Pandemic disrupts an already struggling
As part of the planning for the eventual merger last summer of the Mesabi Daily News and Hibbing Daily Tribune, Publisher Chris Knight and his staff broke out the white board and markers for a brainstorming session to name the soon-to-be merged paper.
Lively discussion ensued around a number of ideas and topics, including whether “Range” should be a part of the new name. Eventually, they settled on a sort of combo platter: the Mesabi Tribune. Its inaugural edition published July 8.
That same day, the Duluth News Tribune started a twice-weekly print publishing schedule of Wednesdays and Saturdays, a drastic cut from its long-time daily press run.
The Range dailies’ merger and the Duluth paper’s cutback were in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which temporarily – and, in many cases, permanently – closed businesses. The exit of these advertisers consequently slashed sales and overall revenue. This disruption has added to an already struggling newspaper industry, which has been crushed by steep declines in advertising and readership over the last decade-plus as news consumption patterns changed and news seekers migrated elsewhere for information. About 1,800 newspapers in the United States have closed since 2004, according to industry sources. Since 2008, newsroom employment has plummeted, with roughly half of all journalism jobs vanishing, according to the Pew Research Center.
Back at that brainstorming meeting, Knight recalled his crew being a “little leery” about the pending merger because of the uncertainty they were facing with the pandemic. “It was a big unknown as to how wide and how deep and how long the pandemic would last, so we had to try to adjust our expenses to the new revenue levels, no different than any of our advertisers,” said Knight, who, in addition to being publisher of the Mesabi Tribune, is the regional president/publisher for Northern Minnesota of its parent company, Adams Publishing Group (APG). APG owns papers and websites nationwide. Its Northern Minnesota region covers the Iron Range, Grand Rapids and Walker, while its northern Wisconsin market includes Ashland, Rice Lake, Spooner and Hayward.
In other cost-cutting measures beyond the merger, employees’ hours were also reduced from 40 to 30 hours a week. Additionally, the Chisholm Tribune Press office was closed and that paper is now inserted into the Wednesday edition of the Mesabi Tribune. Printing was also shifted from a Forum Communications-owned printing plant in Duluth to ECM Printing in Princeton, which APG purchased in 2016.
The good news is, the merged paper retains its predecessors’ six-day print schedule, Tuesday through Sunday. And, as November arrived, Knight said advertising revenue has improved and even circulation/subscriptions are up about 5 to 6 percent year-to-date. Hibbing and Virginia editions of Manney’s Shopper continue to be published weekly. Some staff positions have also gone up to 35 hours a week.
Early reviews of the merged paper’s content are positive. “People are telling us they like to see news now from both ends of the range, from the Hibbing-Chisholm area to the Virginia-Eveleth-Gilbert area,” Knight said.
Meanwhile in Duluth, the News Tribune, which is owned by Fargo-based Forum Communications, announced last April, at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, that it was cutting more than half of its advertising department. Then in May came the news of the printing cutback to twice a week. The paper also shifted from carrier delivery to mail delivery, which meant, according to news reports, that the paper’s independent carrier force would be eliminated, along with some circulation department employees.
When contacted by Business North, Neal Ronquist, the News Tribune’s publisher, declined to comment.
A widespread struggle
Elsewhere, cutbacks and closures are occurring regionally, statewide and nationally with numbers increasing all the time – in other words, a moving target.
A June KBJR-TV report cited a Minnesota Newspaper Association statistic that seven newspapers across the state had closed this year, though that number is fluid. The MNA’s membership currently includes about 300 members. (Full disclosure, BusinessNorth’s owners also own the weekly Scenic Range News Forum in Bovey, Minn.)
Among those closing earlier this year was the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors, also owned by Forum Communications.
Weekly newspapers in the Twin Cities metro area have also shuttered recently, including The Bulletin of Woodbury and Cottage Grove, the Hastings Star Gazette, the Eden Prairie News, the Lakeshore Weekly, and Minneapolis’ Southwest Journal.
Minneapolis’ Star Tribune had four days of furloughs in quarter two and three for newsroom and non-newsroom employees, excluding production plant employees and fleet drivers, according to an industry report from the Poynter Institute.
In Fargo, Forum Communication’s flagship paper, the Forum, also cut back to two print days a week.
The industry’s struggles have been national, at newsrooms large and small. Last February, McClatchy, which owns media companies in 14 states, filed for bankruptcy. An April New York Times article reported roughly 36,000 employees at news companies nationwide had been laid off, furloughed or had their pay cut since the beginning of the pandemic.
A news desert?
Last year, a Wisconsin Humanities Council grant brought together several community leaders and regional media partners in the area to discuss the lack of, or limited amount of, accurate and current news and information available in Wisconsin’s Douglas County and the surrounding area, according to Paul Damberg, Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) regional manager. The group concluded that this was a problem and that the area likely would be considered a so-called “news desert,” as defined by the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism.
“And we really weren’t talking about big news stories, because those would get covered [by larger news media in the region], but it was more election matters or community neighborhood initiatives, or finding out about what’s happening in the local community in your area,” Damberg said.
As a website on the project stated: “With few news sources devoted to Superior and Douglas County in Wisconsin, and a general decline in small-town dailies and weeklies, the community is considered by media researchers as a ‘news desert’ that can result in incomplete or untimely information.” For example, the Forum-owned Superior Telegram, which at one time published a print edition six times a week, was recently cut back from twice a week to once weekly.
Meanwhile, newspapers that are still operating in the region have, like most other papers, struggled during the pandemic.
“It did impact us. Initially we saw dramatic decreases in revenue overall at the pandemic’s worst last spring – probably 20 to 25 percent…and more for the pre-print advertisers who had supply chain issues,” said Randy Rickman, regional president for Northern Wisconsin at APG. Rickman leads several newspaper flags in the region, including the Eau Claire Leader Telegram, the weekly Spooner Advocate, and the twice-a-week Ashland Daily Press. “We did have some reduced hours for employees. We also did have some PPP (Payroll Protection Program) funds that helped.” Rickman added that both advertising revenue and employee hours are “slowly coming back.”
Advertising in decline
Newspapers have navigated plenty of challenges over the years: the emergence of television and radio, the advent of the internet, the Great Recession of 2008-2009, and now the global pandemic. Ultimately, though, survival gets down to advertising. Those businesses that advertise want and need readers, eyeballs, or, in the lexicon of the digital age, page views.
“Newspaper ads used to be the hub around which you’d build campaigns that also included radio, TV, outdoor and other advertising,” but this is no longer the case, said Steve Greenfield, owner of Greenfield Communications of Duluth and St. Cloud.
An advertising and public relations veteran who works with a wide range of business-to-business and business-to-consumer clients, Greenfield said, “Social media is now where ‘print ads’ appear.” He said a number of his clients use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram “and other social channels…which can be much more narrowly targeted than buying traditional newspaper, radio and TV ads.”
The list of other advertising and marketing options seems limitless: retargeting, Google paid media, search engine optimization (SEO) efforts, influencer sponsorship and marketing, and so on. Companies also mostly have their own websites these days that serve as their own promotional channels. Plus, car dealer, real estate and job websites have replaced the classified ads. The list goes on.
Newspapers are trying to play in this digital universe. As APG’s Knight and Rickman noted, their sales reps are offering a range of multi-media services: bundling packages (print and digital together), SEO services, retargeting and geo-targeting, pop-up and banner ads, video and other interactive products, and email newsletters geared to a variety of reader interests: “everything from hunting to obituaries,” noted Rickman.
“It’s almost endless the way you can target customers for your advertisers,” added Knight.
What does the future hold?
Despite those creative efforts that APG and others are making, the grim reality is that newspaper revenues have declined dramatically. Advertising revenue fell from $37.8 billion in 2008 to $14.3 billion in 2018, a 62 percent decline, according to the Pew Research Center. Further, Pew reported that U.S. newspaper circulation fell in 2018 to its lowest level since 1940, the first year with available data.
As you might expect, a range of opinions are out there about the future of this industry.
“I am fairly pessimistic about the future prospects of struggling print publications,” long-time journalist Susan Albright said in an email. Albright is managing editor of Twin Cities-based MinnPost, a non-profit, online-only news outlet that has now been in business for 13 years.
“The costs are high and businesses that used to pay premium prices for display ads have found less expensive, more targeted ways to reach their intended audiences. And that won’t change when the coronavirus crisis wanes.”
Mark Weber agreed. “The road ahead will continue to be rough until local news is a ‘need to have’ instead of a ‘nice to have,’” said Weber, who is executive director of the Eden Prairie Community Foundation. Weber worked in various editorial and management positions in community journalism for nearly 40 years, including 20 years as editor of the Eden Prairie News, which closed earlier this year. “A good number of my neighbors expressed surprise when their 46-year old newspaper shuttered last April. And they probably learned about it on Facebook. Hello? Have you been paying attention?” Weber and the foundation recently helped a group of community residents launch the nonprofit news website Eden Prairie Local News at eplocalnews.org.
On the other hand, there are some optimists.
Knight of APG and the Mesabi Tribune, who also serves as this year’s Minnesota Newspaper Association president, said, of the road ahead, “You gotta believe … we [in the MNA] have everyone from the Star Tribune to small, local, often family owned weeklies. And this pandemic has been challenging to everybody…the way we deliver news and advertising is changing, but it is an exciting time to be a part of this change and we’re making progress.”
Jake Benson, the owner of one of those family-owned papers, the Proctor Journal (he also owns the Hermantown Star and Floodwood Forum), is “hugely optimistic” about the future. “More people than ever are reading newspaper content, both in print and online. Some newspapers are getting very good about getting their news out onto their digital platforms [using text, audio, video and livestreaming] and that’s pretty important…everything we feared in the past: radio, TV, Facebook, social media, it all was going to be the death of newspapers, but through it all, newspapers have risen to the challenge.”
Rob Karwath is another optimist. A former executive editor of the Duluth News Tribune, Karwath is CEO of North Coast Communications in Duluth and Kansas City, and also a journalism professor and general manager of campus media at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
The newspaper business isn’t going away, Karwath said, it’s just the delivery system that is changing.
“Ten years ago, there were still a large number of older readers who had not migrated to the internet for news and information, but, now, most people have migrated, and it’s time for some newspapers to realize they need to get there, too.”
He said many papers have done this, and also cited several non-traditional news outlets with various funding and revenue sources that are currently operating: nonprofits such as MinnPost, ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, and for-profit entities such as HuffPost, The Daily Beast, and a local example, the Bottom Line News & Views in Ashland. Podcasts are another flourishing news and information medium, Karwath said.
“There are all kinds of electronic and digital enterprises that didn’t exist a decade ago,” Karwath said. There is, “no shortage of need for objective, accurate news and information. What we are seeing at KU, frankly, with all of the ruckus in our country politically, this has generated more interest than ever in young people pursuing news and information education programs.”
Ultimately, Karwath said, he “remains hopeful. I wouldn’t be teaching if I believed there wasn’t a future in this profession.”
Angelo Gentile is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.