A Non-Profit In Its Own Town

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By: Miki Johnson

In the tiny town of Atwater, Minn., Pat Walsh complains that his sons, during their high school years, excelled in sports and academics and won numerous awards, but their names never once appeared in the local newspaper. Which is not surprising, since Atwater’s last local paper, the Atwater Herald, closed its doors nearly a decade ago.

So when the Atwater Sunfish Gazette, the town’s new paper, covered the high school’s homecoming candidates in a recent issue, it brought tears to Walsh’s eyes. The non-profit, eight-page, biweekly Gazette was created in September by a group of concerned citizens and has published half a dozen issues in the months since. It is supported by local donations and community volunteers, and boasts only one paid staffer. In an era when the small-town paper is forever in danger, this model presents an innovative solution for meeting the news needs of smaller communities.

Editor Sandy Grussing, the Gazette’s one employee, had worked in journalism for only three years when she accepted the position. In 2004 she’d served as editor of the Olivia (Minn.) Times Journal and Renville (Minn.) Star Farmer News, and had taken over as editor of both papers that year. Also, Grussing earned a pair of Minnesota Newspaper Association awards for investigative stories, in categories for circulations under 1,500 and 2,500. She says, “You can’t tell me that small newspapers aren’t doing investigative reporting.”

At the Gazette, her responsibilities include writing, editing, design, advertising, circulation, and printing. She even delivers the papers to the post office and fills out the paperwork to have them mailed free to the 1,100 households in Atwater’s 56209 ZIP code.

“Suddenly I’ve gone from the new kid on the block who’s getting advice, to the one who needs to answer the questions,” she quips. And there are plenty of questions in this business model with little precedent.

Through its free distribution, the Gazette started out with a circulation base and almost every business in town bought ads. Before the Gazette, local businesses could only advertise in the nearby West Central Tribune in Willmar, Minn., which was both expensive and reached an audience that was unlikely to travel to Atwater to shop.

The ads for the first, six-page Gazette came just 80 cents short of paying for its production, including Grussing’s then-part-time salary.

The newspaper is also backed by more than $15,000 in donations. Although a few paid subscriptions have come in from former residents, local school districts, and public libraries, Grussing acknowledges there isn’t much hope to significantly grow circulation. Instead, the paper has hosted several fundraisers, including a raffle, a phone campaign, and self-mailer envelopes included in the paper.

Now the Gazette’s staff is trying to ascertain when the paper will be able to afford to go weekly, and hire some additional help to take the lion’s share of the weight off Grussing. Until then, she will rely on help from several members of the paper’s board of directors. The board was formed as a necessary element of the non-profit business model and consists of community members who expressed interest in the paper. Its dozen or so members include a city clerk, two pastors, a Web designer, and an elementary school principal ? none of whom possess any professional journalism experience.

But the Gazette will always be accountable to the ultimate oversight committee in any small town ? local residents. Margaret Weigelt, a librarian and board member who has helped Grussing put together several issues, says, “When you have a newspaper, I think it strengthens the identity of the area, validates the existence of the community, and it starts to feel more real.”

Grussing adds, “They consider it their paper, not the publisher’s paper.”

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