It was a Monday night in Swift County.
The Benson City Council was meeting.
One person was watching.
From his seat in the back, Reed Anfinson watched council members introduce themselves to an engineer who was on a conference call from the Twin Cities, 2½ hours east. The city manager looked up, scanned the empty seats, and made one last introduction.
“The newspaper,” Anfinson remembers him saying. “Representing the people of Benson.”
At a time when hometown papers are closing, consolidating, or shriveling to online-only, Anfinson — owner, publisher, columnist and City Hall beat reporter for the Swift County Monitor-News — believes Minnesotans have never needed their hometown paper more.
So he’ll be publishing more hometown papers.
Anfinson and his wife, Shelly, who already own weekly newspapers in Benson and Elbow Lake, are buying the neighboring Stevens County Times from Forum Communications.
“I just absolutely believe that community newspapers are fundamental to an informed community,” said Anfinson, a past president of the National Newspaper Association. “If you don’t have an informed community, you don’t have a healthy community.”
Nearly 2,000 American newspapers have vanished in the past 15 years — one out of every five newspapers that was publishing in 2004.
When a community loses its paper, he said, the community starts to unwind. Voter turnout decreases, researchers found, and fewer people run for public office.
“We have less trust in each other without a community newspaper,” Anfinson said.
The Swift County Monitor-News is “the glue. It’s absolutely the glue that holds this community together,” said Benson City Manager Rob Wolfington.
This week’s edition of the Monitor-News came out Wednesday. There are three bylines on the cover and all of them are Anfinson’s. The school board is debating a lease at the civic center. Garbage tipping fees could increase. There’s going to be road work on County Road 35.
This is the week of the Swift County Fair, so Anfinson will spend part of every day at the fairgrounds, getting ready for the eight- to 10-page color edition they’ll put out next week. There’s another City Council meeting next Monday, so that day will start at 7 a.m. and run past 10 p.m. He writes a weekly column, “A Drop of Ink,” named after the Lord Byron quip: a drop of ink to make the world think.
In a county where the majority of residents voted in favor of a ban on same-sex marriage, Anfinson editorialized for legalization.
“It was the right thing to do,” he said, even though he knew it would cost him business and subscribers.
“We lose our community newspapers and we lose that reasonable voice in the community that says, ‘Hey, think about this: Think about the high school graduate who leaves Benson, who’s gay, who knows he can never come home again.’”
Circulation has declined. But so has Swift County’s population.
“We’ve lost a third of our population [since the 1950s],” he said. “That hurts our Main Street, that hurts our schools, and that hurts our newspaper.”
About 2,000 Swift County residents subscribe, but between the library and the copies that get passed around town, the news gets out.
“People still trust and want their community newspaper,” Anfinson said. “When I walk out my front door, I run into people who read my newspaper. ... I know if I’m not truthful, I’m not accurate, I’ll get a call ... ‘Reed, you really blew that.’ ”
But he knows if he’s not sitting in the City Council chambers at 10 p.m. Monday, the odds are, no one else will be.
“There’s no civic knowledge in the community without the community newspaper,” he said.
To keep up with news in the meantime, read the Swift County Monitor-News at swiftcountymonitor.com.
The Anfinsons take ownership of the Stevens County Times on Sept. 1. You can read it here: stevenscountytimes.com.