Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

News deserts affect Minnesota suburbs the most. Here’s how Woodbury is fighting back

newspapers
News deserts are more common than you think in the suburbs. Woodbury has not had a local paper since 2020.
Jon S, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

You may hear the term “news desert” — a place that doesn’t have a local news source — and picture a rural area.

But research by Northwestern University finds that suburbs around the country have seen some of the most dramatic losses of newspapers in recent years.

Even when there’s at least one local outlet, a closure can leave a gaping hole in a community.

Take Minnesota: all of the state’s counties have at least one local news source, according to Northwestern. But the state has lost more than a third of its newspapers since 2005. Some closed. Others were absorbed into bigger publications.

People have felt this trend in places like Woodbury, where the newspaper The Bulletin shuttered in 2020. Now former DFL state senator Kathy Saltzman is part of an effort to create a new local news outlet there.

She joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about it.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: You may have heard the term news desert, a place that doesn't have a local news source, and have pictured a rural area. But research by Northwestern University finds that suburbs around the country have seen some of the most dramatic losses of newspapers in recent years. Even when there's at least one local news outlet, a closure can leave a gaping hole in the community.

Take Minnesota. All of our counties have at least one local news source, according to Northwestern. But the state has lost more than a third of its newspapers since 2005. Some have closed. Others were absorbed into bigger publications. People have felt this trend in places like Woodbury, where the newspaper, The Woodbury Bulletin, was closed in 2020. Now, former state DFL senator Kathy Saltzman is part of an effort to create a new local news outlet in Woodbury and she's on the line to talk about it. Welcome, Senator.

KATHY SALTZMAN: Well, thank you, Cathy. It's just delightful to be here with you today.

CATHY WURZER: I'm glad you could take the time. Thank you so much. Gosh, I remember when The Woodbury Bulletin closed, and that was in April, May of 2020. There was The Bulletin, The Eden Prairie News, gosh, The Lakeshore Weekly News, Lake County News Chronicle. It was just not a great year for newspapers. Do you remember how you felt when you found out that The Bulletin would cease publication?

KATHY SALTZMAN: Well, I think it was it was just during COVID. And so I think it was a time also when people lost connections. And so that was probably even harder. But I think after COVID when people are out and about, and we've also seen growth in Woodbury. So you have a lot of new people who are moving here, and wanting to know about the community, and asking, so where do I find the news? How do I find out what is going on? And I think that over time people have realized I really, really miss The Bulletin. We took it for granted.

CATHY WURZER: What do you think the people in Woodbury are missing out on now that The Bulletin is no longer there?

KATHY SALTZMAN: It's that hyperlocal perspective of following local government, knowing what's going on with our City Council. We have three different school districts. The student of the month isn't covered. What's happening with our local development, with businesses. People ask, what's happening on that site? I see development going on.

It's also those hidden stories about what makes Woodbury, Woodbury. The stories we talked about are not only about how people are quietly doing things for this community, but also what are the needs. Our non-profits have gathered once a month through our foundation, and they've made a comment that they are truly impacted and not being able to share the incredible things that they're doing for this community, but also the opportunities for volunteerism, and the impact that they're having and the needs.

CATHY WURZER: So you and a colleague, former DFL lawmaker Susan Kent, want to close these gaps. So tell us how do you plan to do this? Is this going to be an online news site you're thinking about?

KATHY SALTZMAN: It will be. It will be an online news site. And I have to give credit to The Eden Prairie Local News. We both had heard about their efforts through different friends, and started chatting about it. And so really last year, for about six months, we spent time talking to different leaders and different groups in this community and asking them, do you think we could do this? Do you think we could launch something like this?

And last November, we gathered, Eden Prairie Local News came over and met with us and shared their story, and we had a debrief and said, let's go for it. And so since we don't have a newspaper, it's been hard to tell people about this effort. And so the local media, like today Cathy, is so helpful for us to be able to share with the greater community what we're doing.

The response has been so overwhelmingly positive. People coming forward. We have four different working groups. It's all a volunteer led effort at this point in time. Susan and I, it's not our newspaper. We want to get this off the ground, but to turn it over to a citizen led group. And that group is starting to form with some incredible leadership.

CATHY WURZER: As you have heard from your friends in Eden Prairie and you've seen elsewhere, the financial model is a head-scratcher. Is it going to be there's a paywall, subscription? Would this be a non-profit organization?

KATHY SALTZMAN: Exactly. So we're looking at a non-profit citizen led group. What we will likely start with is that it will be free, in terms of people being able to access the website to sign up for a daily or weekly subscription as in an email with the most current stories. But we also look at then raising dollars. And in the way of people instead of having a paid subscription of giving a donation, to do some advertising.

The other thing is that we also anticipate that it's the starts up. There will be a number of volunteers involved, but I think for sustainability it's going to have to eventually be able to fund itself to have the professional writers and editors, behind it. But a lot of people are really excited about being able to tap some of their talents that they have.

A lot of retirees or people have retired early have said, how can I help? These are my skills. They maybe not a journalist or a reporter, but there's other things we can do with our tech group is being led by people who have great experience in website development. We do have some writers. We have some you know some business people who have said, can I help? People have said, let me know when you need money, I can go to my friends. So all of that, there's some excitement behind this.

CATHY WURZER: There's going to be people who look at this and say, oh, interesting that Saltzman and Kent are behind this, they're former DFL Senators. Will there be a Liberal bent to this publication? How are you going to make sure that it's right down the line?

KATHY SALTZMAN: We have tried to tackle that right out of the gate by asking Republicans to be part of this group. We haven't really said you have to give us your party to be involved, but we do know there's people from both parties who have been involved. And that's why Susan and I want to be able to pivot this and turn this over, and certainly we'll stay involved.

But we want to make sure that it's factual, it's a trusted source of news. Unfortunately, well or fortunately, we both happen to be in the same party. But I think both of us really see this as an independent news source that will focus on facts, and not to promote either party but to inform our citizens of what's happening. And things when you look at local government it usually isn't partisan, and that's what we're focused on.

CATHY WURZER: So now that you've got this group together, usually most publications have an executive editor somebody like that to start leading the process. Have you had an opportunity to find that person yet?

KATHY SALTZMAN: Well, we've had some people come forward who have some really strong experience in journalism, and being editors, or being reporters. And we have chatted with them about can they help us get a newsroom up and running. And then looking as we have people contact us to look at are there some people who this job is you know perfect for them.

I know in Eden Prairie they have volunteers who are doing some of this. I don't know if that's sustainable. But we do have people. We are looking at launching in the fall, so we have some time here. But I think at this point in time, we're really relying on volunteers to be able to share their knowledge and skills. And we're just excited about that.

CATHY WURZER: Do you have a website already up and running?

KATHY SALTZMAN: We don't have a name yet, Kathy.

CATHY WURZER: OK.

KATHY SALTZMAN: In fact that's one of the first things, that's our first decisions in the next week or two. That's really critical. But we do have a Gmail, if people want to contact us at woodburynewsproject@gmail.com. That's just a landing site for people to be able to just contact us and let us know that they'd like to get involved.

CATHY WURZER: Woodbury News--

KATHY SALTZMAN: Project

CATHY WURZER: Project.

KATHY SALTZMAN: One word.

CATHY WURZER: At gmail.com. Woodburynewsproject@gmail.com. All right. We wish you well. Thank you so much.

KATHY SALTZMAN: Well, thank you so much, Kathy. And I'm really hungry for pie right now. I just have to say--

CATHY WURZER: I know.

KATHY SALTZMAN: That.

CATHY WURZER: So am I. [LAUGHS] Thank you, Senator. Talk to you soon. Kathy Saltzman is a former DFL State Senator who represented Washington County.

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