Final edition: Inside the dying gasp of a local US newspaper

Richard Fausset and Tim Gruber, The New York Times

Posted at Aug 02 2019 09:34 AM

The final edition of the Warroad Pioneer sits on a table at the Daisy Gardens restaurant, where a customer was reading it over breakfast, in Warroad, Minnesota, May 8, 2019. With the distribution of its final issue, the Warroad Pioneer, which printed about 1,100 copies per week, joined roughly 2,000 newspapers that have closed in the US over the last 15 years. Tim Gruber/The New York Times

WARROAD, Minnesota -- Whenever she thought her small staff would be facing a particularly stressful deadline day, Rebecca Colden, the publisher of the weekly Warroad Pioneer, declared a Bloody Mary Monday.

This was definitely one of those Mondays — indeed, the last of them. The Pioneer, the newspaper that had served this tiny town just below the Canadian border for 121 years, was one issue away from certain death.

When Colden woke up that day, she listened to a contemporary Christian song that had buoyed her spirit of late: “This is my story, this is my song/Praising my savior all day long.” Now she was trudging into the newsroom on a cold May morning with vodka, olives and tomato mix. A mock-up of the front page greeted her on the newsroom printer, screaming out a bold, striking headline: FINAL EDITION. She sat at a desk and opened some bills, one of them stamped “past due.”

With the distribution of its final issue on May 7, The Warroad Pioneer, which printed about 1,100 copies per week, joined roughly 2,000 newspapers that have closed in the United States over the last 15 years, according to a study by University of North Carolina researchers soberly titled “The Expanding News Desert.” Today in many US communities, the researchers noted, “there is simply not enough digital or print revenue to pay for the public service journalism that local newspapers have historically provided.”

In Warroad, The Pioneer was full of soft-focus features on residents, reprinted news releases, photos of fishermen with their outsize catches, and news of awards won by children and Shriners. There were the occasional stories, too, about city officials, the school board and local sports.

This, then, was what the desert might look like: No hometown paper to print the obituaries from the Helgeson Funeral Home. No place to chronicle the exploits of the beloved high school hockey teams. No historical record for the little town museum, which had carefully kept the newspaper in boxes going back to 1897.

And what about the next government scandal, the next school funding crisis? Who would be there? Who would tell?

“Is there going to be somebody to hold their feet to the fire?” asked Tim Bjerk, 51, an in-house photographer at Marvin, the big window and door manufacturer that dominates the town.

At The Warroad Pioneer, it had been a death by familiar cuts. Hardly anyone took out a classified ad anymore. Amazon, with its doorstep retail service, has felt particularly miraculous in this remote stretch of Minnesota, where winter temperatures can dip to minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Storefront retail has suffered. Doug’s Supermarket, the only grocer in town, preferred to put its color shopping inserts inside a fat, free, ads-only mailer called The Northland Trading Post.

Colden had announced the paper’s demise — one of about 65 to close in Minnesota since 2004 — in a letter to community leaders a few weeks earlier. Warroad’s “dire retail reconfiguration and exodus,” she wrote, “has had a catastrophic impact on this community newspaper.”

She was surprised when people were surprised. She thought they had recognized the cry for help that was the March 14, 2017, issue. A front-page bar below The Pioneer’s flag was always reserved for a quotation of the week, usually from the likes of a Billy Graham or John F. Kennedy. But this time it was from Tupac Shakur: “I’m a reflection of the community.”

Below was a sea of white space, where the articles usually were, and a message floating in the middle: “Without YOU, There is NO Newspaper!”

A MATTER OF COMPLACENCY

From left: Publisher Rebecca Colden, Graphic Designer Jeneé Provance, Editor Koren Zaiser and her husband Rick work on edits of the Pioneer's final edition, in Warroad, Minnesota, May 6, 2019. With the distribution of its final issue, the Warroad Pioneer, which printed about 1,100 copies per week, joined roughly 2,000 newspapers that have closed in the US over the last 15 years. Tim Gruber, The New York Times

It was sometime after 9 a.m. when Colden’s remaining staff — Koren Zaiser, 48, the editor, and Jenée Provance, 56, the page designer — rolled into the Pioneer newsroom. Shelley Galle, the longtime office manager, had already taken a job at the Seven Clans Casino across the river.

Provance mixed the bloody marys. The women hoisted their plastic cups. “We’re going to get this done,” Colden told them. “We’re going to get it out, and we’re going to do it well.”

Outside there was no grand rally to save The Pioneer. It was mostly another day in Warroad, population 1,880. Farmers gossiped over breakfast at the Daisy Gardens restaurant. Workers trudged by the hundreds to their jobs at the big, yellow Marvin window factory.

Part of the problem, Colden suspected, was that no one could imagine Warroad without the paper that had been publishing since the McKinley administration. “There’s that complacency,” she said. “With a 120-year-old paper, they are just so sure we’re always going to be there.”

Warroad is defined by the big buildings owned by the Marvin company — offices, factory space, a big hardware store and a 6,000-square-foot visitors’ center. Inside is a museum-quality exhibit on the company’s long local history, and profiles of the Marvin family members who serve as Warroad’s de facto royal family.

Residents call a quick, social drive around the heart of town “taking a whip.” On a whip one sees train tracks, pickup trucks, and signs and stickers declaring “Hockeytown USA,” a nod to Warroad’s production of an outsize number of famous hockey players.

Colden tends to take her whip in her Chevrolet SUV with the yearning strum and thump of praise music on the stereo. She is 59, politically conservative, with a slight resemblance to Hillary Clinton and a voice that shares some of Clinton’s no-nonsense, Middle American timbre.

She bought The Warroad Pioneer in December 2008, with a background in marketing, confidence in her writing ability and big hopes of turning around an iconic local brand that she thought was foundering editorially.

She discovered her inner assignment editor, incessantly scouring the town for story ideas as she took her whips past manicured tiny houses and tired clutches of downtown storefronts.

But she also found herself swimming, almost immediately, against the current of the Great Recession. She introduced a website for The Pioneer. It did little for her bottom line. A divorce, a bankruptcy and a failed bait-shop venture with her then-husband did not help.

The paper had never had more than four full-time employees during her tenure, and had always relied on a network of freelancers for much of its coverage. More than a year ago, Colden was forced to lay off her sole freelance local government reporter. The desert was already creeping, and people felt it.

“Definitely, it got slim,” said Bill Boyd, 55, a Marvin employee. “Even the ads — if you wanted to get a snowblower, you used to look at the paper. Now all of that’s on Facebook.”

NO KNIGHT TO THE RESCUE

Jeremy Praska, lead pressman, checks a copy of the final edition of the Pioneer, Warroad, Minnesota's newspaper for 121 years, at Morgan Printing in Grafton, North Dakota, May 7, 2019. With the distribution of its final issue, the Warroad Pioneer, which printed about 1,100 copies per week, joined roughly 2,000 newspapers that have closed in the US over the last 15 years. Tim Gruber, The New York Times

On the Wednesday before the final edition, Colden returned to the newsroom from a meeting with a Warroad entrepreneur whose business acumen she valued. She had hoped it would generate some ideas that might save the paper.

But when she returned, her staff knew from looking at her that the meeting had not fixed anything. “We read each other’s minds,” Zaiser said.

Colden was in her office, the door half-closed. Her eyes were glistening. “I think a lot of times people want that Hallmark story where a knight in shining armor comes out and we’re going to save the day,” she said. “That was not this conversation.”

Her staff saw the toughness in her in April 2010 when she was forced to tangle with John W. Marvin, known as Jake, the chief executive of the Marvin company at the time. The paper had published an article about Marvin’s daughter, Brooke Marvin, above the fold, along with her mug shot. The story described a chaotic scene at a trailer park and reported that Brooke Marvin had been arrested on charges of misdemeanor domestic assault, obstructing arrest and criminal damage to property.

Colden said she heard from Jake Marvin soon after the article came out. He was angry. “Your name’s no different than anybody else’s name,” she recalls telling him, “and we publish other people’s children who get in trouble the same way.”

Marvin told her he might rescind Marvin advertising — though he later walked back the threat. But he also rescinded a favor. From that point forward, The Pioneer was no longer driven to Warroad from its printer in Grafton, North Dakota, on a Marvin company truck.

The next week, Colden wrote an editorial defending the article. “To anyone wanting to control the freedom of the press,” she wrote in a memorably tart final paragraph, or to those that “feel they can do a better job for the community, the Warroad Pioneer may be purchased for $500,000.”

(Marvin, in an interview, verified the details of Colden’s account, and added that he had canceled his subscription for good measure. Colden said she did not think the Marvin family was responsible for the demise of The Pioneer.)

'WE DESERVE BETTER'

Colden’s rule for Bloody Mary Monday is that the vodka stops flowing at noon. In the late afternoon, there were familiar headaches to deal with: The father of Scott Johnson, the Pioneer’s landlord, had died, and the obituary had just come over. Colden asked Provance to bump up the issue to 18 pages from 16. Provance grumbled.

Zaiser was on the phone desperately hunting for a student who could tell her the names of two unidentified high school baseball players in a photo.

Sometime after 5:30 p.m., they shipped the files of the newspaper’s pages to the printer.

The Pioneer sisterhood opened a few bottles of wine.

The next day, Colden dropped her last-ever stack of Pioneers at the Thrifty White Pharmacy on Lake Street, and in the afternoon she and her staff met for Bible study.

Zaiser read from the Book of John: “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again, and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything.”

Provance said she was still angry. “I’m very ashamed of this community, and we deserve better.”

Colden told her to let the resentment go. But she was having trouble letting go herself, she said, as she drove in the warming weather and saw the farmers in their fields: “I thought, ‘We need to get those farm stories going.’”


2019 New York Times News Service