INTERNATIONAL FALLS- Residents of this remote border city are trying to come to grips with the harsh news announced last week that the 110-year-old International Falls Journal newspaper is shutting …
INTERNATIONAL FALLS- Residents of this remote border city are trying to come to grips with the harsh news announced last week that the 110-year-old International Falls Journal newspaper is shutting down at the end of the month.
The newspaper’s fate was announced in a brief item in its June 1 edition, and the blame was placed in large part on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Like many businesses this past year, the impact of the pandemic on The Journal and North Star Publishing has been dramatic,” the notice read. “These challenges, when combined with other difficult economic trends, have forced us to make this difficult decision.”
The first edition of the Daily Journal was published on July 1, 1911. In 2010, “Daily” disappeared from the name when publishers cut back to two editions per week, and last year they transitioned to weekly publication. The June 24 edition of The Journal will be its last.
“Our newspaper was such a staple, it’s something you take for granted,” International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce President Tricia Heibel said. “You don’t think about the possibility it could close.”
“Unfortunately, we’re confronted with the reality that it can. It’s a scramble, and community leaders and residents are discovering the many impacts of that.”
Local Journal publisher Rob Davenport declined to be interviewed for this article, referring back to the published statement. The Timberjay reached out to MediaNews Group, the Journal’s owner, for comments about the closure. Regional Publisher Greg Mazanec in the St. Paul office was no more forthcoming than Davenport in his email response.
“We are not commenting any further,” Mazanec wrote.
MediaNews Group is part of Manhattan-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital (AGC), which just last month became the country’s second-largest newspaper publisher with its purchase of Tribune Publishing. When the Journal came into its fold in 2020 with AGC’s purchase of former owner Red Wing Publishing, AGC became the largest and most locally disconnected owner of any in the Journal’s 110-year history.
AGC has come under intense fire from many corners of the print journalism community for its aggressive cost-cutting measures in the newspapers it has purchased. Among the more scathing assessments of AGC is one by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan this past February:
“When Alden comes in, it’s slash-and-burn time,” Sullivan wrote. “Newsroom jobs — reporters, editors, photographers — are cut to the bone. Decisions are made not for long-term sustainability, not for service to the community, not for humane treatment of skilled and dedicated staff, but for next quarter’s profit-and-loss statement.”
Given that Davenport and Mazanec both declined to be interviewed, it is unknown how much, if any, local input went into the decision to close down the Journal. However, Tricia Heibel offered some insight.
“I have connected with our local publisher,” the Chamber president said. “My understanding is that this is a decision not made locally. And my interpretation from him is that this is a final decision.”
As the only comprehensive news source in the International Falls region, the loss of the Journal will in some way impact all of the area’s business, governmental, and community affairs.
“The paper’s importance to businesses has many angles to it,” Heibel said. “It’s a great way for businesses to communicate their sales, advertisements, job openings, and so much of what they’re doing. It’s been a communication tool with our elected officials. (Business owners) are not always able to attend board and council meetings, so they can still be informed about impacts to their businesses by articles in the paper.”
Heibel said the Chamber’s efforts to advocate on behalf of the greater business community will also be hampered without a local newspaper.
Koochiching County Administration Director Jenny Herman said the sudden announcement of the closure of the Journal, the county’s official legal newspaper, has them scrambling to investigate what alternatives they can find.
“If we don’t have a newspaper that meets the guidelines, I don’t know what our options would be,” Herman said. “It’s new to us, and it’s under review right now by the county attorney. We use the newspaper quite a bit to inform the public about things like sanitation hours, timber auctions, and such. It’s also going to affect the courts with their public notices, and the city of International Falls.”
Herman said she believed the International Falls City Council was scheduled to meet Tuesday night to discuss the impact of the Journal’s closure on its operations.
Heibel also talked about the loss of the Journal’s function in serving and communicating the social aspects of life in a small-town.
“I grew up in the Twin Cities,” she said. “It was new to me to see open postings like baby showers. From births, deaths, marriages, school events and sporting highlights, from lost pets to everything else, it was just a really central communication tool.”
Like other small-town and rural newspapers, the Journal helped to define the town’s identity.
Nick Mathews spent 15 years as senior editor of the Houston Chronicle and regional editor-in-chief for three Virginia daily newspapers before entering journalism graduate studies at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. His research interests have focused on newspaper closures and the plight of small towns and rural areas that have lost them.
“In one research project, I studied the impact of a 99-year-old weekly newspaper on its abandoned readers,” Mathews said. “(There was) a clear negative impact on the abandoned former readers’ sense of community. The residents missed celebrated gatherings, they felt more isolated, and they noticed diminished pride in their community.”
“Some former readers compared the death of the newspaper to the death of a loved one,” Mathews continued. “The newspaper meant that much to them and to the community. The International Falls Journal has been a part of its readers’ lives for more than a century. It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of the loss for community members.”
The demise of the Journal also will likely have a huge impact on the operations of the Koochiching County Historical Society, said Executive Director Ashley LaVigne.
“It creates a problem for the museum where we now have to create a new system to archive all the news that would have been in one place (in the Journal),” she said.
For example, instead of having the newspaper as the source for reports of city council and school board meetings, the historical society may have to start obtaining meeting minutes from each governmental and community entity it tracks, LaVigne explained.
People inside and outside of the community depend on the historical society for genealogical research, LaVigne said, and “obituaries are the most important for us.” Looking at a future without the Journal’s compiled reporting of regional obituaries is definitely a challenge, she said.
“The loss of the paper is hard,” LaVigne said. “It’s a glimpse into a community and it tells a story over time. Now we have to figure out a way to record history as it’s happening without the newspaper there to record that. Whether there’s a fire or a new business, all that gets chronicled in our holdings. That information isn’t going to be available unless we go out and do it, which we don’t have the ability to do. Our historical society only operates on a staff of two.”
While the loss of the Journal is a terrific blow to the community, Heibel said she’s already been talking with others about alternatives. One approach might be trying to recruit a new newspaper to town, while another might be to develop a web-based community news site. It’s too soon for anything other than brainstorming possibilities, but Heibel is ready to do it.
“I think it’s worth exploring,” she said. “There are communities smaller than ours that have publications. I think we could get broader community support to bring in something like that again. Everything seems hypothetical right now as we’re exploring options, but I think there are options.”