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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.’”