While major metros struggle, many newspapers still thriving in smaller towns

Last week’s worrisome front-page New York Times story — “As Cities Go From Two Papers to One, Talk of Zero” — raised the specter of a death knell for many papers in big markets,  but also brought an interesting comment from a long-time source of mine.

“Did you see this NY Times piece?” emailed Connie Shaver at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul. “My hometown of Slayton, MN, pop. 2000 or so, has TWO weekly papers. The entire county (Murray) has a population of only 9,000. It’s amazing to me that there is enough revenue to support both. They are printed in the old broadsheet format and seem oversized compared to the whittled-down dailies.”

So I called the Slayton papers, both weeklies, located about a block apart in bustling downtown Slayton.

Dorothy Bloemendaal, a part-time reporter at the Murray County News, was in the office early Friday. Yes, she said, there are two papers and they compete for news and advertisers.

Will Beers,  editor and publisher of the Murray County Wheel-Herald, said it’s almost a cutthroat competition. “We’re hanging in there; don’t really know about them,” he said.

The News, with a paid circulation, sells about 1,000 copies a week. It has three sister-papers in the neighboring counties. The Wheel-Herald, a free paper, distributes nearly 7,300 copies a week.

Bloemendaal, who covers the county board, said readers also like news on the local schools. “Also weddings, births, stories from the area. And sports, lots of sports.”

A big story recently was Elissa Reinsma, the wrestler from Fulda/Murray County Central High School, the first girl to compete in the state wrestling tournament. She’s actually from Slayton, Bloemendaal said, a fact not mentioned in the big papers.

Small papers, big readership
Small local papers are doing surprisingly well, even in the weak economy, said Lisa Hills, executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

“We have 375 newspaper members, and a couple have combined, but membership is not dropping. We’ve even seen a few new ones start up,” Hills said.

Surprisingly, a recent National Newspaper Association poll shows that in 2008, 86 percent of adults read a local community newspaper each week, compared with 83 percent in 2007 and 81 percent in 2005.

“Just about all of the research and news reports on the ‘struggling’ newspaper industry have been based on what’s happening at the top 100 major metropolitan newspapers, maybe the top 250,” said Brian Steffens, NNA executive director. “That doesn’t tell the story of the remaining 1,200 daily newspapers or 8,000 community weekly papers in America.”

And a recent report from national associations showed community newspapers were affected by the challenging economy but in a much smaller way than the industry in general. Financial data collected for the fourth quarter of 2008 by the trade associations Suburban Newspapers of America (SNA) and National Newspaper Association (NNA) showed  advertising revenue at $428.7 million, a 6.6 percent decline from the same quarter in 2007.

Two-paper towns
And in Minnesota, there are many communities, like Slayton, with two newspapers, Hills said, ticking off Moose Lake, Duluth and Winona, plus many in the metro area, such as Eden Prairie, Chanhassen, Burnsville. Blaine, she said, has three: two weeklies and a monthly.

“To have a vital community, you need a newspaper,” she said. “No one else reports on local news, the city council, sports scores, even bowling scores.”

So they both plan to keep publishing every week in Slayton, and publisher Beers said they’ll keep an eye on what’s printed in that other paper down the street.

“You’ve always got to check on the competition,” he said.

And back in the Twin Cities, Connie Shaver said she’ll continue having both papers sent to her home to keep in touch with the hometown news.

Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politics and other topics. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Steve Pease on 03/16/2009 - 11:13 am.

    Stillwater anyone? Gazette (daily), Courier (weekly), St. Croix Valley Press (weekly), Pioneer Press (daily).

  2. Submitted by Jean Cole on 03/16/2009 - 01:42 pm.

    Other towns with two newspapers: Ely (weeklies: Timberjay and Ely Echo) and Tower (weeklies: Timberjay and Tower News), and Virginia (one daily (Mesabi Daily News) and one weekly (http://www.HometownFocus.us, a community journalism website and weekly PRINT publication).

    With no other media outlet focusing on these small markets, the newspaper will continue to be an important service there. Approximately 50 percent of households in this region have computers. Newspapers still reign in these markets as the preferred delivery method of local news.

  3. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 03/17/2009 - 10:17 am.

    And how about language of newspapers? News in the German language was printed in Minnesota for German immigrants many decades ago. Now news can be found in other languages, like Spanish, for more recent immigrants.

    Newspapers on microfilm at the Minnesota History Center continue to be read by researchers. Obituaries are particularly popular with family history researchers, who can also delight in the ‘social news’ published by many small town papers, finding who had Sunday dinner with whom, giving a glimpse into life back in the good old times when people dined at home.

    Newspapers now – especially the big ones – charge for obituaries, so that squelches most of the good stuff out of obituaries, (like that the immigrant ancestors arrived in New York just before July Fourth and were not allowed off the ship until after the holiday) and leads to an abbreviated, ‘just the facts’ kind of obituary that has information, like dates of birth and death, that can be found in other sources.

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