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Weekly Newspapers Struggling Nationwide

On August 2, 2023, the news program PBS Newshour reported a story titled “How the loss of local newspapers fueled political divisions in the US.”

Telling the compelling story of the decision taken by a small-town Texas newspaper, a family-owned publication for decades called The Canadian Record, reporter Judy Woodruff did an excellent job talking about the number of newspaper closures. She didn’t accomplish tying the demise of local publications to our rancid political environment.

Over the last two decades, over 2,200 weekly newspapers closed in the US. The reasons for these closures are basic.

Historically, weekly newspapers were started, owned, and operated by a single individual or two. As these publishers tired or retired, they passed the business on to the next generation or sold it to some other individual.

With a focus on local news and happenings, the weekly newspaper is a consummate small business. To keep enough revenue coming in, the publisher often operated a print shop, sold office supplies, and provided other business services in the community. He, and often she, was a pillar of the local community.

In the 1990s, the weekly news industry became a target for roll-up mergers. Investors, like wealthy individuals or private equity firms, came in, paid current publishers top dollar for the business, and took over operations. The strategy was to consolidate all the functions across the papers acquired, like administration, legal, advertising sales, and production. Staffing levels for reporting and editing functions were reduced, even eliminated.

Since that activity, the bloom came off the rose of the local news business. Technology and a couple of bad recessions made the industry less attractive.

Advertisers abandoned newspapers or seriously curtailed ad buys. Classified ads have been lost to social media sites. Real estate ads, often a large part of newspaper revenue, all but disappeared, moving to the internet. Seeing circulation declines with some newspapers, local businesses spent their ad dollars elsewhere.

As investors looked to stem the tide of lost revenues, they made additional cuts to newsrooms, creating an endless cycle of decline. Eventually, many just pulled the plug. For those running individually, family-owned newspapers like the Canadian Record or the Lake County News-Chronicle, which closed in Two Harbors in 2020, stopping the newspaper was the decision they were left with.

A weekly newspaper is the life-blood of a community. It tells the stories of the successes and disappointments of the people it serves. It reports on the comings and goings of local folks. It reports on the local sports scene, church activities, parades, and festivals. In its pages, you’ll find who died, was born, and got married.

Every person who had their story told in the local newspaper will remember it forever.

On a genuinely civic level, community weeklies report on local government. From school board to hospital board, city council to county board, the small town newspaper reporter tells the story and keeps elected officials honest. It profiles candidates and sitting officeholders when elections draw near, helping voters make a more informed vote.

Sadly, with the loss of subscribers, declining ad revenues, and competition from social media, there are never enough resources for newspapers to staff reporting staff to cover what needs to be covered.

The North Shore has a rich heritage of local newspapers, and political division was rampant even then.

Grand Marais had two competing newspapers at the turn of the last century. The Cook County Herald started in 1893, was owned by Chris Murphy, and was considered the paper of the Democrats.

Grand Marais News, believed to have started about the same time, was owned by John A. Blackwell and stood for the Republicans. Blackwell bought the Herald in 1907 to create the Grand Marais/Cook County News Herald.

Although it has had several different publishers (including this writer), the newspaper continues today as the Cook County News Herald. With a full-time staff of two people, it was purchased by CherryRoad Media in 2020. Cherry Road currently owns 63 newspapers around the central part of the country, including a startup news-paper in Two Harbors, Lake County Press.

The history of newspapering in Two Harbors is fascinating. Starting in the 1890s, two papers lasted until 1909, The Iron Trade Journal and Two Harbors Iron News.

These two weeklies ended publication when The Journal News was first printed in 1909. That paper closed in 1920. In the meantime, Lake County Chronicle (1918-1930) and The Two Harbors Socialist (1913-1918) were also published.

The Lake County News Chronicle began publishing in 1974 and closed in 2020. The Lake County Press started by CherryRoad Media shortly after.

The  third weekly newspaper on the shore is this one, the North-shore Journal. It started life in 1958 as the Bayside Shopper, a weekly publication of mostly advertising that was owned by Seth and Tracy Thun.

In 2001, Christine Mallory’s husband at the time took on the job of press operator for the Bayside Shopper and Printing in Silver Bay. By April 1, 2002 the Mallory’s acquired the business from the Thuns. Shortly after, they named the weekly Northshore Journal and entered the newspaper business.

With a Business Administration and Marketing Degree, Christine is now the publisher.

The Northshore Journal is delivered free of charge to USPS customers in Cook County and Lake County with about 900 copies to the Duluth area for people who reside in the Lake Superior School District. In addition, 300-400 copies find their way to local retailers, available to anyone free of charge.

The Northshore Journal is the only locally and woman owned newspaper in the Arrowhead region.

There are more than 5,000 weekly newspapers in the US, however the country is losing two newspaper each week.

The PBS reporting included, “Over the past few decades, more than 2,000 newspapers across the country have closed, leaving many communities without a reliable source of local information. Researchers say this crisis in journalism, driven by changes in technology, is fueling the country’s political divisions.”

With three functioning weekly papers on the shore, it doesn’t mean that the pressures impacting the industry nationwide are not happening here. As much as the communities here rely on the weekly papers, the weekly papers rely on the community for survival. The demographic shifts and the decisions of advertisers have a profound effect on the outcome.

In the meantime there are three papers that hope you will continue to support them along the beautiful North Shore.

Steve Fernlund
Steve Fernlund
Typically these “about me” pages include a list of academic achievements (I have none) and positions held (I have had many, but who really cares about those?) So, in the words of the late Admiral James Stockwell, “Who am I? Why am I here?” I’m well into my seventh decade on this blue planet we call home. I’m a pretty successful husband, father, and grandfather, at least in my humble opinion. My progeny may disagree. We have four children and five grandchildren. I spent most of my professional life in the freight business. At the tender age of 40, early retirement beckoned and we moved to Grand Marais. A year after we got here, we bought and operated the Cook County News Herald, a weekly newspaper in Grand Marais. A sharp learning curve for a dumb freight broker to become a newspaper editor and publisher. By 1999 the News Herald was an acquisition target for a rapidly consolidating media market. We sold our businesses and “retired” again, buying a winter retreat in Nevada. In the fall of 2016, we returned to Grand Marais and bought a house from old friends of ours on the ridge overlooking Lake Superior. They were able to move closer to family and their Mexico winter home. And we came home to what we say is our last house. I’m a strong believer in the value of local newspapers--both online and those you can wrap a fish in. I write a weekly column and a couple of feature stories for the Northshore Journal. I’m most interested in writing about the everyday lives of local people and reporting on issues of importance to them.
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