Local newspapers are dying — including ours

Southwest News Media, the company that owns Shakopee Valley News, has cut its staff again.

It was only a matter of time, considering the state of local journalism over the last decade, but when any newsroom staff gets chopped by one-third in a matter of two years, community members should be concerned.

As of 2017, the full-time equivalent of 11.5 employees worked out of the Savage-based Southwest News Media office, housing journalists who write for the Shakopee Valley News, Prior Lake American, Savage Pacer, and Jordan Independent. Those 11.5 employees have now dwindled to eight following the departure of Valley News editor Deena Winter.

According to Southwest’s news director, Brent Schacherer, the company “decided to fill (Deena’s) position with existing staff, with Rachel Minske taking on the dual role of regional editor and digital content coordinator.”

That means Minske’s new role encompasses both of the top jobs in the newsroom: the regional editor of newspapers in Shakopee and Jordan, and her initial position as digital content coordinator for the company’s eight metro newspapers. Somewhere in there she’s supposed to sleep.

Shakopee is essentially down to the full-time equivalent of 1.25 journalists, representing a 50% cut since 2017. That’s 1.25 journalists to write about the happenings in a very active, vocal community of nearly 50,000 individuals.

On top of that, the company reassigned an existing regional reporter to fill the vacated Prior Lake American reporting position, meaning the Scott County Board will not likely receive consistent coverage.

Because four newspapers operate out of the Savage-based office, getting a look at the newsroom structure is best done visually. Here’s how things looked in early 2017, before the company underwent a “newsroom restructuring” in an attempt to streamline its reporting efforts:

The restructuring should have cut the full-time equivalent of only half an employee, and by implementing two regional reporters in the Savage newsroom, the company hoped to have more content that would be relevant for all four newspapers. Over two years, though, the course changed and this is the current newsroom structure:

Considering journalism is in shambles, and local newspapers across the country are closing or being sold to media giants like Gannett faster than I can say “stop the presses!”, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it should come as a concern.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of newspaper newsroom employees in the country dropped by 47% from 2008 to 2018, representing a loss of about 33,000 newspaper journalists.

With a dwindling staff at Southwest News Media, there will be inevitable holes in coverage (at no fault of the reporters, who are likely overwhelmed with their workload). Scott County has an operating budget of more than $100 million, so it’s important for someone like a journalist to be keeping tabs of how it’s spending taxpayer money — same goes for the city governments and school districts in the coverage area.

According to a research study completed by professors at the University of Notre Dame and University of Illinois-Chicago, municipal borrowing costs increase by five to 11 basis points, costing municipalities an extra $650,000 per bond issue, following the closure of a local newspaper.

From the study’s abstract: “The loss of government monitoring resulting from a closure is associated with higher government wages and deficits, and increased likelihoods of costly advance refundings and negotiated sales. Overall, our results indicate that local newspapers hold their governments accountable, keeping municipal borrowing costs low and ultimately saving local taxpayers money.”

We may not all agree on editorial decisions when it comes to the Valley News, but I think it’s safe to say most of us would rather spend a couple bucks on a newspaper subscription than see our county, school, and city taxes potentially skyrocket from a lack of oversight. (I’m looking at you, people who complain about the pay wall).

And for the sake of our community, I hope Southwest News Media reconsiders its recent business model of cuts via employee attrition. We need more local news coverage, not less.

The author of this post worked as a reporter for Shakopee Valley News from Sept. 2013 – March 2019.

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