side of the tracks so our sights are a little bit lower.”

Felien publishes three different monthly editions aimed at different neighborhoods: Powderhorn, Nokomis, and Riverside. His print runs are small, between 5,000 and 6,000 copies per edition.

His 2020? “It was a little bit worse than 2019,” says Felien. “We gave away free ads in February and March. Our advertisers were hurting as bad as we were.”

But Felien is optimistic about an economic rebound in 2021. “There’s going to be a slow rebirth,” he says. “We’re coming back.” Felien is now 82 years old and has no plans to slow down. “Not yet,” he says.

Mischke makes it clear that the future of the Villager is uncertain: “We’ve lost so many advertisers to closures already. It’s within the power of our readers to keep us in business.”

This story appeared in the February/March issue under the same headline.