Publisher plans to give his small town paper free to the right successor

A man opens up a newspaper in an office.
Lee Zion is a one-man newsroom at the Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger as the owner and publisher. Despite working hundreds of hours, he still works to put out a quality product each week.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Lee Zion wants to join the more than 7,000 other Americans to help the Ukrainian people overseas. He is willing to dig trenches, teach school or even carry arms as a soldier. 

But first, the owner and publisher of the Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger wants to give away his small weekly newspaper in southern Minnesota — for free. 

Working in a one-person newsroom, Zion does it all himself. He writes the stories, lays out the paper, works with advertisers and puts out a print product every week for about 500 subscribers.

“Average day is I go to my desk, work until the work is done, which could be around midnight,” he said. “Then the process repeats.”

A window of the business says "Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger."
Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger has been covering western Nicollet County since 1904.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Since 1904, the Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger has served western Nicollet County. The weekly is based in the small farming town of Lafayette, just north of New Ulm and continues to be rooted in community journalism. 

Zion spent the last four years covering it all: from city council meetings to high school sports and proms. But, a strong desire to help Ukraine in the ongoing conflict with Russia prompted Zion to post an ad in April, searching for the right person to take the reins in owning the Ledger for free.

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“If this newspaper were to suddenly disappear, the town of Lafayette would suffer, the town of Nicollet would suffer and the town of Courtland would suffer,” he said. “Anyone who comes after me will be doing this and I want to make sure that person does a good job.”

Two hands inspect an aging newspaper.
Lee Zion flips through archives of the Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger, which documented the news in small rural communities of western Nicollet County since 1904.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Yet it’s not a simple task of just handing over the keys. The ideal candidate, Zion said, needs to be committed to local journalism and the never-ending work that comes with running a weekly. The newspaper is financially stable. The main revenue sources are subscriptions and advertisers with what Zion sees as a potential for growth. 

“The biggest piece of advice is the only way to do this job is to commit to local news,” Zion said. “People can find out what’s happening in the Ukraine instantly by clicking a button, but they can’t find out what’s happening here. People want to know what’s happening here.”

A person in silhouette shadow of a window looking out at a streetview.
Lee Zion stands in front of the window of the Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger. “I have always developed a love for newspapers, that love hasn’t gone away,” he said. “And I always feel this is what I did and people feel better because of something I did, that makes me feel better. So, it’s always been important to me to write, to take pictures where people see themselves as they want to be seen.”
Hannah Yang | MPR News

It’s not easy for small community newspapers to survive. The Chair of the Department of Emerging Media at the University of St. Thomas, Mark Neužil is a former newspaper and wire service reporter. He points to a 2020 survey that found that more than 2,200 newspapers closed in the United States since 2005. The majority of those closures were in communities of less than 5,000 people. 

“We’re talking about newspapers that serve small town America and in some cases, are the only voice in that town or even in that county,” Neužil said. “That’s an important loss for either the town or the county.”

One man talks while another listens inside a small office.
Lee Zion talks with Robert Lawson who's potentially interested in owning the Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Finding new ownership or those willing to take the mantle of providing consistent news coverage is challenging, Neužil said. Yet, he believes the Ledger is attractive given it’s profitable and that communities are fiercely loyal to their hometown newspaper. 

“There’s very few things in life as rewarding as putting out a small town newspaper and helping people with their moments, the births, the deaths, the high school graduation, prom, sports, city council and so on,” he said. “It’s truly a service to the citizens of the community and whoever puts the paper out should be aware of that, and also [be] quite proud of it.”

Since posting the ad, several candidates have reached out to Zion expressing interest in owning the weekly and keeping the tradition going. Robert Lawson is a prospective candidate from St. Peter. When he stumbled across Zion’s ad online, he knew he needed to learn more, specifically the free part. 

“I thought I misread it. I was like ‘woah,’” Lawson said. “So I called based on the interest and opportunity because I’m an entrepreneur, so I like newspapers like [Zion] does.”

Two people stand outside an office window and look towards the roof
Lee Zion (left) gives Robert Lawson a tour of the Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger by showing him the small newsroom and the exterior of the building where it's housed. Lawson is a potential candidate who's interested in owning the weekly that Zion is giving away for free as he hopes to go to Ukraine and assist with efforts there.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Lawson visited Zion at the Ledger newsroom on Tuesday. He got a quick tour of the archives and asked Zion questions about the offer to hand over the paper. He also wanted to learn more about what the opportunity entails. Lawson, who has years of experience in community journalism, sees it as challenging, but rewarding work. 

“If you haven’t done newspapers, it might seem boring,” Lawson said. “But if you’ve done them and you’ve been involved in it, it becomes this kind of a love affair. There is something different about working in a newspaper.”

Two men look at a computer screen.
Lee Zion (left) shows potential candidate Robert Lawson the operations of the Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger. Zion is hoping to hand over the weekly newspaper for free if he finds the right person for the job.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Despite the long hours working alone, Zion does loves his job and wants others to serve their communities in whatever capacity they can. Until the next owner comes along, Zion continues to put together the week’s paper and make his deadlines.

“I want to encourage people. ‘Here’s a guy who’s doing this, maybe I should do something.’” he said. “And whatever it is, please do it. So that way, you can tell your grandchildren, ‘Yes, I did something.’”