Solid local reporting, regular coverage of business openings and ribbon cuttings, a trusted presence for decades in Washington County: None of it was enough to keep the Bulletin going when the pandemic hit.
A weekly newspaper covering Woodbury, Cottage Grove and the county's southern communities, the 33-year-old Bulletin was done in by an advertising slump inflamed by the coronavirus, its owners said. They shut it down last week.
"It's very sad," said Woodbury Mayor Anne Burt, who published an op-ed piece in the paper's final edition. "I've been a fan of local news my whole life."
A wave of metro-area newspapers, already dealing with the migration of advertising to websites and news to social media, have closed this spring as newsrooms saw a steep drop-off in revenue brought on by the pandemic. The losses include a weekly that first published when Minnesota was still a territory.
The story is much the same in greater Minnesota and across the country, according to media analyst Owen Van Essen, a Minnesota native who is president of Dirks, Van Essen, Murray and April, a Santa Fe, N.M.,-based newspaper industry merger and acquisition firm.
"There are 200 to 300 small, weekly newspapers that will not be around by the end of the year" nationally, Van Essen said. And as many as 500 newspapers will reduce their publication schedule this year, he said.
The last issue of the Bulletin came out May 6, followed a day later by the last issue of the Hastings Star Gazette. Other papers recently shutting down their presses include the Eden Prairie News, the Lakeshore Weekly News, the Lake County News Chronicle in Two Harbors, the Jasper Journal in southwestern Minnesota and the Osakis Review in central Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
Several other papers have folded operations into neighboring cities' journals or slashed the number of days published.
A long struggle
The pandemic is partly to blame, but many newspapers had been struggling for years. Ad revenue for all U.S. newspapers was $48.7 billion in 2000, but by 2017 it had fallen to $16.5 billion, according to the Pew Research Center. In that time, Google and Facebook became advertising behemoths.
Only last October, the 82-year-old Lillie Suburban Newspapers abruptly closed its chain of weekly newspapers covering several St. Paul suburbs.
The Hastings paper and the Bulletin were both owned by RiverTown Multimedia, a subsidiary of Fargo-based Forum Communications. RiverTown Publisher Neal Ronquist told readers in a note published last month that advertising revenue was already declining when the arrival of COVID-19 upended their business model.
"Advertising revenue accounts for approximately 70% of the revenue our paid newspapers generate," he wrote.
For Burt, mayor of a city of 72,000 that now has no local paper, the Bulletin's closure didn't come as a surprise. "Their distribution had really fallen off over the years," she said.
The Woodbury paper had combined with its sister paper, the Cottage Grove Bulletin, and in recent months had been publishing stories from other papers owned by the same company. "We'd be getting news from New Richmond and Red Wing," Burt said.
The head of the local Chamber of Commerce said she was hopeful that Bulletin reporter Hannah Black will land a good job somewhere else. "She is really, really good," said Laurie Staiger, president of the Woodbury chamber. "They had some great talent."
The wave of closings leaves no regular newspaper coverage in Hastings, where the Star Gazette first started publishing in 1857, a year before Minnesota gained statehood.
"This is a paper that has followed the people in this town, families, for generations," said Betsy Balsanek, a Hastings resident. "It's devastating."
Joe Balsanek, Betsy's husband and a Hastings City Council member, said he's worried the city has become part of a growing "news desert" in which local news coverage doesn't exist in any organized form.
And for what it's worth, he said he's not buying RiverTown's explanation. "The conglomerate that owns them used the pandemic as an excuse to save money," he said.
Hastings has at least one local media company left, radio station KDWA on the AM and FM dials. Owners Dan and Barb Massman said they have seen more traffic to their website since the Star Gazette closed, but Dan said he's not happy about the paper's death. "I think anytime a community loses media, it's a loss," he said.
Massman regularly puts out a one-page promotional paper, the Tri-County Reporter, with some news nuggets on one side and local sports on the other. It's available at local businesses but most of the news he gathers goes out on the air. For that, he's looking to hire another reporter.
An act of 'final surrender'
With the largest companies in the newspaper industry riding out a turbulent year, former Minnesota newspaper owner Arlin Albrecht said the business today is "probably as bad as it's ever been." His Red Wing Publishing Co. owned weeklies throughout Minnesota before he sold many of them to Forum Communications in 2001.
Two months ago, just before the pandemic hit in Minnesota, Albrecht sold his remaining 11 community newspapers to MediaNews Group, which owns the St. Paul-based Pioneer Press and more than 100 newspapers nationwide.
MediaNews shut down two of those papers, the Eden Prairie News and the Lakeshore Weekly News, on April 30. The regional publisher for MediaNews, Greg Mazanec, declined to comment on the closings.
Laurie Hartmann, general manager for the Lakeshore and Eden Prairie papers, wrote in a column last month that MediaNews would continue to publish many of its other newly acquired papers, including those in Chanhassen, Chaska, Shakopee, Jordan, Prior Lake and Savage.
Albrecht said he was saddened to learn about the closures but said he might have been forced to make the same decision. He said his sale to MediaNews was an act of "final surrender."
"The local newspapers now are in a situation where I'm not sure whether they're committing suicide or they're being murdered," probably both, he said. Staff cuts will save money but ultimately make the paper less relevant for readers, while ongoing advertising pressures inflict more harm, he said.
Albrecht began his career as a student journalist at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls before building one of the largest newspaper chains in the state. He said the loss of the Hastings paper, an award-winner for years, was the most discouraging development.
Albrecht recently received a call from his former Hastings business partner, now retired and living in Arizona.
"He said he wouldn't even know where to send his own obituary," Albrecht said.