Minnesota's local newspapers fight for survival
With businesses closed and large events canceled, sharp decline in advertising revenue threatens the future of local journalism in Minnesota and across the country.
DULUTH -- Roughly 33,000 employees of U.S. media companies have lost their jobs, been furloughed or taken pay cuts since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York Times recently estimated .
It's an acceleration of an already spiraling trend. Since 2008, according to a Pew Research Center analysis , half of all journalism jobs have disappeared from the American newspaper industry.
That's "terribly concerning" for Jennifer Moore, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Without a robust local media, she said government meetings, courtroom proceedings and local elections may carry on without any public scrutiny or oversight.
"It often takes the absence of something for people to realize they're missing it," Moore said. "What (journalists) do is vital to the lives we enjoy and the freedoms we have."
Media organizations in the Northland and across the country have been forced to take drastic steps since mid-March as they navigate an uncertain future and attempt to adapt to rapidly changing times.
The News Tribune earlier this month cut eight advertising jobs — more than half the department — due to the sharp decline in revenue as a result of business closures and event cancellations. Additionally, three circulation positions have been eliminated due to a drop in print operations.
For readers, the most noticeable change is that the paper has shrunk to a 12-page, single-section edition Mondays through Saturdays. Additionally, the ad-based Duluth Budgeteer and the Northland Smart Shopper publications will be suspended as of May 11.
Publisher Neal Ronquist said it's too early to determine when, or if, the shoppers will return or if there will be further cuts to print cycles of the News Tribune and its sister papers, the semiweekly Superior Telegram and weekly Cloquet Pine Journal and Lake County News-Chronicle.
He said the paper has always generated the majority of its revenue from print advertising, which has essentially been cut in half overnight — accelerating an ongoing push to prioritize web content.
"We were a business in transition pre-COVID," Ronquist said. "Some of these changes would've been announced regardless at some point as we're moving away from a print-centric business to a digital member model."
Marshall Helmberger publishes the independent Timberjay newspapers in Ely, Tower-Soudan and Cook-Orr. A staff of four full-time employees continues to churn out the weekly publications, but part-timers are seeing their hours decreased as a result of page reductions.
Helmberger is currently struggling to sell advertising in his summer business guide, typically the most profitable product for the paper in a region where the economy is fueled almost entirely by the annual tourism and outdoor recreation season. Big events like the Cook Timber Days and Ely Blueberry/Art Festival have already been called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We get all our advertising from local businesses; we don't have the Walmarts," Helmberger said. "We're really concerned about our Main Streets up here. We already know we're not going to have a normal summer. We just don't want it to be a disaster. … It's going to be a difficult year but we're going to get by and get through it."
Adams Publishing Group recently announced it is cutting pay by 25% , meaning hourly staffers are now reporting just 30 hours a week. The national chain owns numerous local papers, including in Aitkin, Chisholm, Hibbing, Virginia, Ashland, Hayward and Spooner.
Unionized staffers at Minnesota's largest newspaper, the Star Tribune, will take eight unpaid furlough days by September, MinnPost reported . At the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a union representative said staffers are taking four unpaid weeks in exchange for a no-layoff guarantee through July.
The News Tribune hasn't seen changes to its newsroom staffing levels. Reporters, editors and photographers continue to work full time — though some, including sports staffers, have taken on roles in pandemic coverage as their beats grind to a halt.
The News Tribune continues to be delivered daily, even as sister papers owned by Forum Communications Co. of Fargo, North Dakota, have cut back. The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead is now offering home delivery five days a week, while the Grand Forks Herald is down to twice a week.
Ronquist said the company is prioritizing journalism as it transitions toward a digital model. That means asking readers to pay for online access, rather than relying on print advertising, which will likely never return to old levels.
While print subscriptions have been steadily declining in recent years, the pandemic has brought in record numbers of online readership and new paying members over the past several weeks.
"We want to demonstrate our value to people," Ronquist said. "I think, over time, they'll realize the quality of journalism we're bringing to the community."
But Moore said she doubts digital subscriptions alone are enough to save local news. She believes there needs to be more education around news literacy, collaboration among outlets and consideration of funding from government or nonprofit sources.
The cruel irony, Moore said, is that so many journalism jobs are being impacted at a time when accurate and timely information is more important than ever.
"It's not like the decline of local news is anything new," she said. "The COVID crisis is really just magnifying an ongoing problem."