A group of rural Minnesota newspapers that have been "stripped" by corporate owners in recent years has been bought by a New Jersey-based company that's making a big move into Minnesota.

CherryRoad Media bought seven newspapers from Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper chain. The seven previously were owned by GateHouse Media, another large chain, which merged with Gannett in 2019 and adopted the Gannett name. The deal takes effect Jan. 1. The purchase price has not been revealed.

The papers sold by Gannett are: the Granite Falls Advocate Tribune, the Montevideo American-News, the Redwood Falls Gazette, the Crookston Times, the Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch, the St. James Plaindealer and the Tri-County News in Cottonwood.

The change of ownership was met with cautious optimism by Reed Anfinson, owner of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson and vice president of the National Newspaper Foundation. In a recent column published before the sale was announced, Anfinson harshly criticized Gannett's corporate ownership, accusing it of "gutting" and "stripping" its rural Minnesota news operations.

"They covered no local government bodies at all," he said. "That is the mission of a newspaper. And they abandoned that. They cut the staff in Montevideo, and that is a county seat. They stripped their newspapers down to nothing.

"I'm very hopeful that CherryRoad will do a much better job with these great county seat newspapers and give them back the news they need," Anfinson said. "It was demoralizing to see what has happened."

Jeremy Gulban, CherryRoad's chief executive, said he's excited about the deal and promised readers will see improvements, especially in local news coverage, adding that he plans to beef up staffing.

"Every one of the locations is pretty understaffed at the moment and we definitely want to add more staff," he said.

The path to success, Gulban said, is giving readers more local news.

"These smaller community newspapers just need attention and focus. A big company like Gannett, that's not their business. Their business is larger newspapers, and they realized that."

He said he plans to improve the papers' websites and overall digital services, including streaming. As trusted local institutions, he said, the newspapers will be able to partner with local businesses to create an online marketplace for their communities.

Local editors in each newsroom will have more control over what they report and publish, he said, tailoring the news reports to each community. The newspapers each will have a local office in the community, encouraging more interaction with residents and building relationships.

CherryRoad already owns two newspapers in Minnesota. The company bought the Cook County News-Herald in 2020, and earlier this year it launched a newspaper in International Falls, the Rainy Lake Gazette, after the International Falls Journal closed after publishing for 110 years. CherryRoad also owns about 25 newspapers in other states.

Sarah Bunich is editor of the St. James Plaindealer. She's also the news reporter, the sports reporter, the features reporter and the copy editor. In short, she's a one-woman news operation. Bunich, a recent graduate of St. Cloud State University, said she welcomes the change of ownership.

"I'm really excited for it," she said. "We want to open the office back up, have the community come in, pay their bills and talk to you." Bunich said she hopes to add a sports reporter to the staff, freeing her to do more local news reporting.

"CherryRoad is very invested in bringing back the small town papers, not having it feel so corporate," she said. "Keeping the local papers alive is going to be a great thing. It's going to be a fun year."