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With falling circulation and a news staff that's been slashed almost to nonexistence, the St. Cloud Times is a ghost of the publication that was once one of the best small daily newspapers in Minnesota.

Corporate owner Gannett Co. Inc., heavily in debt and under pressure to reverse revenue declines, has cut staff to the point that only two reporters remain to cover news and events in the central Minnesota region of about 200,000 residents.

"People have always relied on the St. Cloud Times to be the agenda-setter," said Dale Zacher, chair of the Department of Mass Communications at St. Cloud State University. "It's not the civic institution it used to be. It's a sad downward spiral.

"This would be a great time to be involved in political corruption, because there's nobody watching."

In its prime, the paper had 40 to 50 people in its newsroom covering three counties and beyond, regularly winning state and even national journalism awards. Today, its overworked reporting duo writes for a drastically reduced audience. The paper's circulation has fallen from about 28,000 in 2013 to about 8,600 today.

What are those loyal readers missing out on?

"Everything," said Don Casey, who spent more than 25 years with the Times and retired as executive editor in 1997. "There's no sense of what's happening in the community.

"If you look at the content of the Times, nobody's covering the city council, the school board, the events that are taking place."

As recently as 2016, the Times published a wide-ranging look at immigration issues in central Minnesota that was named "Story of the Year" by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists.

The Times is among the nearly 250 daily papers owned by Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper company. Burdened with debt from a 2019 merger and battered by declining revenue, Gannett is moving aggressively to cut costs, company officials said in a recent call with Wall Street analysts.

In the third quarter of this year alone, Gannett cut 6.5% of its workforce, letting go of 468 employees and eliminating 400 open positions in its media operations, the company's chief financial officer, Doug Horne, said.

The Times' news director — its top local newsperson — took a buyout and left in November, while another reporter departed last week, leaving just the two reporters in a once-bustling newsroom.

In an emailed statement, a Gannett spokesperson said, "While incredibly difficult, we are implementing significant efficiencies across the company and responding decisively to the ongoing macroeconomic volatility to continue propelling Gannett's future."

A shrinking industry

The Times is a symbol of the declines that have hit newspapers in the digital era. Since 2005, more than one-fourth of the nation's newspapers have closed, according to a report by Penelope Muse Abernathy and Tim Franklin of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The number of people employed in newsrooms has fallen during that time by nearly 60%, from about 75,000 to about 31,000.

Abernathy coined the phrase "ghost paper" to describe a newspaper that's still operating, but has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. She said the Times qualifies for the description.

That has real consequences for society, Abernathy said.

"I worry about the loss of all the functions that a strong newspaper provided," she said. "The ability to identify issues that were bubbling under the surface, the ability to do a vetting of candidates."

There are limited news options in the St. Cloud area. The Star Tribune has a one-person bureau there, staffed by a former Times reporter. There are no TV stations based in St. Cloud; three local radio stations offer news coverage, but more headlines than in-depth. Still, even that may be better than what the Times is putting out, said Mike Knaak, who was laid off in 2016 after 42 years there.

"[Radio station] WJON is probably the most reliable news source in town now," he said.

Gannett and other news companies, including the Star Tribune, are trying to boost their digital products, which they see as the future. But it's a slow climb. Gannett declined to reveal how many digital subscribers the Times has, making it impossible to say whether the company has replaced the lost print readers.

People have other ways of getting information now, especially on social media. But those social media sites often feed off the news turned up by professional journalists, said Reed Anfinson, owner of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Minn., and former president of the National Newspaper Association.

"You can't have democracy without an informed electorate," he said. "And you can't have an informed electorate without professional journalists covering that community every day

... Citizen journalists certainly can't do it."

Filling the gap

The news industry has been searching for solutions. Nonprofit, digital news organizations such as MinnPost, the Texas Tribune and the Carolina Public Press have tried to fill the gaps. Abernathy's report counted about 75 such nonprofit sites with a regional or statewide focus, as well as about 275 local digital news sites, most of them for-profit.

In the Twin Cities suburbs, the nonprofit Eden Prairie Local News launched in 2020 after the longtime community paper was closed by its hedge fund owner.

According to Abernathy's report, there are about 150 metro and regional dailies in the country, about 1,080 small dailies and 5,150 weekly and non-daily papers.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has been a leading voice promoting the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, a bipartisan bill that would allow news organizations to band together and negotiate with the "Big Tech companies that profit from their news content," Klobuchar said in a statement earlier this year. On Friday, a Klobuchar spokesperson said the senator is "working across the aisle to get it passed before the end of the year."

Nonprofit news organizations are a positive step, Zacher said, but won't fill the gap.

"We can't replace a local institution like the St. Cloud Times used to be," he said. "Community journalism will only survive if the public supports it."