'Hyperlocal' news fading away as rural Minnesota newspapers disappear, report says

“We are the lifeblood of information in the community,” publisher Reed Anfinson said. “Without our newspapers the community knows nothing about itself."

Lee Zion flips through archives of the Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger, which documented the news in small rural communities of western Nicollet County since 1904.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

MOORHEAD — The health of rural communities and the strength of their democratic processes is diminishing across Minnesota as more and more local newspapers are forced to close, crippled by the expansion of online giants, diminished advertising dollars and a shortage of trained journalists.

This according to the newest research report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development (CRPD), which explores the decline of rural newspapers in Minnesota and how it affects civic engagement within those communities.

Around 25% of Minnesota’s newspapers have shut their doors over the last 21 years, according to the CRPD report. Over 60% of those closures occurred in Greater Minnesota.

The number of people working in the newspaper business declined 70% during that same time frame, the report added.

A chart showing declining newspaper circulation.
Newspaper circulation has been declining for the last two decades.
Submitted photo / Minnesota Center for Rural Policy and Development

Moorhead and the metro area haven’t been immune to the downwards trend.


Journalism jobs and media positions are the only employment category forecasted to decrease in the Fargo/Moorhead metro area, Adam Altenburg, the community and transportation analyst at Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments (MetroCOG), told the Moorhead City Council in February 2023.

“The newspaper industry has been struggling everywhere over the last 20 to 30 years,” said Marnie Werner, CRPD’s vice president of research and operations during an online panel she hosted on Wednesday, May 3.

While some states have seen vast news deserts, things aren’t that bad in Minnesota, Werner said. Every county has at least one local newspaper, she added.

'Lifeblood of information'

The closures and staffing decreases have a direct impact on the civic engagement within a community, the report asserts.

“We are the lifeblood of information in the community,” publisher Reed Anfinson said. “Without our newspapers the community knows nothing about itself other than what it trades on Facebook or social media.”

Anfinson is the publisher and owner of three papers – the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Grant County Herald in Elbow Lake and Stevens County Times in Morris – as well as a former president of the National Newspaper Association.

John Bartholomay holds a newspaper clipping describing the military service of some of his siblings. David Samson / The Forum
John Bartholomay holds a newspaper clipping describing the military service of some of his siblings.
David Samson / The Forum

A local paper is essential to rural communities, according to Jason Brown, the publisher of Long Prairie Leader/Practical Printing and the Osakis Anchor. The paper covers everything from a person’s birth, high school achievements, marriage and obituary, and serves as a voice for the public by printing news releases and letters to the editor.

Beyond that, local newspapers serve as “protectors of our democracy, the first amendment, and the ability to speak freely,” noted Dr. Jennifer Moore, associate professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.


Lee Zion is a one-man newsroom at the Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger as the owner and publisher. Despite working hundreds of hours, he still works to put out a quality product each week.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Journalists are often the only non-governmental official in the room at local city meetings, Werner said, and inform the community with their coverage of meetings of city councils, county boards and school boards as well as the goings-on at local 4-H clubs and community theaters.

“Small local newspapers (weeklies) are the only source of 'hyperlocal' news, especially for rural communities,” Werner said.

Decades-long decline

Newspapers used to be sustained largely through their advertising budget, Werner said, which was decimated with the emergence of online sites like Craigslist, Facebook and Google, then plummeted again in 2008 as the recession affected many small town businesses and decreased their usage of local newspaper advertising.

Currently, small towns with an influx of chain stores still see a reduction in local advertising dollars, Anfinson said. Additionally, large national stores like Amazon don’t advertise locally and can out-compete local businesses.

Newspapers are also having a hard time finding staff, Werner said, due to declining rural populations and low industry pay.

Trained journalists are even harder to find, with some rural papers utilizing part-time help from community members like pastors and farmers, Brown added.

“We might not have news deserts,” Reed said, “but there is a faded image in some of our communities about what a newspaper used to be… we are struggling to cover everything we need to cover and we can’t find the staff we need.”

What can be done?

Papers across the state are exploring a variety of ways to keep the presses running, Werner said. Some are focused on diversifying their revenue in light of declining advertising dollars by raising subscription rates. Others have transitioned their business model to a nonprofit status and solicit donations from people and organizations.


Newspapers on press
Newspapers come off the press.
Reuters photo

Yet others are seeking government intervention to help rural newspapers.

At the federal level, Senate Bill 673 and House Bill 3940 seek to help rural newspapers get compensation from giants like Google and Facebook who use their articles as content and provide tax credits to newspaper subscribers and to small businesses who advertise locally, according to CRPD.

The Founding Fathers knew that to have a strong democracy required an informed citizenry and a strong free press, Reed said.

The government providing reduced postal rates for local newspapers, reduced income tax for papers and assisting rural papers by helping offset their staffing costs could give them a vital lifeline they need to prevent more rural closings, he said, thus promoting an informed and civically engaged community.

I cover the politics beat – come see me at a local government meeting sometime. I'm also the night reporter on weeknights. 👻
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