Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky
Does the reportedly mixed reaction to the death of a small newspaper on the Lake of the Woods show we are in "the golden age of ignorance," as Minnesota Public Radio blogger Bob Collins declared? Maybe, if newspapers can't convince communities that they are an essential civic asset.
|Richard Fausset of The New York Times looks over a proof of the|
final edition with Publisher Rebecca Colden. (Photo: John Engler, MPR)
Fausset disputed that, in an interview with me: "I talked to a lot of people who were very worried the newspaper was going to quit. What MPR reported does not accurately reflect what I found in the town. There are a number of people concerned about what happens next."
Engler did a little of his own reporting on the point. After paraphrasing Fausset, he wrote: "Out on the streets of Warroad, a handful of locals backed up his assessment," and cited one as saying that "he gets his news from Google, 'just like everybody else'."
That comment reflects "monumental ignorance," said Reed Anfinson, former president of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, in central Minnesota. "There is no local civic reporting from Google. Google captures our work and pirates it – if it is available."
Anfinson also said, "A reporter finding some disgruntled, or disinterested, people and using them to imply definitive assessment of the community’s feelings about the newspaper, I find troubling."
Publisher Rebecca Colden told me, "There were people coming in throughout the day who said just the opposite." Interviewed before Fausset was, she said, "I think Richard's saying they're just complacent with the value of a newspaper. They like it, but they don’t value it as they should."
Colden said that feeling played a role in her decision to get out of the newspaper business. She said she met with many people in the community, looking for ways to rejuvenate the paper, but "The challenge was that there is a complacency within these small communities, that they just feel like the paper will always be there, especially a paper of this age." The Pioneer lasted more than 120 years.
And it wasn't as if she hadn't warned the whole town, in stark fashion. Colden said the Pioneer was the first of many Minnesota newspapers to run a blank front page in 2017, asking readers to imagine that there was no local paper. She told me that she did the sort of accountability news coverage that readers expect, and "They’re gonna miss all the information they didn't know they needed."
Engler reported that Fausset was assigned to "tell the story of the prototypical American small town losing its voice." If so, he seems to have made a good choice; the paper is like many rural weeklies that have closed in the last 15 years: in a small town outside a county seat, with a shrinking advertising base and independent ownership that couldn't find a suitable successor or buyer.
|Roseau County, Minnesota (Google map)|
She said her local ad base has shriveled because Marvin Windows and Doors, the main local employer, has "a new generation of workers" who were more willing than their predecessors to shop in other towns. "It doesn't bug them to drive two hours to go to Walmart," she said, so more than a dozen of Warroad's approximately 50 storefronts are empty. "We're really a community in transition."
The Pioneer's death "is more than a one-off loss of a newspaper," Anfinson wrote. "I am hearing from newspaper publishers and executive directors of state newspaper associations that their concerns about the future of small-town weekly newspapers is growing." Almost a year ago, Anfinson was featured in a Rural Blog item headlined, "Times get tougher for rural newspapers."
Now it seems even tougher. As the old saying has it, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And prove to their communities that they are needed.