Eden Prairie was recently at the epicenter of the online, hyperlocal, nonprofit, and nonpartisan news world.
The meeting Feb. 25 and 26 at the Eden Prairie Hennepin County Library, dubbed Local News Shoptalk, was the brainchild of Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN) Publisher and CEO Steve Schewe and Alice Dreger, founder and publisher of East Lansing (Mich.) Info (ELi).
Among the 16 attendees were founders, CEOs, board members, reporters and editors of six publications in five states. EPLN and ELi were joined by representatives from NancyOnNorwalk in Norwalk, Conn.; North News in North Minneapolis; The Daily Catch, Hudson Valley, N.Y.; and The Shoestring, located in western Massachusetts.
Also invited on Sunday were members of the Eden Prairie community to share their thoughts on how local news affects them and civic organizations.
Most of the publications are the only source of hyperlocal news in their communities. Most of them are relatively new. EPLN is 2 ½ years old and ELi has been around for about 10 years.
Attendees spent more than 12 hours over two days discussing the journalistic impact of their organizations, how to raise money in a competitive funding environment, and how to ensure each newspaper’s resilience and sustainability.
“I think the Shoptalk Conference is having a profound effect on our development as online news publications, or ‘news pubs,’” Schewe said. “When we stepped out of our routines to be with people who are passionate about gathering and reporting local news and who have similar challenges, we remembered that we’re doing important work, and at the same time, we clarified how demanding what we’re doing is for a mostly volunteer organization.”
Newspapers continue to shut down
Since 2005, the country has lost more than one fourth of its newspapers – about 2,500 of them, according to a 2022 Northwestern University State of Local News report. “The loss of local journalism has been accompanied by the malignant spread of misinformation and disinformation, political polarization, eroding trust in the media, and a yawning digital and economic divide among citizens,” the report said.
The country lost 360 newspapers during the pandemic between late 2019 and May 2022. Most of them were weeklies serving communities ranging in size from a few hundred people to tens of thousands.
Eden Prairie lost its long-time weekly newspaper, the Eden Prairie News (EPN) in April 2020. While the pandemic may have played a role in its disappearance, EPN was a victim of corporate finagling. Alden Global Capital, a New York City hedge fund, purchased the group of newspapers that included EPN in February 2020. Eighty-five days later, it was closed.
The impact of that closure was felt almost immediately. “At EPLN, we believe the social condition of knowledge decreased when the Eden Prairie News died,” founding EPLN editor Brad Canham wrote in a Jan. 13, 2021 article. “Besides the loss of day-to-day information about sporting events, politics, community events, developments, etc., the community lost knowledge about itself.”
The model for newspaper publishing for decades revolved around selling advertising to local businesses. With the advent of the internet, that model began to slip away. A new model rose from the ashes – online, nonprofit, and nonpartisan newspapers.
Only one of the publications represented this weekend still prints its product. The North News in Minneapolis publishes a once-a-month tabloid newspaper. It is funded by Pillsbury United Communities, a large charitable foundation.
Shoptalk participants, whether in Eden Prairie or cities in the Midwest or on the East Coast, share similar challenges, Schewe said.
“The people who came recognized that they were in the company of other people like them,” he said. “Local news at this particular moment exists on a foundation of unpaid or underpaid service, and part-time work can turn into full time work very quickly.”
Participants spent eight hours on Saturday and four more Sunday sharing their successes and challenges, all of which will end up in a report compiled by Schewe and Dreger, that will be shared with participants.
A good portion of the meeting, which was guided by Eden Prairie’s Fred Baumer, a business meeting facilitator, was spent not only identifying problems, but brainstorming possible solutions. Those included potential resource sharing in fundraising, technology, and more.
“We’re looking into possibilities of how we can continue to work together to strengthen our news pubs in ways that we couldn’t accomplish on our own,” Schewe said.
One of those challenges is doing a better job of communicating the impact of what EPLN and the others offer and what it costs.
“We believe when (the community has) this information, our subscribers and sponsors will continue to support our efforts to provide hyperlocal news, and we’ll be able to recruit more volunteers in key positions,” Schewe said.
Part of national organization
The six publications are members of a California-based national organization, Institute for Nonprofit News (INN).
Minneapolis-based INN Chief Network Officer Jonathan Kealing attended the Sunday group session and likes the Shoptalk model.
“It was so great to connect with so many motivated and determined members,” Kealing said. “Their successes and challenges are an inspiration. I was struck by the success of EPLN’s Shoptalk model, and I want to do what I can to keep it going.”
Shoptalk was funded by INN and an anonymous donor from Michigan.
Participant Emily Sacher, founder and editor of The Daily Catch in Red Hook, N.Y., has already instituted some of the changes that Shoptalk members created.
“I have never been to a conference that built so much collegiality, offered so much practical advice, and left me feeling so enthused and hopeful, so centered in my self-assigned role to try to save local news in one tiny patch of the world,” she said.
EPLN’s Schewe thinks this is just the beginning of collaborations in the growing nonprofit, hyperlocal news business.
“Listening to my peers in other organizations helped me to clarify my personal choices about how hard I want to work at this,” he said. “I renewed my determination as a publisher to facilitate news gathering and reporting as a community service to Eden Prairie while taking care that the people on our team don’t overdo it.”
The new form of news gathering is growing across the country. There are 30 to 40 news pubs that are part of INN. They are geographically based; mostly volunteer-driven; non-profit; primarily offering news online to communities of 20,000 to 100,000 population.
Schewe, who hosted several visitors at his home to reduce conference costs, said the dedication and enthusiasm of EPLN’s peers was clear, especially after a 15-inch snowstorm earlier in the week of the conference.
“Even in the aftermath of a major snowstorm and frigid weather, our visitors enjoyed their visit to Eden Prairie,” he said. “We hope to offer this as a regular event.”
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