The dying of the ‘community’ paper

This week, my hometown newspaper, which has been around since 1838, announced that it’s closing its offices and creating a “virtual newsroom,” which is corporate smoke for “reporters can work from home.”

The paper, owned by the same venture-capitalist-backed outfit that has been dismantling the St. Paul Pioneer Press, issued the same nonsense that every other corporate owner of dying newspapers has issued: “our commitment to local news is unwavering,” even as it laid off its local editor and moved his duties out of town.

It’s an ironic statement, coming as it does from an institution whose mission is — or at least was — telling the truth.

It’s irritatingly reminiscent of the sort of thing owners told employees of the dozens of factories in my hometown in the ’70s as they loaded equipment into trucks bearing North Carolina license plates while simultaneously declaring a commitment to the city they’d soon abandon forever.

I point this out as an example of a trend that is overtaking communities that once had their own newspapers. Community identity is disappearing in a cloud of regional mush that will be “relevant” to an audience across communities.

Today, my current hometown’s paper is essentially doing the same thing.

The Woodbury Bulletin, as well as the Farmington Independent, owned by a division of the ubiquitous Forum Communications, announced today that it’s closing its Woodbury and Farmington offices, a move that won’t surprise anyone familiar with what’s been happening to RiverTown Multimedia in recent years as the newspapers have combined staffs, laid off reporters and editors with the overlap, and became less local while proclaiming they wouldn’t. Some veteran journalists had had enough and left the business.

The company operates community newspapers in Cottage Grove, Woodbury, Farmington, Rosemount, Hastings and Red Wing in Minnesota and New Richmond, Hudson, River Falls, and Ellsworth in Wisconsin.

The Bulletin over the last year has started running more material from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, becoming a little less Woodbury with each issue. More press releases, more guest columns from politicians, more local youth sports, a little less digging for stories.

In his announcement today, publisher Neal Ronquist denied what is painfully obvious to most astute readers of papers who are chipping away at their identity with the communities they serve.

“This closing continues our long-term strategy to consolidate the many units of our group into one team, operating out of fewer locations,” Ronquist said. “This strategy reflects our position as a regional media company and not separate community operations. It also continues the strategy of directing our resources to content generation and sales, and away from bricks-and-mortar assets.”

The South Washington County Bulletin and Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages also will close their offices Feb. 16.

Bulletin reporters William Loeffler, Maureen McMullen and Katie Nelson as well as advertising representative Colleen Fell, will be based out of the Hastings Star Gazette office, but also will work remotely from throughout Washington County. Joe Brown, the newly named regional editor, also will work out of that office.

“This move will not change how we approach news coverage,” said Anne Jacobson, RiverTown Multimedia news director. “Our reporters will still cover city council, county board, breaking news and other happenings that are important to our readers. We also will continue producing enterprise projects with all members of the RiverTown One Newsroom.”

Brown said, “This approach to newsgathering will give the Bulletin staff better backing from our overall newsroom. Our commitment to Bulletin readers remains a priority.”

The publisher said readers are more concerned with a quality product than where the reporters’ offices are, which is, again, pretty much the same thing my original hometown paper’s publisher said. But it’s the pattern of shrinkage from a community that tells the story.

Regional is not local. The small-town paper, which is the glue that has helped maintain “community,” is dead.