The dying of the ‘community’ paper

This week, my hometown newspaper, which has been around since 1838, announced that it’s closing its offices and creating a “virtual newsroom,” which is corporate smoke for “reporters can work from home.”

The paper, owned by the same venture-capitalist-backed outfit that has been dismantling the St. Paul Pioneer Press, issued the same nonsense that every other corporate owner of dying newspapers has issued: “our commitment to local news is unwavering,” even as it laid off its local editor and moved his duties out of town.

It’s an ironic statement, coming as it does from an institution whose mission is — or at least was — telling the truth.

It’s irritatingly reminiscent of the sort of thing owners told employees of the dozens of factories in my hometown in the ’70s as they loaded equipment into trucks bearing North Carolina license plates while simultaneously declaring a commitment to the city they’d soon abandon forever.

I point this out as an example of a trend that is overtaking communities that once had their own newspapers. Community identity is disappearing in a cloud of regional mush that will be “relevant” to an audience across communities.

Today, my current hometown’s paper is essentially doing the same thing.

The Woodbury Bulletin, as well as the Farmington Independent, owned by a division of the ubiquitous Forum Communications, announced today that it’s closing its Woodbury and Farmington offices, a move that won’t surprise anyone familiar with what’s been happening to RiverTown Multimedia in recent years as the newspapers have combined staffs, laid off reporters and editors with the overlap, and became less local while proclaiming they wouldn’t. Some veteran journalists had had enough and left the business.

The company operates community newspapers in Cottage Grove, Woodbury, Farmington, Rosemount, Hastings and Red Wing in Minnesota and New Richmond, Hudson, River Falls, and Ellsworth in Wisconsin.

The Bulletin over the last year has started running more material from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, becoming a little less Woodbury with each issue. More press releases, more guest columns from politicians, more local youth sports, a little less digging for stories.

In his announcement today, publisher Neal Ronquist denied what is painfully obvious to most astute readers of papers who are chipping away at their identity with the communities they serve.

“This closing continues our long-term strategy to consolidate the many units of our group into one team, operating out of fewer locations,” Ronquist said. “This strategy reflects our position as a regional media company and not separate community operations. It also continues the strategy of directing our resources to content generation and sales, and away from bricks-and-mortar assets.”

The South Washington County Bulletin and Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages also will close their offices Feb. 16.

Bulletin reporters William Loeffler, Maureen McMullen and Katie Nelson as well as advertising representative Colleen Fell, will be based out of the Hastings Star Gazette office, but also will work remotely from throughout Washington County. Joe Brown, the newly named regional editor, also will work out of that office.

“This move will not change how we approach news coverage,” said Anne Jacobson, RiverTown Multimedia news director. “Our reporters will still cover city council, county board, breaking news and other happenings that are important to our readers. We also will continue producing enterprise projects with all members of the RiverTown One Newsroom.”

Brown said, “This approach to newsgathering will give the Bulletin staff better backing from our overall newsroom. Our commitment to Bulletin readers remains a priority.”

The publisher said readers are more concerned with a quality product than where the reporters’ offices are, which is, again, pretty much the same thing my original hometown paper’s publisher said. But it’s the pattern of shrinkage from a community that tells the story.

Regional is not local. The small-town paper, which is the glue that has helped maintain “community,” is dead.

  • I was a devoted reader of the Farmington Independent while growing up. I remember how thrilling it was if they ever ran a photo of you. (I saved copies of any issues I appeared in.) I haven’t kept up with it since moving out of town but I’m sad to hear that it is closing.

    • It will still exist. For now.

      • I am reminded that the reason there was no mention of the disposition of the reporters at the Farmington Independent’s bureau is that there are no reporters at the Farmington Independent’s bureau.

  • Barton

    I remember reading The Burnsville Current from the front to back page every week growing up, as well as reading my parents’ hometown paper the Palmyra (MO) Spectator, which they paid to have mailed to them each week (they still do). It was sad when The Current combined with the Apple Valley paper and became The Sun-Current, and now its just the Sun, and seems to cover Bville, AV, Lakeville, Eagan, Rosemount and Farmington: definitely “regional” and the sports reporting is lackluster as a result (can’t offend anyone, have to treat all schools the same: I miss the bias Burnsville Braves reporting of my childhood).

    The Spectator is still publishing, but how much longer is anyone’s guess. The Obituary page is the largest section, followed closely by the Dollar General advertisement then sports reporting. And I know that publication is getting a LOT of push from subscribers to go digital only, which just seems to be the first step to shuttering completely.

  • Having lived a few different places, I know what local newspapers mean to their communities. They have a baked-in intimacy with the structure and functioning of the town – the history, the oddball characters as well as the bigwigs and schleppers who keep things running every day, the cops and janitors, the night clerk at the local motel, the preacher and the barfly, the high school sports team, the whole lot of them who make the place what it is.

    This is exactly the sort of thing that a holding corporation can never understand. For the MBAs at Bigremotecorp, it’s all about revenue. You sell advertising and it reaches so and so many eyeballs, and circulation is up and so on. That’s it. Nothing else. Content is really secondary.

    The problem with this is that you can’t produce a good product without the right ingredients and a chef who knows how to stir them together. Experienced staff are “downsized” and content is thinner and fluffier at the same time. Once you see this happening, you know the end is nigh.

    One small SE MN town where I lived had a long-time newspaper whose owner-editor would get up early every day and walk around the whole downtown checking every vending machine’s coin return for spare change. You can bet he knew what was going on in town. Or maybe that was the only way he could afford a cup of coffee.

    Sic transit gloria mundi.

  • Jim in RF

    The River Falls front section is now down to 8 pages with about 2 being court reports and legal notices and another ‘regional’ news. We’re sort of at that point I was with the PP a couple of years ago — it’s so thin that I think the subscription is a bad value, but dropping it just contributes to it being even thinner. It’s just a sad thing; I don’t want to be a sucker but once it’s gone, nothing will replace it.

    • I felt bad when, after 24 years, we let the Bulletin subscription go this year. But I just couldn’t support a product anymore that was so clearly retreating from my community.

  • Al

    Unfortunately, I suspect the small-town paper doesn’t pay enough to keep employees afloat. A friend entered the realtor business after serving as editor of two suburban small-town papers. Likely provides better pay and a lot more flexibility for a young family in today’s world.

    • Right. It’s never paid BUT, they also provided a training ground for young journalists . With those disappearing, the lessons these places teach either will never be learned or will be learned in front of a much bigger audience.

      • Al

        …so who runs the local paper, then, if the older folks won’t do it and the younger folks can’t afford to?

  • Guest

    I recall years ago a California paper advertised for a reporter to cover the city council… INDIA. They knew most everything was online and wanted someone who was a time-shift away to read thru all the web links and condense down for the local paper.

    Papers compete against Blogs with investigative journalism.

    They COULD compete with opinion articles written jointly by both sides. Each point addressed and explained from both sides. A newspaper editor would be a great person to monitor and guide the joint letter and give readers a reason to buy a paper.

    Real info on controversial subjects without labels & slants.

  • Al

    Bob, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about outfits like the McGregor Voyageur Press, that focus on “positive” community news, so to speak. I think they publish once a week, with little/no online presence, and seem to have chosen not to cover court reports, legal notices, etc.

    • I don’t know anything about it nor how it presents itself but the role of a news organization is to prevent the good, bad, and ugly just as it exists. So to the extent it’s focusing on one without the other, it doesn’t serve my need for a news source. It might supplement it, but probably not.

  • Trevor

    A subscription to these Forum papers is highway robbery at this point. They fire all their good writers, fill the paper with regional stories no one cares about, hire terrible contributing writers and just hope readers won’t notice the huge drop in quality. If they cared about having a good product they wouldn’t have slashed their writing staff.