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Six newspapers serving the southwest Twin Cities metro area will publish their final issues this week

A handful of weeklies in the southwest metro area will publish their final issues this week, leaving a void for local governments, school districts and residents who want to share news and stay abreast of happenings in their hometowns.

The Shakopee Valley News, Prior Lake American, Jordan Independent, Chaska Herald, Chanhassen Villager and Savage Pacer will cease operations this week, with some printing their last papers Thursday and others on Saturday.

The Southwest News Media website will also go dark. Two of the newspapers, the Chaska Herald and Shakopee Valley News, have been around for more than 160 years, since shortly after Minnesota became a state.

The publications are part of the Denver-based MediaNews Group, owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that bought the group of newspapers in 2020. The company, one of the nation’s largest newspaper publishers, is known for gutting and then closing local newspapers. Since 2012, it has published the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Two other Minnesota newspapers owned by MediaNews Group — the Hutchinson Leader and Litchfield Independent Review, published by Crow River Media — will also close by the end of the month.

A press release from Southwest News Media suggested the closures are due to financial issues, including the loss of advertising revenue and people’s increasing reliance on digital news sources.

“From a historical society sense … it’s one of the most important ways the county’s story is told,” said Lindsay Marshall, executive director of the Scott County Historical Society, adding that local newspapers are covering everything from community celebrations to deceased residents.

They also provide cities with a place to post local notices – such as public hearings on property actions or ordinance changes – as required by state law. Lake Mayor Kirt Briggs said the City Council will decide next week where these documents will now be placed. But losing a sense of belonging to the community is an even bigger casualty.

“Honestly, I am devastated by the loss of the community voice,” Briggs said. “Essentially, the daily diary of our community is being closed.”

Shakopee spokeswoman Amanda McKnight said she knows firsthand the value of community newspapers: Not only do they help residents keep track of municipal decisions, their reporters sometimes uncover dramatic stories of corruption.

McKnight, a Shakopee Valley News reporter from 2013 through 2019, broke the story that former school district superintendent Rod Thompson charged nearly $74,000 on the district’s credit cards for personal expenses, including plane tickets for his wife and an Xbox gaming system. Thompson eventually resigned and pleaded guilty to 19 state crimes, including embezzling public funds and possessing stolen property.

“What would have happened if we didn’t have a Shakopee-specific newspaper?” McKnight said. “The danger is greater that these things will remain under the radar without there being a special newspaper that keeps an eye on these kinds of things.”

Alden Global Capital did not respond to an interview request. Laurie Hartmann, general manager of Southwest News Media, also declined to comment.

Reporters share memories

The news industry has had a tough time in recent years. By the end of 2024, the country will have lost a third of its newspapers since 2005, with more than two newspapers still disappearing every week. The U.S. has also lost nearly two-thirds of its journalists since 2005, according to a 2023 report from the Medill School of Journalism.

Bill Reynolds, Shakopee’s city manager, said good local newspapers “bind us together in common dialogue” and hold local governments accountable.

“For the most part, news stories are researched and fact-based,” he said. “Now people will turn to non-factual and false information coming from social media.”

Current Shakopee Valley News reporter Julia Fomby will soon lose her job, a job she has only had for four months. She remembers the shock of realizing she and other employees would be laid off during a virtual all-employee meeting on April 4.

“I’m devastated that I don’t do (journalism),” she said, adding that employees get one week of severance pay for every year they work. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Fomby estimates she has written about 50 stories so far, on topics such as the Shakopee public works strike and the Shakopee schools’ creation of a dirty room for students.

“These are stories that the bigger newspapers won’t pick up,” she said.

Noah Mitchell, who was hired as a Chanhassen Villager reporter in March, will also be fired. Even editors didn’t seem to see the closure coming, he said, adding that it’s “just cruel” to the community.

Reporter Unsie Zuege retired in 2020 after more than 25 years with Southwest News Media, in Chaska, Chanhassen and Eden Prairie, where it also published.

She enjoyed reporting on smaller communities, she said, because everything and everyone is connected. Feel-good movies and stories about social issues were her favorite. She recalled writing about a Navy veteran who survived a shipwreck during World War II and was the first reporter on the scene when Prince died.

Zuege said Southwest News Media has been cutting costs and letting employees do more with less for years, including outsourcing its paper layout to employees in India.

Hope for the future?

In Scott and Carver counties, local leaders, librarians and historians are wondering where they will get their news.

Marshall of the Historical Society said obituaries are especially important. Funeral homes list upcoming services online, she said, but you have to know someone has died to search for the obituary, which isn’t posted forever.

“We can’t do anything about (the closures), so how are we going to pivot and what will local research look like in the future?” she said.

Janet Williams, mayor of Savage and a former county library director, said she went to the library every Saturday to catch up on local newspapers. She covered all of Savage’s previous news sources, including the Savage Review from 1984 to 1994, which the city funded.

She occasionally publishes her “Around the Town with the Mayor” columns in her current newspaper, the Savage Pacer. She worries that residents now have no place to learn about candidates for local office.

Previous Lake and Savage officials decided to publish public documents in the Star Tribune. Williams noted that it is more expensive.

Art Wann owns Suel Printing, publisher of the New Prague Times, probably the last local newspaper in Scott County.

The newspaper has no plans to close, he said, but noted that it is 71 years old.

“We’re holding our own. Everyone still gets a salary and we pay our bills,” he said.

Even as more printing presses shut down, there are signs that other models for producing local news can work. In Eden Prairie, the community came together to create a nonprofit online news source: Eden Prairie Local News.

Steve Schewe, the site’s publisher, said it produced its first article in the summer of 2020, months after Southwest News Media stopped printing the Eden Prairie News. The nonprofit has the equivalent of 2.75 full-time, paid staff members; freelance writers and photographers get $60 per submission. Volunteers do the rest.

In a sense, Alden Global Capital “did us a favor by kicking us out of the nest four years ago,” Schewe said. “They galvanized us.”

The site has published 2,800 articles so far, he said. “There’s a lot to be hopeful about.”