BY REED ANFINSON
Grant County Herald
If you haven’t heard about it yet, you likely will before long. Another community in Minnesota is losing its newspaper. Another community will be going virtually blind as to the doings of their local governments, their efforts to keep citizens safe during a pandemic, the stories of their people, and so much more.
This isn’t some tiny town in Minnesota losing its newspaper. International Falls is a community of 6,000 people.
Once the International Falls Daily Journal, the newspaper went twice weekly, then weekly as its advertising revenues were consumed by the internet. Its eventual shuttering could have almost been predicted when it was bought by MediaNews Group in February 2020. MNG Enterprises, Inc. does business as both Digital First Media and MediaNews Group. Its owner is Alden Global Capital – a hedge fund with little interest in quality journalism or a sense of dedication to a community.
The Journal will publish its last edition June 24.
“Like many businesses this past year, the impact of the pandemic on the Journal and North Star Publishing has been dramatic,” a statement by the owners says. “These challenges, when combined with other difficult economic trends, have forced us to make this difficult decision.”
“It’s disappointing,” Tricia Heibel, president of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Yet, based on what she had heard of other struggling newspapers and their closures, including that of the nearby Warroad Pioneer, she was not surprised.
She told the Star Tribune that she felt the Journal was on borrowed time. “But when it happens, it’s still a bit shocking,” she added.
When the Journal prints its last edition, Heibel and other community leaders will be trying to figure out what will fill the news void in their community. Unless someone revives the Journal, we are not optimistic about their chances of filling that void. And if they can’t, the consequences to the community will be far-reaching.
What we have learned from communities that have lost their newspapers is that fewer people vote. Citizens don’t understand why the school district cut course offerings in foreign languages, music, and math. Citizens know little about who is running for office. They don’t know the details of why the county is bonding and raising taxes by $30 million. Without a newspaper, the cost of issuing those bonds goes up because investors recognize a greater opportunity for malfeasance. Fewer people run for office. We lose the stories that create a common bond to get things done.
The ability to hold powerful appointed and elected public officials accountable is lost when the newspaper goes away. Newspapers have authority for five fundamental reasons: our reach in a community ensures everyone knows what their government officials are up to; our financial strength gives them the ability to challenge government power; we’re always on duty showing up day after day; our knowledge of the laws that guarantee citizen rights ensures transparency and accountability, and we are the most trusted source of news about our communities.
At the vast majority of public meetings we cover, we are the only citizen in the room. We represent the people of our community. We are their watchdog.
Another likely outcome for the people of International Falls from losing their newspaper is that they will become more polarized.
In an article on the website Five Thirty-Eight, Joshua Darr writes that “when local newspapers close, people don’t find another local option. Instead, they get their news from national outlets.” When they do, they fall into their political camps with their often bitter and confrontational forms of communication.
What keeps these divides from developing in a community when it has a local newspaper? “Local political news offers Americans what political scientist Lilliana Mason calls a cross-cutting identity’— or something that connects partisans on a different dimension instead of further dividing them along party lines,” Darr writes. “Put another way, when people read news about their neighborhoods, schools, and municipal services, they think like locals. When they read about national political conflict, they think like partisans.”
We work together as neighbors and friends, as community-minded citizens, to overcome challenges and get things done. In doing so, we build bonds that draw us together with a common purpose. These bonds are reflected in the stories community newspapers write.
While some claim they can get their community news from social media outlets like Facebook, they can’t. Social media is overwhelmed with opinion and rumor. It can’t replace the knowledge of an experienced local reporter who attends every meeting.
What we also know is that the internet provides no financial salvation for community newspapers. Its revenues are far too meager at the local level.
“The market is simply not providing local newspapers the resources they need to deliver the civic benefits they’re capable of, which raises the question as to what extent the government should step in to help,” Darr writes.
“People have long debated whether freedom of the press means freedom from government assistance, but on this point, history is clear: Government policies like tax breaks and exemptions from some labor laws and minimum wage and overtime rules have benefited newspapers since the 18th century.”
In a piece titled: The Path to Restoring Journalism As a Pillar of Our Democracy, Yosef Getachew and Jonathan Walter write, “Robust, quality journalism, particularly at the local level, is undoubtedly critical for a functioning democracy. It supports civic engagement and provides communities with vital information on issues such as health care, public safety, and economic development. Journalism provides the tools necessary for a well-informed public and sustainable self-government.”
Multiple plans have been put forth for saving community journalism; they languish in a Congress incapable of acting with the thought and speed required to save America’s newspapers.