The Warroad Pioneer, a pillar of its small Minnesota town, ended its 121-year run with bloody marys, bold type and gloom about the void it would leave behind.
WARROAD, Minn. — 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 Ms. Colden woke up that day, she listened to a Christian hymn that had buoyed her spirit of late: “This is my story, this is my song/Praising my savior all the 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 American 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.
Others imagined the news moving from person to person, unedited and unchecked, on Facebook or other social media networks. “A lot of it is going to be word of mouth through kaffeeklatsches,” said Todd Miller, 57, a former member of the county commission. “And who knows what variant of BS gets passed around there.”
The American news desert advanced, though after a few weeks, a new paper, The Warroad Advocate, would spring up, distributed free to anyone with a post office box. The publishers called it a 13-week trial, contingent on community and advertiser support, and so it was not clear whether it would continue beyond its experimental run.
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.
“I don’t want to feel like I’m letting the community down, but I also know I’m a small business, and it’s dollars and cents,” said Ms. Colden, who added that her paper was far from turning a profit. “I’m broken with the decision. I’m just broken with it.”
Ms. 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!”
But what could be done? Mike Kvarnlov ran the local G.M. dealership for years before recently selling it to his son. He thought it was a tragedy that the paper would be folding. But the new world was what it was.
“Fifteen years ago, we were 50 percent paper and 50 percent radio,” he said of the dealership’s advertising budget. But now, most of the money went to the internet, with print and radio only in the mix to reach older people. And each year, he said, online advertising “gets a larger percentage as the old people are going away.”
The Trouble With Truth Telling
It was sometime after 9 a.m. when Ms. 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.
Ms. Provance mixed the bloody marys. The women hoisted their plastic cups. “We’re going to get this done,” Ms. 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 ۱,۸۸۰. 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, Ms. 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.”
There was also the reality that truth telling in a tiny town, while generating good copy, does not always generate love for the newspaper. On that Monday morning Ms. Zaiser, the editor, took her drink to her computer and formatted the Court Report, The Pioneer’s unflinching weekly roll call of anyone who had recently run afoul of the law. For this final edition, a 29-year-old man had pleaded guilty to theft; a 30-year-old man had pleaded guilty to two counts of possession of pornographic work involving minors; a 28-year-old man had pleaded guilty to driving an all-terrain vehicle on a road.
Everyone read the Court Report. Some weeks it seemed like the sole flinty standout in a paper full of trophy hoisters and plaque clutchers, fishing advice and garden tips. Ms. Colden hawked the space around it as the best advertising real estate in the paper. Over the years people had tried to bribe their way out of the Court Report, Ms. Colden said, to no avail.
If you messed up, you were going in.