Employees at The Dodge County Independent were so concerned about the future of the small-town newspaper last April that they decided to take their plight to the public. But setting up a crowd-funding campaign isn’t exactly a typical move for a newspaper. And yet, even with 3,400 subscribers, the newspaper has struggled.
“Have we raised a lot of money from it? No, we haven’t. Probably under $2,000,” says Rick Bussler, editor and publisher of The Dodge County Independent and The Steele County Times. “But I think more importantly, what it’s done is it’s raised an awareness of community journalism and the importance of the community newspaper.”
This past May, the Warroad Pioneer newspaper closed after 121 years in operation. The weekly was affected by loss of revenue from subscriptions and advertisements. The shuttering of the century-old paper was noticed across the state, if not beyond. In Kasson, Minn., Bussler and the staff at the weekly newspaper are not immune to what is happening around them.
“We’re not just the newspaper for one community, where one newspaper covered one community. There may be only one newspaper in the entire county. There used to be six newspapers here. And it’s down to one, and we’re fighting to stay alive and fighting for survival,” Bussler says.
According to the state trade association, this narrative is one that can further erode the strength of newspapers. Part of the problem, says Lisa Hills, president of the Minnesota Newspaper Association (MNA), is that, when a newspaper ceases operations, it drives a perception that the industry is in decline.
“It’s a mixed bag. It depends on the market,” Hills says. In fact, she adds that membership in the MNA is only down by about 30 papers over the last decade. Some of that, she explains, is due to consolidation.
But researchers say that small and rural newspapers face many challenges. The advent of social media has had a substantial impact on the financial health of newspapers, according to Matthew Weber, a professor at the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Researchers looked at 100 small and rural communities across the country and found that only half of the local newspaper content supplied critical original content for local readers.
Newspapers such as The Dodge County Independent are now tasked with covering more territory when neighboring communities lose their papers. But they do so with the same amount of staff, or even fewer. Advertising dollars that normally would have gone to a newspaper have been shifting to social media platforms, where businesses might think their ad will reach more people. Weber says that newspapers have been slow to innovate and to adapt to the digital disruption that has plagued the larger media industry. And that can have a damaging impact on local democracy and representative citizenry.
“There are studies now that show the decline of local news coverage decreases your civic engagement – the less local news you have, the less likely you are to vote in local elections. That’s that’s where we really start to see the impact on the livelihood of a community,” Weber says.
In Kasson, some residents say their local paper is still the best way to discover news about their community. “You need the paper, you can’t get it all on the TV,” says Douglas Leth, a retired farmer and lifelong resident of Kasson.
While shopping for food at the local supermarket, Brenda Petersen explains that she likes having a newspaper so she can see photos and results from the local sports games that her kids are involved in. “I think people do take it for granted. I think, if it would totally go away, it would be a problem,” she says.
But Kelly Klemm, who works as a child care provider, has a different take. Her local newspaper, The Byron Review, recently folded – and she admits that she really doesn’t miss it. “Nope not really – I still get the information,” she adds. She now looks on social media platforms and other applications for information about, say, the weather outlook.
But The Dodge County Independent Publisher Rick Bussler says that you can’t always trust the information you find on social media and that it’s difficult to discern whether or not certain posts are even made by real people.
“We’re putting the community’s history on paper,” Bussler says, defending his weekly newspaper. “And this is what’s going to be here for years to come.”
Ultimately, that may be up to the readers.
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