Iron Rangers launch a news site to fill a gap in northern Minnesota

Two people talk and sit down
“Iron Range Today” co-founders Leah and Jerry Burnes.
Courtesy of Michael Burnes

Journalists Leah Ryan and Jerry Burnes had spent their professional lives reporting on Minnesota’s Iron Range but still wanted to find a way to sharpen the focus on issues critical to northern Minnesota.

The two had had worked for years at the Mesabi Tribune. Burnes served as the paper’s editor. But they felt like the region needed a better option. So they built it. This week they launched the independent, free online news site Iron Range Today.

The site intends to dive deeply into Iron Range news in a way that Minnesota’s statewide media can’t, he told MPR News host Melissa Townsend.

“We have a lot of really rich stories … but it’s just being covered as news comes out,” he said. “We’re not really diving into why things are happening and that’s really important for people to know.”

The site is building political coverage as Election Day nears but launched on Monday with a story about Hibbing Taconite, a decades-long mine employer. If Hibbing Taconite closes, an estimated 2,000 residents in the Iron Range will lose their jobs.

Burnes said he has been reporting on Hibbing Taconite for six years and decided to launch with the story so people understand “what is at stake” if the mine closes.

A second story by Ryan reviewed three children’s books that highlight the Minnesota’s Northwoods.

Local news voids have become increasingly common in the country as newspapers fold and newsrooms close. Burnes described the site as a “passion project” for him and Ryan. If it grows into something sustainable, they would look at other funding options.

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Audio transcript

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Let's stay on the Iron Range for a little bit longer. Dan Crocker was just reporting that politically, what happens on the Range has a big impact on what happens statewide. But newspapers in the area have consolidated or reduced staff or just closed up shop. There aren't a lot of stories getting out about what's really going on locally.

Jerry Burnes is a person who is doing something about that. He used to be the editor of the Mesabi Tribune newspaper but just this week he launched a brand new free online news site at ironrangetoday.com and he's here to talk about it. Jerry Burnes, welcome to Minnesota Now.

JERRY BURNES: Thank you for having me.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Yeah, thanks for being here. So you launched ironrangetoday.com on Tuesday just two days ago. Congratulations.

JERRY BURNES: Thank you.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: You're partnering with your wife Leah, who's also a journalist. What's it been like to launch this new site together?

JERRY BURNES: It's been an adventure. So just to explain our family really quick, we're foster adoptive parents. So we have two kids we've adopted, three currently in foster care. And so it's been a wild ride throughout setting this up.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Wow, so you have those kids but then you left your job to start this. Is that what happened?

JERRY BURNES: Well, I still have a regular job so we're doing this all on the side just as a passion project.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Oh, wow. So as I said in the intro, the number of news outlets have been shrinking. I understand that in 2020 the Mesabi Tribune merged with the Hibbing paper and now it's the only daily print newspaper in Northern Minnesota. And that same year, the Duluth News Tribune went from a daily paper to two times a week. How has that affected stories that are being told from the Iron Range in your experience?

JERRY BURNES: Well, from our experience, we saw it firsthand as we had during the pandemic ours were reduced. And as staff left, we weren't able to staff back up. And so there's fewer people to cover a lot of stories. The Iron Range is really rich in stories and we just really struggled to keep up with that.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Yeah. What stories do you feel like aren't getting told? Where has the attention shifted from?

JERRY BURNES: I think a lot of it's nuance. You look at the mining industry and copper, nickel mining and the permitting and all that sort of stuff and you're really covering just news as it comes about and you're not really diving into the why things are happening or anything like that. And that's really important for people to understand.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Definitely. The site is free. There's no payroll. How are you funding it?

JERRY BURNES: Like I said, this is just a passion project. So if this grows into something that we can get into some funding in that, that's great. Otherwise, it's just me and Leah doing something we really like to do.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: In all your spare time.

JERRY BURNES: Very few of it but we're trying to teach our kids we're doing this for the community. The community wanted more reporting and this is what we're able to provide.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: That's nice. I'd like to turn our attention to the news you are reporting. On your first day, you posted a story about the Iron Range rally to save Hibbing Taconite. What's going on there?

JERRY BURNES: So Hibbing Taconite is running out of iron ore to mine. It's not economic pressures or anything like that. They're just simply running out of ore. And there's an opportunity for them to get probably 20 or 30 years worth of ore to mine again if they can get some mineral leases from Nashville, which are tied up in the legal system.

And if they can get a hold of those, which will be up to the executive council, assuming the Minnesota Supreme Court sided with the DNR in the next several weeks, Cleveland-Cliffs will have a chance to get those leases and it will extend Hibbing Taconite. If they don't, Hibbing Taconite will close. The range will lose 750 direct jobs and over 2,000 indirect jobs.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Oh, that's a lot of work. And what is making your reporting of that situation unique? What voice are you really trying to capture when you're telling that story?

JERRY BURNES: Well, I've been reporting on this story for six years and I have a long history with it. I know a lot of the players in it and it's-- what we really want to do is drive home what this can do to a community. And some of the people I spoke to were in Aurora, Minnesota in the East range when LTV closed down.

LTV is where Polymet currently wants to set up shop. And they lost their only grocery store, dentists, pharmacists and that was over a span of 10 years and it's just devastated that community. And so we want to make sure that everyone understands what's at stake if Hibbing Taconite closes.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: You know, I was listening to Dan Crocker's piece. I think maybe you were too before you came on and he talks about there was a big-- I think it was a wind farm just opened. What is the landscape for renewables up there?

JERRY BURNES: Well, that's a big topic that we're looking at for the site too is because with President Biden's infrastructure bill and the push toward clean energy and electric vehicles, there's a mine called Talon Metals up in Tamarack that receives a certain amount of funding, I don't remember it off the top of my head, from that infrastructure bill to open something that will get us toward EV batteries in that.

But the permitting process right now is at least 20 years. So that's a discussion that's getting really, really talked about on the range is how do we get these mines open without reducing or cutting back on the environmental standards?

MELISSA TOWNSEND: That is a big issue we've been talking about for a while. Let's turn to politics for a minute. Are you working on some political stories for the site?

JERRY BURNES: I have one I'm hoping will go live later today. We're looking at some of the campaign financing where Democrats are, as they have been for many years, outpacing Republicans in terms of campaign financing. But they keep seeing their margins reduced and so we're trying to look into what does campaign financing actually mean to these campaigns and to voters.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Hmm, that's interesting. Going back to Dan Crocker's piece again, he's saying that there's a growing number of Republican votes on the range. You've been up there for several years now. What do you see is drifting-- is driving this drift to the right?

JERRY BURNES: A lot of it is national politics. I looked back at election results for the past 22 years and there were times where Democrats were running unopposed in different decades and when Democrat legends like Tom Rukavina were running against the same opponent for four straight elections. And it was finally around 2010, it was Obama's first midterms and the birth of the Tea Party where we really saw Republicans start making those inroads and they've just continued making those inroads.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: GOP House leader Kurt Daudt says he thinks the GOP has a chance of winning all the Range seats. Do you think that's a possibility?

JERRY BURNES: Possible yes. Looking at the numbers, it's not going to be that easy. So just looking at the House 7B race, which is currently Dave Lislegard versus Matt Norri, that was mentioned in Dan's story, that seat historically has pulled in 12,000 to 13,000 votes for the Democrat in office.

In 2020, a general election year, the candidate for the Republicans pulled in a record-high 10,000 votes. So they need to have in some of these races, a general election turnout plus at least 1,000 votes that they have to flip. So it's not as easy as it sounds but they'll definitely-- I think they'll win some seats and make some inroads.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Well, thank you, Jerry and good luck with the site.

JERRY BURNES: Thank you very much.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Yes. Jerry Burnes is a co-founder of the online newspaper Iron Range Today. You can find the paper online at orange-- orange-- ironrangetoday.com.

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