If a tree falls and there was no story about it in the paper, did it happen? | Opinion

The death of newspapers is isolating small Minnesota cities

June 14, 2021 6:00 am

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There’s a crisis at the border. No, not that border. And not that crisis. This one directly affects Minnesotans’ lives and the viability of our local democracy.

On June 24, the International Falls Journal will cease publication, ending a 118-year run of journalistic service to this isolated small town in far northern Minnesota.

The news comes less than two years after the closure of the Warroad Pioneer, another small town newspaper farther west along the border. Back then, the New York Times published an Aug. 1, 2019 feature about the Pioneer, “Dying Gasp of One Local Newspaper,” by Richard Fausset. The story details the collapse of the business model for rural daily and weekly newspapers across the country. 

We shouldn’t expect the Falls Journal to get the same New York Times sendoff that the Warroad Pioneer got. They already wrote that story. Besides, it’s happening so often now that it’s hard to keep track of all these podunk papers. Why bother learning their names? Why bother knowing anything at all about people and places that can’t turn a profit for a media conglomerate?

I suppose if we can’t answer that, the crisis is much worse than we thought.

International Falls nestles into a bend in the Rainy River, which doubles as the border between the United States and Canada. It’s a paper mill town, just like its Canadian twin, Fort Frances, on the other side of the river. It would be easy to cross the river, but few ever try. The towns are so similar that there’s just no point. 

Meantime, Warroad was named for the “war road” used by Santee Dakota warriors to attack the Ojibwe during their 18th Century war to win back their ancestral wild rice beds at Lake of the Woods. The Ojibwe drove the Dakota back along the same road before returning to the village known forever after by this name. 

Warroad was a productive fishing community long before the American Revolution and the mapmaker’s arbitrary international border that now runs seven miles north of its modern-day city limits. Today Warroad is best known for a fierce hockey tradition and the Marvin Windows factory.

These are real places with compelling stories, but if you’d like to know what’s happening in city government, crime, school or the local economy without their local papers you must make several calls after navigating some clunky webpages. More likely, you’ll try cruising local Facebook groups, hoping that the idle speculation of vaguely familiar names (and a smattering of bots) approach the truth. 

This dynamic runs rampant across Minnesota today. And while poorly sourced news or outright disinformation can be found in every corner of the state, it is in rural Minnesota where such material is often the only source of local news. 

Dick Nachbar, a retired environmental engineer for paper mills, detailed the International Falls Journal’s century-long history in a June 8 column that appeared in the newspaper.

Writes Nachbar, “Electronic devices and so-called ‘social media’ may be shoving our small home town papers aside in this modern age; however, those modern trendy trappings can’t replace genuine local face-to-face human networking that sharpens a community’s personality and slows the ‘dumbing down’ influences that seem to occur so widely in our society nowadays.”

Since this is happening so near Canada, I am reminded of Annie Proulx’s 1993 novel “The Shipping News.” This quirky tale tells of a shy reporter named Quoyle who finds himself working the news desk at the Gammy Bird, a small weekly paper in a Newfoundland fishing village. 

His boss, a fisherman-turned-publisher named Jack Buggit, tells him why he started the newspaper in the first place. A government economic development scheme had created a glove factory with no leather supply, and hundreds of promised jobs that would replace the dying fishing industry had fallen through.

“If I’d knew this sucker didn’t have no leather I could have saved myself a trip,” Buggit told Quoyle. “Now, how do you know things? You read ‘em in the paper! There wasn’t no local paper. Just that government mouthpiece down to St. Johns, The Sea Lion. So I says, not knowing nothing about it, hardly able to write a sentence — I only got to ‘Tom’s Dog’ in school — but I made up my mind that if they could start a glove factory with no leather or nobody that knew how to make ‘em, I could start a newspaper.”

Proulx’s fictional Gammy Bird is the kind of paper that can’t be replicated. It’s a rough, flawed product of its local culture, fueled by simple hunger to know what happened last week with as much detail as two or three writers can uncover. And it is more like the first newspapers in rural Minnesota towns than any media conglomerate could ever understand. It was on the backs of these organizations that communities built the identity that rural Minnesota now laments losing. 

Anger over this fact might be justified, but we should no longer be surprised. 

Newspapers once gave away their product for pennies based on the support of advertising. Print advertising is collapsing faster than an old star and there’s nothing to replace it. Even a $10 monthly subscription is a bridge too far for online readers, who have demonstrated they’d rather obsess about free political propaganda than affordable local news.

It is the isolated communities most endangered by this trend.

Living in an isolated community lays bare the importance of community. The grocer, the banker, the teacher: These aren’t strangers, but neighbors. And not just neighbors, but people you need to survive.

Human beings are an interdependent species. What we do affects each other. We’re generally happier and more secure when our lives reflect that interdependence. There are many ways to bind a community together. It doesn’t have to be printed ink on paper. But our communities must mortar themselves in place somehow amid this growing cacophony of soulless persuasion.

Locally owned, locally operated, locally accountable media is as essential to the health of a community as electricity and snow plowing. We can do without these things and most of us might literally survive, but how would we know? 

More importantly, what would be the point?

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.