Local weeklies lose editors as newspaper industry’s struggles continue

Posted April 9, 2017

The restructuring of a regional media company has some concerned about the continuing decline of local newspapers.

Rivertowns Newspapers, owned by Fargo-based company Forum Communications, is a group of a weeklies serving parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota with 10 publications including the River Falls Journal, the Hudson Star Observer and the Red Wing Republican Eagle.

Recently, the organization began reducing staff and consolidating its editorial positions. At least three head editors were let go including Phil Pfuehler of the River Falls Journal and Ray Rivard of the New Richmond News. Chad Richardson, former editor of the Hastings Star-Gazette, was also relieved of his current position as the group’s news director and replaced by Anne Jacobson, editor of the Red Wing Republican Eagle.

Attempts to contact these former editors, as well as current staff, were unsuccessful. In an email, Jacobson said only that Rivertowns was “still in the design stages” and declined to comment further.

Restructuring may signal trouble for the regional weekly group as small newspapers around the country continue to struggle with shrinking advertising revenue and the growth of digital media. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015, circulation of daily newspapers dropped 7 percent and advertising dropped 8 percent. Weekly newspapers, including alternative papers like the New York City’s Village Voice and Seattle’s The Stranger, also have experienced declines in circulation and advertising revenue. In 2015, the Pew Research Center found circulation for the top 20 weeklies in the country had dropped 11 percent.

Michael Norman, professor emeritus and former chair of the UW-River Falls journalism program, said the demise of regional newspapers has an impact on people in small communities who want to keep track of their local elected officials.

“Weeklies do the type of reporting that isn’t glamorous — it’s not The New York Times, it’s not network news — but it really is the bread and butter of what journalism is really all about,” Norman said.

Readers of Rivertowns newspapers may have observed earlier warning signs as the organization had already taken steps toward a new direction. The Hudson Star Observer’s office in Hudson was closed, with all operations relocated to the River Falls Journal’s office in River Falls. However, the River Falls office also isn’t safe as the company has been looking to unload the paper’s 20,349 square foot office building. Just north of downtown River Falls, the property is currently listed at $1.8 million.

Norman said there isn’t a quick way to solve the demise of weekly papers, but a stronger digital presence may help.

“I haven’t seen a model that allows a free standing newspaper in a rural area to survive unless they also go online,” Norman said.

However, Norman said a strong digital initiative likely won’t stop decline of weekly newspapers.

“I think (the future) is very bleak and I think anybody working for a weekly now will tell you the same thing,” Norman said. “There’s just no financial model that’s going to keep it solvent.”

As of now, all of Rivertowns papers continue to be published.