Those who live in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul are undoubtedly familiar with the Villager, the largest and one of the oldest community newspapers in the Twin Cities. For those who aren’t, here’s the scoop: Every two weeks, the Villager delivers reliable, in-depth coverage of local issues, things the ever-shrinking St. Paul Pioneer Press lacks the manpower and space to deliver. Best of all, the Villager is free, with 60,000 copies distributed on doorsteps or at coffee shops and businesses all over town.
Check that: It was free. (More on that below.)
Like many community papers, the Villager never charged for single copies or home delivery because advertising paid the freight. As recently as last fall, the Villager was packed with ads, reflecting a paper seemingly flush and bucking the industry trend of plummeting advertising revenue.
But publisher Michael Mischke, the second generation of Mischkes running the place, still worried. A steady decline in ad revenue since 2006 left the Villager on shakier footing than it appeared. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and local retail businesses shuttered, ad revenue dropped by one-third almost overnight.
“That’s the difference between making a buck and losing a buck,” Mischke said. “So we’ve really had to trim our sails.” Vacant staff positions went unfilled, and the Villager shrank from 32 or 36 pages to 20.
That same predicament faces most Twin Cities community newspapers. To stay afloat, the Villager, the Southwest Journal, Longfellow Nokomis Messenger, Midway Como Monitor and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder asked their readers for help. All instituted voluntary donation or subscription programs to generate additional revenue.
“I don’t think it’s news to anyone that community papers are struggling, even us,” said Janis Hall, publisher of the 32,000-circulation Southwest Journal, which laid off three full-time staffers and cut back on freelance contributors to counter a 15-to-20-percent loss in ad revenue.
“When we look at the (revenue) numbers we used to do, we just don’t do those numbers anymore,” she said. “So you make adjustments in all kinds of ways.”
With the Villager, people noticed. Several months ago, a group of concerned St. Paul movers and shakers convened a Zoom call with Mischke to discuss how to help the Villager. Former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer and education advocate Joe Nathan (not the former Twins pitcher) were among 34 people on the call. The consensus: convert the Villager to a non-profit and have it rely on donations and grants instead of advertising.
The Villager is the family business for Mischke. Founded in 1953, Michael’s father Maurice bought the paper in 1970, and Michael joined the staff as editor in 1976 fresh off the St. John’s University campus. He rose to executive editor before becoming publisher when his father died in 1991. Mischke wasn’t going to let the Villager fail on his watch, but he wasn’t keen on the non-profit route.
“I really didn’t want to go down that road,” he said. “The virus had hit, and more and more foundation dollars are being diverted to far more vital purposes — social needs, health needs. I didn’t see the Villager as being a candidate for the largess from any foundation or well-heeled benefactors. I chose to remain a commercial business and change the business model so we can succeed. It remains to be seen if we can do that.”
At first, Mischke asked readers for donations. That helped some, but he felt it wasn’t sustainable. So now, for the first time, the Villager is charging for print and digital subscriptions — $4.99 a month or $59.88 per year. It also beefed up its digital content.
But charging for something that’s been free for 67 years is a tough sell. So far it’s netted “in the low thousands,” he said, which isn’t enough.
“(Subscriptions are) coming in every day, 20 or 30 a day, but they need to come in a lot faster for us to launch the subscription program we envision,” he said. “The thing that’s holding us back is we continue to distribute freely until we get those numbers up. Why would somebody pay $59 a year if they continue to get it free like they always have?”
“Community newspaper” is a catch-all for the weekly, bi-weekly or monthly papers that serve neighborhoods and small towns from coast to coast. They cover local government, Main Street, high school sports, and everything in between. Some of us earned our first bylines in community newspapers, in the antediluvian times before laptops, smartphones and the internet.
The best community reporters not only know where the bodies are buried — but who buried them and who sold them the shovels. Earlier this month, the Southwest Journal won eight Page One Awards from the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists in the under-50,000 circulation category, competing against dailies like the Grand Forks Herald and Mankato Free Press. As more and more dailies shed staff or fold, community papers are an even more important and often overlooked part of the media landscape — and just as endangered.
There used to be a lot more of them in the Twin Cities. Jane McClure, the managing editor of disability-focused Access Press who also writes for the Villager and other community papers, remembers close to 40. McClure was the last president of the Twin Cities Neighborhood and Community Press Association, which dissolved more than a decade ago.
Big national chains like Walmart, Target and Auto Zone killed the mom-and-pop stores that were the lifeblood of community newspaper advertising. That doomed some community papers. Others founded as non-profits in the 1970s disappeared as federal funding rules changed.
Now the survivors are dealing with the same revenue challenges as all print media. Making up for classified advertising lost to the internet, fighting the stranglehold Google and Facebook have on local digital advertising. And now, the coronavirus.
McClure said Access Press lost a major advertiser in the Guthrie Theatre, which remains closed in the pandemic. “All of us at the community papers, we can’t hire people to sell ads,” McClure said. “Even a paper like the Villager with a great ad base has a very hard time. People can’t work on commission.
“It used to be with community papers, a lot of the people who worked years and years ago were volunteers. You’d sit at somebody’s kitchen table and paste up pages using an old hand waxer. Maybe you printed out your copy at Kinko’s or something. You don’t have that level of volunteers anymore who do community papers.”
The weekly Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the state’s oldest and largest Black newspaper (circulation 10,000), charges $35 for in-state subscriptions but derives 80 percent of its revenue from ads. Publisher Tracey Williams-Dillard, the granddaughter of founding publisher Cecil Newman, said ad revenue is off 60 percent since the start of the year. And that’s after a significant ad buy from Michael Bloomberg’s failed presidential campaign, which carried the paper through the last several months.
“The beginning of the year looked very promising,” she said. “I was all excited. Things were picking up for the first time in a while. Then, when (the pandemic) hit, all the contracts got pulled.”
While ad clients are slowly coming back, subscription sales and web traffic has been “off the roof,” she said, driven partly by the paper’s coverage of the killing of George Floyd but largely by positive, uplifting stories from the community. That figures continue as the four officers charged in Floyd’s death move to trial, and discussion of reforming the Minneapolis Police Department intensifies. A donation program helped as well.
“Lately we’ve gotten a lot of subscribers coming on board. A lot,” she said. “People are trying to figure out how they can get involved, how they can be a part of what’s going on. So they’re helping in that way.”
Still, community newspapering remains a daily struggle for revenue and survival. At least seven Minnesota weeklies have closed since March, among them the Washington County Bulletin, where McClure once worked. Hastings lost the Star Gazette, leaving that city without a newspaper for the first time since 1857. Last October saw the demise of the Lillie Suburban Newspaper chain in the St. Paul suburbs.
Hall said the Southwest Journal’s voluntary donation drive drew 800 responses and raised close to $50,000. “It’s been emotionally wonderful,” she said. But she wonders how many of her advertisers will survive. “There’s going to be some point when the rubber is going to meet the road about three months from now when we find out who went out of business, and what money we’re not going to collect,” she said. “That’s still coming.”
In Highland Park, as more businesses reopen, Mischke said residents will no longer find free copies of the Villager. He can’t afford it anymore. Now he just needs loyal readers to go along. “If the suburban chain newspapers, publishers with a lot deeper pockets than I, are closing down, we’ve got a battle on our hands,” Mischke said. “Because of the dailies cutting back on their coverage of local news, we’ve become more valuable, no question. But are people willing to pay for it, especially when they’re used to getting it free? It’s hard to convince them.”