After 110 years, the people of International Falls took their local newspaper for granted. Then it disappeared.
"When you have something that is such a standard in your community, you don't expect it to go away," said Tricia Heibel, president of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. Residents were "shocked," Heibel said, when the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, owner of the International Falls Journal, shut down the paper in June.
"Everybody went into a panic," she said. In "the Falls," a remote city with poor broadband, many people don't have access to the internet. They depended on the printed newspaper for community news, event listings, funeral notices and legal announcements. The library and the museum wondered how they would maintain information for historical purposes.
They didn't have to wonder long. Before a month was up, another newspaper had launched. The Rainy Lake Gazette published its first issue on July 16 and has come out every Friday since.
The new paper is owned by New Jersey-based CherryRoad Media, which publishes about 25 other papers around the country, including the Cook County News-Herald in Grand Marais. Brian Larsen, editor of the News-Herald, said CherryRoad Media inquired about buying the Journal but was rebuffed by its owners, who said it would be easier to simply close it.
Jeremy Gulban, CherryRoad's chief executive, then met with community leaders in International Falls and told them he'd like to start up a new paper. Some in the community had discussed creating some kind of publication, whether online or otherwise, but they quickly saw the advantages of working with an established publisher.
"When Jeremy came in and already had structure behind him and experience, then the other people supported that," Heibel said.
Larsen was the point man in getting the new publication going. With a tight timeline, in addition to his regular duties in Grand Marais, "the whole summer was a blur," he said. Two experienced advertising and business representatives from the Journal joined the new paper, and eventually the Journal's final editor, Laurel Beager, came on board, as well.
The response from the community was "tremendous," Larsen said. After the paper launched, he said, he got about a dozen calls a day from Falls residents saying how glad they were to have a newspaper again.
"It's hard to get work done when you're on the phone all day," he said with a laugh. In a statement, Gulban called the weeks leading to the launch "the most rewarding of my career. To see how the community in International Falls has rallied together to help us get this initiative off the ground validates the importance of community newspapers.
"In speaking with people in the community over the last several weeks, a common theme has been a sense of regret that they took for granted the previous paper would always be there."
The Rainy Lake Gazette is running ahead of projections, with about 1,500 subscribers, Larsen said. International Falls has a population of about 6,500 and Koochiching County has a population of about 12,000. The Gazette also mailed out free issues to about 6,000 homes during its first month of operation.
The new paper has been well received, Heibel said.
"People like it a lot. There seems to be a lot more color, and people enjoy that," she said. "They're pleased to see the content back.
"In a small community like ours, I think people understand the importance and are much more engaged now that it's come back. They realize it could go away."