These are grim times for free local newspapers, with the economic effects of the COVID-19 decimating the entertainment and restaurant industries that have supported them with ads. The pandemic has accelerated already dire trends that have gutted local news budgets. Gone are the days of competing free weeklies and street corners crowded with news boxes. These days, the only newspapers that appear on my stoop are a monthly Saint Paul Monitor and an occasional Insight News, both thin and all but devoid of timely local content.
The list of newspaper closures has been strong and steady since the Lillie News chain of suburban newspapers folded in late 2019 along with the Bulletin of Woodbury and Cottage Grove. In 2020, the journalistic carnage accelerated with the Minnetonka’s Lakeshore Weekly, the Hastings Star Gazette, and the Eden Prairie News folding. Even the 41-year-old, once-mainstay City Pages ceased publication abruptly this week after years of shrinking in size.
Southwest Journal for sale
Meanwhile, last month Minneapolis’ Southwest Journal, in my opinion the finest community paper in the metro, was put up for sale. Barring a last-minute angel investor, it will stop publication at the end of the year. (You can buy it yourself for about the average price of a home in south Minneapolis.)
At this rate, it’s an open question if anyone will report on local community events, developments and politics. It’s a concerning trend for those who value an informed populace.
“The reason local newspapers are important, especially when they’re good, is that grassroots ‘authentic’ concern,” explained David Brauer, a long-time media insider who spent decades in the local news business. “You can draw your ‘small town’ however small you want, draw it at the neighborhood level, but small newspapers see things that are oftentimes too small for larger media to focus on. Sometimes it can have a tremendous impact.”
Brauer, a former MinnPost media columnist, ran the Southwest Journal from 2001 to 2005. He sees the demise of the Journal and similar newspapers as a big problem, a long time coming.
“Thirty years ago, [you had] the brilliant innovation of neighborhood news combined with a doorstop direct mail operation,” Brauer said. “They had inserts, they had a network of people dropping them on your doorstep, like direct mail, but they also had the value of journalism. You cared about reading the damn thing instead of shoving it into the trash.”
Shift to the internet
The demise of the business model is tied to the larger digital communication shift toward the internet. According to Brauer, that leaves two main alternatives to the ad-revenue model: nonprofits, like MinnPost; and crowd-funded efforts, where readers pay directly to the writers. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and are difficult to sustain. (That reminds me, if you’re reading this, please become a MinnPost member!)
The third alternative is social media, the thicket of various community Facebook pages, nextdoor.com chats or venues for online venting. For Brauer, who helped found the E-Democracy Minneapolis Issues Forum, these kinds of online resources can be useful but are no substitute for actual local journalism.
“Over time, the people with the loudest voices take over,” Brauer warned, cautioning against relying on online discussion pages for news. “The people with other things to do with their lives check out, and you just end up with shrill shrieky-ness.”
West St. Paul Reader
Just because building alternatives is painstaking and often thankless work doesn’t mean it’s not happening. There are a few efforts in the Twin Cities suburbs to fill the local news vacuum. For example, over in West St. Paul, Kevin Hendricks has single-handedly started a crowdfunded online news site called the West St. Paul Reader. The operation, which recaps local politics and other events in the 20,000-person city, evolved out of Hendricks’ Facebook posts devoted to local City Council and mayoral races.
“I started blogging about the elections in 2014,” explained Hendricks. “We had a heated mayor’s race centered on the Robert Street [reconstruction] project. I started digging into it, and writing on my personal blog did a little more in 2016.”
The WSP Reader spiraled out from there, especially after the closure of Lillie News, the community paper for northern Dakota County. Hendricks became more focused on his new enterprise, launched a Kickstarter campaign, and eventually his Facebook posts evolved into a self-published website.
If you ask him, Hendricks will tell you he’s proud of his depth of local knowledge, something often lost on other journalists who pop into the city for a story once a year. When West St. Paul makes headlines for whatever reason — almost always something negative — the nuance of local politics and conflicts are often lost. For example, Hendricks points to the sexism scandal that erupted in 2018, where City Council members volleyed chauvinistic comments at the mayor.
“You might get national coverage for a big [story] like that, but there’s not much depth to the reporting,” Hendricks said. “We had a big thing happen and drew headlines and people wanted to talk about it, but nobody really dove into what City Council members did, and who they were.”
Eden Prairie Local News
Twenty miles to the west, Brad Canham has been working to fill the void in local races in the 65,000-person city of Eden Prairie. A former journalist and editor himself, when the local Eden Prairie News folded up shop earlier this year, Canham and a few others started a nonprofit news website. Simply called Eden Prairie Local News, thanks to a team of experienced journalists, the site has been up for six weeks with news each day on the election, local sports, and the outdoors.
“We all know the drill, [though] currently nobody is getting paid,” admitted Canham. “We just do it as, ‘Hey this is fun, I feel like it,’ with the goal of assembling a more robust business model in the future.”
The roster of EPLN writers includes a bunch of professional media veterans, and all the staff has signed on to the Society of Professional Journalists ethics code. Canham was formerly editor of the Whittier Globe and worked for the Marshall Independent, so he knows the ropes of running a community paper. According to Canham, the biggest demand in Eden Prairie was for school board content, information that is almost impossible to find in any other media.
“There’s a strong fundamental belief that there’s something, the story of us,” said Canham. “It’s like a local museum that preserves the culture by telling the story of how Eden Prairie is moving forward in time and space.”
Like Hendricks, Canham points to the deep local knowledge of the paper’s team, so that their stories have context about everything from high school sports history to exactly how various Eden Prairie recreational trails have changed over the years.
Challenges and hopes
Anyone who has done local reporting understands that it’s a lot of work. On top of the actual writing and publishing, there’s the legwork and time spent schlepping to City Hall or community meetings. Reporters sit for hours in corners of rooms jotting down notes about policy discussions or zoning regulations. Though the pandemic has made the work easier thanks to online meetings, the amount of time required to keep tabs on local government is a huge constraint. As a result, Kevin Hendricks in West St. Paul depends on his Patreon supporters for morale as much as for income.
“It’s not much,” Hendricks admitted when asked about his newspaper’s revenue. “I tell people I’d hate to calculate the hourly rate. But there is something there: I’ve got 50 people supporting me on a monthly and annual basis, and it’s just a huge morale boost. And a little bit of pocket change to pay for some of what I’m doing.”
Similarly, Brad Canham in Eden Prairie says that even if the paper never becomes financially viable, he’s happy with what they’ve done so far.
“I am quite proud,” Canham said. “EPLN’s early goal was to be the definitive source for the best news on the Eden Prairie School Board, and I believe we’ve achieved that. We have in-depth info and news about those folks running for office and it didn’t exist.”
Without folks like Hendricks and Canham’s team, one risk is that the vacuum of local coverage could be filled by literal fake news. A recent New York Times report exposed a nationwide network of websites masquerading as local journalism, over 1,300 sites. The list of Minnesota examples include the St. Paul Reporter, the Dakota Times, the North Hennepin News, the Minnesota Catholic Tribune, and a dozen others. Clicking around their interlinked homepages reveals a dubious assemblage of clickbait, partisan attacks, crime stories, and the like.
It’s a disheartening trend, what David Brauer warned could lead to “a monoculture and Amazon-ification of reporters.” For Brauer, independent journalists like Hendricks, the team in Eden Prairie, and other local bloggers like Minneapolis’ Wedge Live might be the best hope for micro-content.
“You look around the digital landscape, and you have a guy like [Wedge Live’s] John Edwards going to as many meetings as my best reporter did back in the day,” said Brauer, of his time at the Southwest Journal. “I contribute money to John every month and I don’t know how his economics are, but he’s still doing it. A guy like [public data blogger] Tony Webster, I don’t know how he affords to do the things he does. Both of them are true reporters. People may have issues whether they put opinions in their coverage, but I don’t.”
But relying on grassroots news websites, bloggers, or Patreon-fueled freelance writers is a threadbare way to fill the void in local news. Even when supported by donations, these efforts are stretched to become reliable long-term operations. And, as Brauer argues, without community papers, the patchwork can be awfully threadbare, especially in hard-to-access neighborhoods or places with fewer freelance writers with time on their hands.
“How many Tony Websters are there in town? How many John Edwardses are there?” asked Brauer. “I don’t know if there are any others. We’re going to have to rely on each other and get more creative about what those limitations are. This is not the best situation.”