Local editors deny newspaper war in River Falls

Posted April 10, 2023

While hundreds of small-town newspapers around the country have closed in recent years, the River Falls area now has two weekly papers in apparent competition for readers: the Pierce County Journal and the Star-Observer.

But the editors — John McLoone of the Pierce County Journal and Jim Johnson of the Star-Observer — deny that their publications are in a newspaper war. A newspaper war is when two or more papers battle for coverage, and for readers, in the same area.

“I don’t really see it as a war of any kind,” McLoone said. “I mean we do our stuff, they do their stuff.”

Johnson agreed. “As far as like a newspaper war, I think that’s a little outside of what’s actually happening.”

For nearly 150 years, River Falls was served by the River Falls Journal. In 2019, owner Forum Communications Co. of Fargo, North Dakota, merged its River Falls, Hudson and New Richmond newspapers into one publication, the Star-Observer. The following year, Forum sold the newspaper and several other operations to Vermont-based O’Rourke Media Group.

Meanwhile, the former Prescott Journal rebranded as the Pierce County Journal, although it continues to be published in Prescott. The publication is owned by McLoone’s Thepaperboy.news group, which runs several other operations in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Journal traces its heritage back to the first newspaper in Pierce County, the Prescott Paraclete, which appeared in 1855.

The two papers primarily operate in different counties. The Star-Observer, with an office in Hudson, reports mostly on St. Croix County, while the Pierce County Journal sticks to Pierce County. Division Street in River Falls marks the border between the two counties. This seems to have created two distinct audiences for each paper, said Sandy Ellis, UW-River Falls professor emerita of journalism.

“They kind of have a different market. The market for the Journal, it’s more rural,” Ellis said. The two papers seem to be independent from each other through this physical division, as well as the other areas that the papers cover.

“I don’t think that the Star-Observer is going to take away business from the Journal, nor do I think the Journal is going to take away business from the Star-Observer,” she said. “I think they have different audiences.”

McLoone said, “We’re just doing our thing, you know. We work hard to cover local news. The people in the county have appreciated that, and they’ve subscribed.”

Both newspapers have, for now, dropped paywalls to their online content. The Pierce County Journal’s website is at piercecountyjournal.news and the paper charges $45 for an annual subscription to the print edition delivered within the county. The Star-Observer maintains a separate website, riverfallsjournal.com, for River Falls news and charges $80.08 a year for subscriptions to the printed Star-Observer plus digital content.

“The core market for each newspaper is different,” Johnson said. “The Star Observer, the core market is River Falls and Hudson… The Pierce County Journal, they cover all of Pierce County, and their core market is Ellsworth. There will be need going forward for both of the newspapers to continue what they’re doing.”

The two papers seem to be wanted by the community, McLoone said, A lot of papers going out of business makes people realize that they want local newspapers again.

“Many communities are losing their newspapers,” Johnson agreed. “For River Falls to have two newspapers, to cover the city, is really a big deal for River Falls.”

Each paper seems to hold each other in high regard. Both editors said they have respect for the other newspaper.

“He’s a good guy,” McLoone said of Johnson. “He’s a very skilled and knowledgeable editor. He’s been in it a long time, and in a lot of different places they got a good guy in town there.”

Johnson added: “There’s no animosity between our reporters. They know each other. I think there’s respect for the work that all of them do.”