Newsprint Blues

Newsprint Blues

Greater Minnesota's community newspapers are in trouble. Can anything save them?

It’s been a rough year for Minnesota’s community newspapers. The Byron Review, Dodge Center Star Herald, and the 121-year-old Warroad Pioneer have shut their doors in the last year. And the Kasson-based Dodge County Independent and Blooming Prairie-based Steele County Times say they are on life support.

In an effort to avoid a similar fate to that of the other three publications, the papers launched a GoFundMe campaign in late April. Advertising director Annie Anderson says the papers—both owned and published by journalist Rick Bussler—have long struggled financially.

“I think people forget newspapers are a business of the community. We’re trying to make them understand if they don’t support us, whether it’s through advertising or subscriptions, they’re not going to have a newspaper,” says Anderson. “We’re pleading, ‘Help us help you.’ ”

Though more subscriptions would help, the papers do have a steady subscriber base—the closures of the nearby Review and Herald brought their count to about 4,000. The main source of financial woes, says Anderson, has been a loss in advertising dollars, citing the closure of regional discount big-boxer Shopko.

Then there’s Facebook.

Ken Doctor, founder of news business analysis firm Newsonomics, says overall advertising dollars are down 65 percent from 20 years ago, but the way Google and Facebook have duopolized the remaining advertising represents the No. 1 source of the nationwide decline of newspapers. Still, Doctor says newspapers are not blameless.

“They’re on a suicidal path where they’re losing subscriptions, laying off staff, so the product is less, but they’re raising prices,” says Doctor. He suggests newspapers ramp up digital products and look at alternative financing structures, including private owners with deeper pockets or consolidations and nonprofit ownership.

Such options have been explored but are difficult to effect in the short term. For now the papers are hoping a GoFundMe campaign can help raise $50,000, which Anderson says would keep the papers afloat another six months to a year. As of late July, the campaign had drawn $1,740 from 22 donors.

But the campaign isn’t just about saving the papers. It’s also about generally calling attention to the issue: Community newspapers need more support. “We do believe in this paper, we do believe in this community, and we believe in what we’re doing,” says Anderson. “You have to do something bold to get people talking. Because once people start talking, then people start listening.”