By Theresa Bourke
BRAINERD — Will local newspapers soon die out?
Will the competition for advertising revenue with big tech companies and the day and age where snippets of articles are so easily shared for free be the demise of local journalism?
Not if people continue to care about their communities.
That’s the way Tom West and Pete Mohs see it.
With over 80 years of combined experience in the newspaper industry, West and Mohs lent their expertise to the Gordon Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government during the most recent forum Monday, Oct. 30, at Central Lakes College.
Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle, a member of the Rosenmeier Board, posed questions to the two about the fate of local newspapers, how a changing economy continues to impact small town operations and their importance to the communities they serve.
“It might be easier for local governments if we didn’t have to be held accountable,” Houle said. “I just don’t think that’s really a good idea for the democracy.”
When asked about the big issues facing small newspapers today, West spoke about a broken funding mechanism. It’s one that used to rely on advertising revenue from small mom and pop businesses that have since shuttered their doors when faced with competition from big box stores and online shopping.
West is a retired newspaper publisher, editor and reporter who has worked in Mankato, Janesville, Duluth, Little Falls and Sauk Centre. He served as president of the Minnesota Newspaper Association from 2004-05.
“It’s a much different environment today than it was when I was working,” West said.
For Mohs, part of the problem lies in competition for the news. Young people don’t necessarily want or like to read a physical paper, creating a perception of a dying industry, especially with television and the ease of sharing information online.
Mohs is the publisher of the Brainerd Dispatch, the PineandLakes Echo Journal and six other newspapers in Bemidji, Park Rapids, Detroit Lakes, Wadena, Perham and Blackduck. He served as Minnesota Newspaper Association president in 2014.
“We’re trying things, like we’ve got Newspapers in Education — NIE — we’ve got digital papers in over 100 classrooms in the area, and I think that will help the young kids coming up,” Mohs said. “But there’s a lot of factors.”
Where’s the revenue?
The bulk of newspaper revenue is tied up in advertising, though West noted 2020 marked the first time that newspapers nationwide saw revenue from subscriptions surpass that of advertising.
“That was a big line that was crossed,” he said. “And so the fear is that only the wealthy will be able to afford newspapers in the future because the price of the subscription is going to have to pay for all of that.”
That’s not yet the case in Brainerd, but Mohs said the newspaper earns supplemental revenue from printing more than 30 other papers in its press and producing magazines.
A challenge comes from Facebook, X and other social media and tech companies, where people can share portions of articles taken from a newspaper’s printed edition or website, without directing readers to the source.
“Maybe it doesn’t hurt you immediately,” West said, “but over time, more stories that you put the money into producing end up on their website, so then people will say, ‘Well why do I need to subscribe to the newspaper? I can read it on Facebook.’”
Newspaper classified sections used to be one of the top places to buy a car or find a job. Websites like Craigslist and other free services, though, nowadays make people balk at spending money to advertise.
What’s the impact?
Every business is the same, West said. They’ve got to make money to stay afloat. Newspapers are no different, now turning to other alternative revenue sources, like producing other products or hosting events.
“It’s kind of a hit and miss kind of a thing, and it’s not really what the core of the business is, which is advertising and news,” West said.
When revenues and expenses don’t move together, cuts are inevitable, Mohs said, with the climate getting to the point where newsroom staffs are now too small to make more cuts.
“All we can do today is the basics,” he said. “You’re covering the games that you can cover. And then you’re also covering the meetings you can cover, and once in a while you get to a business story or a feature.”
And while technology can make jobs easier, it also creates more steps in some areas, requiring social media presence, links to photos and graphics, online videos and time spent on digital layout.
“The pressure keeps growing as we spread every employee thinner and thinner,” West said.
Dwindling revenue impacts how and when readers get their papers, too.
More and more papers, the Brainerd Dispatch and Echo Journal included, now rely on mail carriers to put the paper in readers’ hands because paying separate delivery drivers and subsidizing gas mileage became too expensive.
That shift comes with its challenges in a day when the post office faces staffing issues and pressure to prioritize package deliveries in competition with FedEx and UPS.
“In my perfect world,” Mohs said, “the post office would have the first, second, third class mail and then let the packages be done by FedEx and UPS.”
Mohs said he doesn’t blame the postal carriers, who work long, hard hours. It goes all the way up to the postmaster general at the very top of the chain.
“All I ask of them is to be transparent,” he said of postal leaders, apologizing to anyone who isn’t getting their paper in a timely fashion or in some cases at all.
Why does it matter?
Mohs pointed to a 2022 study from the Medill School at Northwestern University that showed communities without local news coverage had lower voter turnout, higher taxes and more government corruption than those with newspapers.
“That’s why it’s a bad idea,” Houle chimed in. “I think all of those things are true, and transparency really does make a difference in how people behave.”
And when it’s gone it’s noticeable, which might just be the silver lining.
“I’ve always said, ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone,’” West said. “So I think a bright spot is that we will be missed.”
But if people continue to care, Mohs said, newspapers are going to be around for a while.
Houle closed Monday’s session with an apt literary quote.
“It was Samuel Clemens — Mark Twain — who saw his obituary published and said that the story of his demise had been greatly exaggerated,” Houle said. “Isn’t that the story of newspapers? The story of the demise has been a bit exaggerated. They are alive and well in our community.”
Before West and Mohs started their conversation, the audience heard a message from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., about the importance of small newspapers and the work she’s doing in Congress to combat the struggles.
“Americans from all walks of life rely on local reporting, but too many local newsrooms have been forced to shut their doors,” Klobuchar said in a video message. “... We know that they aren’t closing because of lack of talent or passion or certainly not because of a lack of news. They’re closing because they can’t afford to stay open.”
To combat that issue, Klobuchar worked with Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, to introduce the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which ensures media outlets can band together and negotiate for fair compensation from large technology companies that profit from news content.
The legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in June with bipartisan support.
“It will be the destruction of our democracy if we’re not able to make sure that people get reliable information,” Klobuchar said. “As they’ve always said, you can be entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. If we want to preserve freedom of the press — which is of course in our Constitution — we need to give local newspapers a fighting chance.”