St. Cloud Live: Listening to the community drives Forum Communications to start a print product


It takes a fair amount of courage to start a newspaper in 2023.

Courage, plus a dash of market research, mixed with old-fashioned door knocking and a dose of instinct backed by generations of industry experience. And, of course, the most essential ingredient is a sizeable market that is hungry for news.

Forum Communications, a family-owned newspaper company in the upper Midwest, rolled out a weekly newspaper in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in October. The print product was launched a year after unveiling a news website,

The move cuts against the grain of a shrinking industry. The country has lost a third of its newspapers since 2005, according to a recently released report by Northwest University’s Medill School of Journalism. 

Gannett publishes a paper in St. Cloud, filled with mostly wire news. It employs an editor and a sports reporter. Forum Communications is stepping into the gap.

St. Cloud is home to nearly 70,000 people. It is the 12th most populated city in the state, known as much for its hockey as its lakes. And it’s growing, showing a 9,000-person increase from 2000 to 2020. St. Cloud sits 65 miles outside Minneapolis and St. Paul. It has multiple healthcare facilities, a university and a community college. In bygone days, those demographics would support a robust daily newspaper.

Mary Jo Hotzler, the chief content officer for Forum Communications, spent quite a bit of time in the market before the company pulled the trigger. She talked to the city’s business leaders and community folks in coffee shops. The message was consistent from all types — they missed being able to read stories about their community.

“The need was getting dire,” Hotzler said. “That’s how we saw it. We hear a lot about news deserts. This certainly was one that has sort of the ghost newspaper concept, but St. Cloud isn’t a small town, at least not by Midwestern standards. It just didn’t seem right that a town of that size would be so underserved for local news. So, we scrambled at the end of last year and said, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s try to launch something at the start of the year.’”

They launched a news site with a staff of two people. Now, they’ve grown to four: a business reporter, a sports reporter, a news reporter and a news feature reporter. They’re also looking for sales associates.

“Our strategy was not just to go open or start a website or even start a newspaper; it was actually to invest in the community,” Hotzler said.

Around Thanksgiving time last year, Forum decided to launch a website. Based on the positive feedback and data that supported their hunches and research, the decision to launch a print product came during the summer.

“I know it sounds a little crazy, but I told them I think a print product just might work in this market,” Hotzler said.   

The company distributes 5,000 copies of the weekly, a mix of free and subscription products. Forum is rotating the free copies in zones with marketing campaigns. So far, the real numbers have exceeded their targets.

“If you listen to people and what they’re saying, that will tell you what the right product is for the market. And that’s what we’re basing our decisions on right now. We haven’t seen anything that scares us or makes us think this might not have been a good idea.”

About Forum Communications:

Forum Communications owns over 35 news, niche and broadcast media brands, including four television stations. Owned by the Marcil family, it is the largest media organization in the Upper Midwest.

Bob Miller has spent more than 25 years in local newsrooms, including 12 years as an executive editor with Rust Communications. He also produces an independent true crime investigative podcast called “The Lawless Files.”


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