Inside the Fight Minnesota’s Community Newspapers Face to Survive in the Digital Age
Reed Anfinson, the publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News, a weekly newspaper in west-central Minnesota, often sits alone in the audience at civic board meetings. At one gathering of the Benson City Council, he recalls, the city manager introduced the council members and staff workers to a consultant who was listening on the other end of a conference call. Then, looking across several rows of chairs that sat empty, save for Anfinson, he added, “and the newspaper, representing the people of Benson.”
Meager attendance at public hearings is nothing new, especially when the topics can be as mundane as fixing streets or approving parade routes. Often, the local newspaper reporter is the only one there to bear witness to the public’s business. And if no reporters are around, Anfinson often asks, “Who will hold power accountable?”
That’s still a rhetorical question here in Swift County, where the Monitor-News covers as many of those public meetings as it can and remains an important source of information. Like many small-town papers, it has some built-in advantages – namely, loyal readers and little competition from other media.
“For a lot of people, the newspaper is still the only way they learn about the things that are happening in their communities,” said Lisa Hills, the executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, which represents about 320 papers, most of them small weeklies – often referred to as “community newspapers” – like the Monitor-News. “Newspapers are really vital for their communities. A lot of times the vibrant communities are the ones that have a strong newspaper. That’s not a coincidence.”
Yet the Benson paper, like many in the most rural parts of the state, struggles to hang on as populations shift and subscriptions fall off. Digital advertising generates only a fraction of the revenue at small papers in Minnesota – 5 percent or less at most weeklies, in Anfinson’s estimation.
Indeed, while daily newspapers have embraced the digital age, posting their content on slick websites – and, increasingly, charging readers to access it – most community newspapers get by on an older model, relying on subscriptions and print advertising dollars from local businesses. For many, websites remain mostly a complement to the ink-on-paper editions.
Anfinson argues that in this kind of digital-only world, newspapers across Minnesota – and the country – will begin to disappear. And that worries him – not only for his paper, but for the vitality of small towns.
“What happens to rural Minnesota if you lose all of your papers?” he asks.
A family legacy
Founded in 1886, the Monitor-News published twice a week through the mid-1980s, delivering the paper – through the mail, like most community papers – to 3,000 subscribers every Wednesday and Friday.
Today, subscriptions are down to about 2,000 – a trend that has matched the decline of the county’s population, which has dropped by a third since its peak of nearly 16,000 people in 1950. (Swift County has about the same number of people today as it did in 1890, after it had been largely settled by immigrants and homesteaders). About 50 people have digital subscriptions, getting the paper on their computers in PDF files.
The Monitor-News has been in the Anfinson family since 1962, when Reed’s father, Ronald, and an investor from Glenwood bought the newspaper. Reed and his five siblings got an education in newspapering in the backroom of the paper; he remembers stuffing inserts into the main section, glycerin covering his fingertips. “Probably a non-OSHA-approved site,” he jokes.
Anfinson went to the University of Minnesota, intending to study marine biology, but dropped that plan his sophomore year and enrolled in the university’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication (now the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication). He graduated in 1977, worked for the DFL caucus at the state Legislature, among other jobs, and then returned to Benson to help his father run the paper. He thought it would be temporary, but he stayed. In 1990, he and his brother, Rob, bought the paper. Reed bought out his brother’s share in 1996 and has been running it ever since.
The Swift County Courthouse is one of a number of buildings in Benson, Minnesota, on the National Register of Historic Places. (Creative Commons/J. Stephen Conn)
Besides Benson, the Monitor-News covers a handful of small towns and villages in the county, only one of which, Appleton, has a population of more than 1,000 people. Swift County has two other community papers: the Appleton Press and the Kerkhoven Banner. (A daily in nearby Willmar, the West Central Tribune, also covers some news in Swift County).
The April 4 edition of the Monitor-News exemplified the intense localness of community newspapering. It included a story on the pending closure of a biomass power plant in Benson; a report on candidates for a state legislative seat; and a batch of school news, including updated schedules for sports teams delayed by this spring’s cold and snowy weather. The edition also included two pages of public notices and another two pages of classified ads.
Like many small-town publisher-editors, Anfinson writes many of the stories in the paper, takes photos and pens a weekly column. (The subject of his April 4 column: a tariff recently imposed on newsprint imported from Canada, a policy that has increased the cost of production at newspapers around the country). He has five employees, including a reporter who covers news and sports, and a graphic designer.
Most weekly newspapers in rural Minnesota remain privately owned, though some have been purchased by media companies like Forum Communications Co., which is based in Fargo, and New York-based GateHouse Media.
Anfinson has avoided such a move. “I love this job,” he said, sitting at his desk in his office in downtown Benson. “What I worry about is what replaces me. I want to find a person committed to the community – not a corporation that could strip this place of its identity.”
Finding a niche
Marshall Helmberger has been running the Timberjay, a community newspaper with editions in the towns of Ely, Tower and Orr in the far northeast corner of the state, since 1990. The paper, which has a circulation of about 3,500 (counting all editions), has developed a voice on the environmental and conservation issues that are key to the outdoors lifestyle in that part of state, a popular entry point to the famed Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness. An April report, for instance, looked at concerns expressed by environmentalists over the financial viability of a proposed PolyMet Mining Co. project.
Helmberger described the Timberjay, which also has about 150 digital-only subscribers, as “holding its own.”
“The key, really, for newspapers to be successful is to provide additional value and services and publications – to find the right niche,” he said. “Just doing a newspaper right now is pretty tough.” To that end, the Timberjay also publishes magazines, including GO Lakes Country, a summer visitors’ guide.
Chuck Hunt, the managing editor at the Faribault County Register in far southern Minnesota, said local demographics tell a huge part of the story.
“My feeling on small weeklies is that they kind of follow the trend of their town, so if a town is struggling to keep businesses open and the population declines, then the newspaper follows right along with that,” he said. “The paper is a business in a small town that relies on the support of other businesses in that small town, so that’s probably the biggest issue.”
The Register is based in Blue Earth, a town near the Iowa border with a population of about 3,300 residents – down from a peak of around 4,200 in 1960.
“If there is steady or growing population, if (the paper) is around larger cities – sometimes as a bedroom community – then the paper will generally be healthy,” Hunt said. “If an area has population decline, the paper struggles.”
Some changes in the business model for weeklies may be on the way, however – at least for a handful of papers in Minnesota.
This fall, Forum Communications Co. plans to implement “paywalls” at its daily newspapers, meaning readers will have to pay for digital content. Chairman Bill Marcil Sr. said he expects the company, whose flagship paper is the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, to eventually implement paywalls at its weeklies, too.
“The time is right,” he said. “Society is fed up with irresponsible reporting on social media.” Marcil also said he believes people are more accustomed to paying for Internet content than they were even a few years ago.
He added: “I think, at this point in time, that weekly newspapers probably have a better future compared with dailies. They have little competition and they are local, local, local. People will still buy the weekly newspaper for that local news.”
Location also helps. Some of the company’s strongest Minnesota weeklies are located in lakes country where the population is growing, including the Echo-Press in Alexandria and the Detroit Lakes Tribune, Marcil noted.
Trying to survive
As his children grew up, Anfinson began to get more involved in media groups, serving on the board of the Minnesota Newspaper Association for nine years and as president of the organization for one. (His brother Mark, a prominent First Amendment attorney in the Twin Cities, has represented the MNA).
In 2011-2012, he served as president of the National Newspaper Association, giving talks to worried press groups in Boston; Destin, Fla.; and other places. The big issue, not surprisingly, was how newspapers could make it in the digital age. Currently, he serves on the board of the association’s foundation – the educational wing of the organization. “We talk a lot about survival,” he said.
He also served on the Minnesota News Council, a now-defunct organization that vetted complaints about the media, and once won the John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award, presented by a watchdog group called the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, for championing unfettered access to public information.
Anfinson has written a long, unpublished essay – borrowing from his columns and speeches – that outlines his concerns about the direction of community newspapering. He has thought about putting those thoughts into an application for grant money from the National Newspaper Association Foundation, money that could be used to fund a national effort to highlight the importance of newspapers.
Sometimes those ideas find their way into the pages of the Monitor-News. For instance, in his column on the newsprint tariff, he wrote, “What we have learned from communities that have lost their newspapers is that fewer people vote. Citizens know less and less about who is running for office and what direction those in office are taking their community.”
He added: “Without our newspaper, we don’t have the stories that draw us together as a community with a shared sense of responsibility and purpose.”
Last year, to help mark the 150th anniversary of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, more than 200 newspapers across the state published blank front pages as a kind of silent protest over the plight of the industry. The Monitor-News took part in the “whiteout,” Anfinson said, “to illustrate to our communities what they'd face should their local newspaper disappear.”
In 2014, Anfinson broadened his newspaper reach when he and his wife, Shelly, bought the Grant County Herald – a community paper in Elbow Lake, a small town between Fergus Falls and Alexandria – later merging it with the Herman-Hoffman Review. Reed Anfinson is also a partner in Quinco Press, a Lowry company that prints about 30 small newspapers.
Those ventures reveal a faith, against the odds, in community newspapering. “I have a passion for it, and that passion has grown over the years,” he said.
The local voice
Benson Mayor Terri Collins, a teacher who grew up reading the Monitor-News (and whose grandparents live next door to Anfinson), said she can count on Anfinson being somewhere in the room at public meetings – taking notes, “keeping us in check.”
“Every time you are talking, there he is, typing away,” she said.
Collins sees the Monitor-News as the historical repository for the community, making Anfinson its curator of sorts. A recent issue included photos of every student graduating from Benson High School, plus information on each student’s future plans. “If you have kids in school, you subscribe to the paper,” she said.
In May, the Benson School Board agreed to put a levy referendum before voters in August, seeking $26.3 million for additions and fixes to school buildings, including elementary school classrooms, a performing arts center and child care facilities. The district’s outdated buildings include a junior high auditorium built in 1928 and a 1950 junior high classroom building.
Anfinson, of course, was at the meeting. (This time, with a big project on the line, so were some residents – about 20 or so).
Anfinson plans to support the levy request in his column, long believing that the school system is one of the most important drawing points for new residents to Benson, which has a population of about 3,200. (When the agricultural manufacturer Case IH, which employs about 350 people at a plant in town, looks for executives, one of the first things candidates want to know about is the state of the schools, he said).
Collins said she values the institutional memory of the paper and the context it can bring to issues percolating in the community, including the pending levy request. Being in politics, she has also come to appreciate the letters-to-the-editor section as a place for an informed, civil discussion.
A recent Anfinson column, criticizing county officials for unveiling preliminary plans for a multimillion-dollar law enforcement complex while the community was considering the school levy request, “really got some people riled up,” she said. But it was a thoughtful commentary on an important issue, she said.
So, what would happen if the Monitor-News went away?
“I don’t know what we would do without a newspaper,” Collins said, pausing to add: “I do worry about that.”