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Deep staff cuts make the St. Cloud Times a ‘ghost newspaper’

With dwindling circulation and an almost non-existent press staff, the St. Cloud Times is a ghost of the publication that was once one of Minnesota’s best small daily newspapers.

Business owner Gannett Co. Inc., heavily in debt and under pressure to reverse declining revenues, has downsized to the point that only two reporters remain to cover news and events in the central region of the Minnesota of about 200,000 people.

“People have always relied on the St. Cloud Times to set the agenda,” said Dale Zacher, chair of the mass communications department at St. Cloud State University. “It’s no longer the civic institution it used to be. It’s a sad downward spiral.

“It would be the perfect time to get involved in political corruption, because no one is watching.”

At its peak, the paper had 40–50 people in its newsroom spanning three counties and beyond, regularly winning state and even national journalism awards. Today, his duo of overwhelmed reporters write for a drastically reduced audience. The newspaper’s circulation has grown from around 28,000 in 2013 to around 8,600 today.

What are these loyal readers missing?

“Everything,” said Don Casey, who spent more than 25 years at the Times and retired as editor in 1997. “There’s no idea what’s going on in the community.

“If you look at the Times content, no one is covering the city council, the school board, the events that are happening.”

As recently as 2016, The Times published a broad look at immigration issues in central Minnesota that was named “Story of the Year” by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists.

The Times is one of some 250 daily newspapers owned by Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper company. Burdened by debt from a 2019 merger and battered by declining revenue, Gannett is taking aggressive steps to cut costs, company officials said in a recent call with Wall Street analysts.

In the third quarter of this year alone, Gannett cut 6.5% of its workforce, laying off 468 employees and eliminating 400 vacancies in its media operations, said the company’s chief financial officer, Doug Horne.

The Times’ news director – its main local reporter – took a buyout and left in November, while another reporter left last week, leaving only the two reporters in a once-bustling newsroom.

In an emailed statement, a Gannett spokesperson said, “While incredibly challenging, we are implementing significant efficiencies across the business and responding decisively to the current macroeconomic volatility to continue to propel Gannett’s future.”

An industry in decline

The Times is a symbol of the declines that have befallen newspapers in the digital age. Since 2005, more than a quarter of the nation’s newspapers have closed, according to a report by Penelope Muse Abernathy and Tim Franklin of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The number of people employed in newsrooms fell during this period by almost 60%, from around 75,000 to around 31,000.

Abernathy coined the phrase “ghost paper” to describe a journal that still works, but has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. She said the Times qualified for the description.

This has real consequences for society, Abernathy said.

“I worry about losing all the functions that a powerful newspaper offered,” she said. “The ability to identify issues that were bubbling beneath the surface, the ability to do candidate vetting.”

News options are limited in the St. Cloud area. The Star Tribune has a one-person bureau there, staffed by a former Times reporter. There are no television stations based in St. Cloud; three local radio stations provide news coverage, but more headlines than depth. Still, even that might be better than what the Times reports, said Mike Knaak, who was fired in 2016 after 42 years there.

“[Radio station] WJON is probably the most trusted news source in town right now,” he said.

Gannett and other news companies, including the Star Tribune, are trying to energize their digital products, which they see as the future. But it’s a slow climb. Gannett declined to reveal the number of digital subscribers to The Times, making it impossible to say whether the company has replaced lost print readers.

People now have other ways to get information, especially on social media. But these social media sites often feed on information provided by professional journalists, said Reed Anfinson, owner of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Minnesota, and former president of the National Newspaper Association.

“You can’t have a democracy without an informed electorate,” he said. “And you can’t have an informed electorate without professional journalists covering this community every day.

…Citizen journalists certainly can’t do that.”

Fill the void

The information industry is looking for solutions. Nonprofit digital news organizations such as MinnPost, the Texas Tribune and the Carolina Public Press have tried to fill in the gaps. Abernathy’s report counted about 75 such nonprofit sites with a regional or national focus, as well as about 275 local digital news sites, most of them for-profit.

In suburban Twin Cities, the nonprofit Eden Prairie Local News was launched in 2020 after the longtime community newspaper was shut down by its hedge fund owner.

According to Abernathy’s report, there are about 150 metropolitan and regional dailies in the country, about 1,080 small dailies, and 5,150 weekly and non-daily newspapers.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has been a leading voice in pushing for the Journalism Preservation and Competition Act, a bipartisan bill that would allow news organizations to unite and to negotiate with “big tech companies that profit from their news content,” Klobuchar said in a statement earlier this year. On Friday, a spokesperson for Klobuchar said the senator was “working across the aisle to get it passed before the end of the year.”

Nonprofit news organizations are a positive step, Zacher said, but won’t fill the void.

“We can’t replace a local institution like the St. Cloud Times was,” he said. “Community journalism will only survive if the public supports it.”

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