You are holding the inaugural issue of the Kingsbury Journal – a new weekly newspaper formed by the merger of The De Smet News and Lake Preston Times. (Or, in this case, reading all about it on our new web site!)
As the successor of the two historical papers, the Kingsbury Journal will continue their 140-year legacy as the voice of people in the Kingsbury County area. The redesigned newspaper is the result of a seven-week effort to secure the future of these papers following their suspension at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With a bold headline declaring ‘THIS IS IT!’, long-time publisher Dale Blegen announced the final editions of The De Smet News and Lake Preston Times on April 1, 2020.
Blegen was forced to suspend publishing due to a drop-off in advertising, which had fallen sharply in March as a result of COVID-19 precautions. As one business after another suspended operations, they also stopped advertising. The dominoes quickly fell toward the newspapers.
As reported by Blegen at the time, the newspapers went from making or losing a few thousand dollars a year, to losing $2,000 a week as the pandemic hit.
“Things were already tight as a community newspaper business, and COVID-19 was the final straw,” said Blegen. “After ten years attempting to sell the papers during my retirement, I reluctantly decided to close the doors.”
Closing the doors has become increasingly common for community newspapers. In the last 12 years, over 1,800 newspapers have shut down, resulting in a loss of 20% of the nation’s newspapers, according to the University of North Carolina.
Nationwide, 1,300 communities no longer have a newspaper. De Smet and Lake Preston recently joined the list.
Local newspapers have been described as the heartbeat of a community, and like a heartbeat, newspapers are often taken for granted — until they stop.
Many residents in De Smet and Lake Preston were shocked by news of the sudden closures. Over the last several weeks, they experienced what it means to lose their newspapers.
“Our whole community is lost,” said rural Lake Preston resident Barb Hasche. “I miss knowing about school happenings and being informed about what’s going on. Where else do we find information?”
Hasche also does not see social media as a substitute for the information in a local newspaper.
“People tell it like they see it on Facebook, not necessarily like it is. And you don’t always see everything online,” Hasche said.
Local governments are also finding it difficult to keep the public informed without a newspaper.
“It is so hard to get information out to the public now. It shows how much we miss the newspaper,” said De Smet Mayor Gary Wolkow.
Obituaries are another example of the variety of information that is suddenly missed. De Smet resident Debra Pommer has resorted to seeking obituaries from other sources.
“I was surprised to hear that someone died a couple weeks ago, so now I’m trying to get obituaries by searching on funeral home websites,” she said.
The development corporations from De Smet and Lake Preston began to look into ways to help bring the papers back shortly after they closed.
“As we looked deeper, we began to see big challenges. We worried we would find ourselves in the same predicament down the road as a community,” Todd Wilkinson, a member of the De Smet Development Board, said.
Wilkinson stated that newspapers everywhere are struggling, with daily papers reducing the number of days they publish and several other papers in the area for sale.
“No matter who owned the papers, all the problems remained,” Wilkinson said. “Even an experienced, well-funded operator would have trouble in this climate. And that would leave us with the risk of losing our papers again.”
To address the underlying problem, the groups started looking at the possibility of securing the papers for their communities and finding a more sustainable business model.
Throughout April, the two groups worked together to buy the newspaper buildings and businesses from previous owner Dale Blegen. The De Smet Development Corporation purchased the De Smet News building and main street lots for $55,000. The Lake Preston Development Corporation purchased the Lake Preston Times building and lot for $10,000.
In each case, the buildings were purchased for a price near their assessed tax value. As part of the building purchases, each organization received ownership of its community newspaper business at no additional cost. Blegen agreed to be responsible for any unfulfilled subscriptions should efforts to continue operations of the newspapers prove unsuccessful.
Suggestions to explore combining the two papers first arose during community meetings.
Soon after, as work began on the papers, it became clear that a combined newspaper would require less work for volunteers and increase its chance of success. Many involved started to believe it would be a better newspaper for both readers and advertisers.
A poll on May 3 conducted on each newspapers’ Facebook page showed 90% (313 of 348) of respondents supporting a more sustainable unified newspaper, with nearly identical results from both communities. The organizations decided to combine the two papers based on this and other community feedback.
“We were all surprised by the poll results. They were overwhelming. It made the decision to combine the papers much easier,” Lake Preston board member Jake Smith said.
Based on the poll and other community feedback, the organizations decided to combine the two papers.
“We heard a very consistent message. We want our newspaper back. Do what you need to do to make them sustainable,” Matt Kees, a member of the De Smet development group, said.
The move toward a one-paper strategy will help reduce labor and costs, but the adverse business climate that caused the papers to close their doors remains.
The new Kingsbury Journal inherits the same financial challenges as its predecessors, and there is no way to predict how long these conditions will last. Initially, the paper will operate with loans from the two development corporations.
In order to minimize payroll costs, a team of over 20 volunteers has formed to report, write, edit, take pictures, sell advertising, produce, publish and distribute the Kingsbury Journal. Along with this, they are also modernizing operations in order to reduce costs and streamline the amount of work required to publish the paper every week.
“We recognize the challenges we face as a volunteer organization,” said Tim Aughenbaugh, one of the volunteers involved in bringing back the papers. “But the range of skills and diversity on the team is also a big benefit. We have been surprised by the interest and talent of volunteers.”
Many volunteers have seemed excited to help with the effort.
“It is all new and we are all learning, but I personally find it invigorating,” said Penny Warne, a past English teacher who volunteers to help edit copy.
While it’s still early days, the team and its new systems are beginning to come together.
“We’ve started to think of ourselves as a volunteer news service, much like a volunteer fire department or volunteer ambulance service,” said Aughenbaugh. “Losing our papers made us realize that keeping people informed and providing a record of our schools and communities is a vital part of the community itself. This may be the only way it gets accomplished in rural communities like ours.”
Blegen agreed that the new approach could be beneficial to keeping the new paper running.
“The newspaper will benefit from a different model. This model could be one that works for other communities,” he said.
In the coming months, the combined Kingsbury Journal will be placed in a new organization for public benefit and overseen by its own board of directors. The new organization may be formed as a not-for-profit after an investigation of advantages.
Assuming future profitability, the paper will adopt a profit-sharing plan for volunteers and could pay part-time staff or lease the business to an operator.
In all cases, the newspaper will remain under the control of a public benefit organization, securing the newspaper for our communities into the future.
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