CLOQUET, MINN. – Launching a print newspaper in the modern era is tough enough without the hassles of an unheated office, no internet service and competition from an established rival in a town of just 12,000 people. But Jana Peterson, editor and co-owner of the Pine Knot News, was undeterred a couple of weeks ago as she drove to Cambridge, Minn., to pick up bundles of the inaugural edition.
“Well, I have a van,” said Peterson, explaining why she personally made the three-hour round trip to the printer while fielding calls on her cellphone from potential advertisers and subscribers.
Starting a community weekly these days may seem as foolhardy as opening a video store. More than one-fifth of the nation’s local dailies and weeklies have closed shop in the past 15 years, according to a new University of North Carolina study. Many others are so-called “ghost newspapers,” with drastically scaled-back staff and editorial content. More than 5 percent of U.S. counties have no paper at all.
But none of those counties — branded as “news deserts” — are in Minnesota or Iowa.
“Midwesterners happen to be pretty heavy readers,” said Lisa Hills, president of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, a trade group that works to support smaller publications. “I really don’t feel like we’re in as dire straits as some other states, just because of the makeup of the people that live here and the makeup of our newspapers.”
Not that local publishers are printing money.
Minnesota has lost 17 percent of its papers since 2003. In August, the Raymond-Prinsburg News put out its last issue, the state’s third weekly to go out of business this year. South Dakota’s numbers are down 10 percent in the past 15 years, while Iowa suffered a 13 percent drop. Owners in those three states blame a significant drop in advertising.
“The erosion [in print advertising] that regional dailies like the Des Moines Register and the Star Tribune felt is starting to trickle down to community papers,” said Art Cullen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning co-owner of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa. “The auto dealer down the street is not running that full-page ad anymore.”
Weeklies aren’t giving up. Jeremy Waltner, publisher of the Freeman Courier in southeast South Dakota, has initiated a campaign to shine the spotlight on local businesses. For the past 10 months, each issue has featured a full-color, full-page ad showing a small-business owner holding a hand-lettered sign: “I Am Local.” Various civic groups in Freeman (population 1,300) donated $12,000 to help pay for the ads.
But Waltner knows that convincing the corner drugstore to eventually pay for ads out of its own cash register won’t be enough to make up for the exodus. In January, readers will have to cough up $75 for a yearly subscription, an increase of $22.
“I can’t believe how many people are accepting it,” said Waltner, who took over the family business two years ago. “Shortly after we announced it, a little old lady came up to me at the grocery store, put her frail hand on top of mine and said, ‘I want you to know, I understand. You have to do what you have to do.’ ”
Love thy neighbor
The relationship that readers have with their community papers can be deeply personal — and profitable.
Storm Lake residents pop into the Times office to pet Peach, the newsroom dog. In the northern Minnesota city of Moose Lake, Star Gazette owner Tim Franklin usually greets three or four subscribers a day who stop by the office to settle their bills or just chew the fat.
While filling in as editor on a recent afternoon, his building manager not-so-gently urged Franklin to return a certain phone call sooner rather than later. “If you don’t call him, he’ll keep calling you back,” she said.
“We know the readers because we’re friends with them,” said Franklin. “Sometimes that makes it easier and sometimes that makes it more challenging.”
Franklin has a financial interest in the new Cloquet paper. He and editor Peterson are part of a group of five who invested less than $15,000 apiece.
During the first planning meeting for the Pine Knot News, managers discussed upcoming stories over cookies and bubbly, and debated whether to bring in rocking chairs for visitors.
Peterson worked as an editor and reporter for the town’s other weekly, the Pine Journal, but quit earlier this year after its operations moved to nearby Duluth, alongside other publications in the Fargo-based Forum Communications chain, which includes the Duluth News Tribune.
“I tried working at home but it’s not my cup of tea,” she said. “I’m not stimulated sitting at my kitchen table. I really missed the spontaneous contact with the community.”
These papers have a folksy, Mayberry-like vibe that appeals to readers who still get excited about their granddaughter’s picture in the sports pages or need to know the schedule of church services. One of the Moose Lake paper’s most buzzed-about stories this year celebrated a couple, both 90, who recently got married. Last month it published a 10-page special edition commemorating the 100th anniversary of the region’s historic fires.
But the best of the bunch don’t shy away from serious journalism. During her time at the Pine Journal, Peterson won several awards for her dogged coverage of the Cloquet City Council’s suspension of the police chief. The Storm Lake Times won a Pulitzer last year for Cullen’s editorials on how Iowa’s farm industry was poisoning lakes and rivers, a series recounted in his new book, “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience and Hope From a Heartland Newspaper.”
“If your claim to fame is primarily reporting on local gossip, you’ve been replaced by Facebook,” said Marshall Helmberger, publisher of the Timberjay, which has been nationally recognized for its tough and thorough coverage of the Boundary Waters region. “If you provide readers good copy, you’re going to keep them.”
The Pine Knot News’ editor hopes to someday match Helmberger’s reputation, but she first has to suffer through some growing pains. Shortly after arriving at the printing press to pick up the 12,000 copies she would deliver to various post offices, she discovered a major error: Several stories dedicated to local elections had been inadvertently replaced by duplicate pages of sports.
“I think people will be forgiving,” she said.