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COLUMN ONE

Bugles, Heralds in Bloom

In an age of 24-hour global news, some towns are in the dark on local events. That's led to a revival of small papers like the Sunfish Gazette.

July 27, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

ATWATER, Minn. — Staring intently at her computer screen, Sandy Grussing reread the story she had just written for the next issue of the Sunfish Gazette -- about an electrical fire that charred a few feet of concrete sidewalk.

Nearby, local librarian Margaret Weigelt checked the spelling in the 10-page biweekly newspaper as she sipped a cup of coffee. Across the newsroom, retired English teacher David Johnson sifted through a stack of letters to the editor. The printing presses stand ready, and the news-hungry masses of Atwater are waiting for the Gazette's exclusive on the sidewalk fire.

"Everyone's going to be talking about this issue. They always do," said Grussing, 54, editor of the paper and a retired marketing manager for a phone equipment manufacturer. "Everyone's always excited when the paper comes out."

For nearly a decade, Atwater had no newspaper. The only way for the town's 1,047 residents to find out about fires, summer festivals and the latest births was to eavesdrop on conversations at Vern's Town & Country grocery store.

So, at a time when newspapers around the country are struggling to survive amid flagging readership, Atwater residents decided to start their own.

"Do you know how frustrating it is to be able to get up-to-the-minute information about what's happening in Lebanon on CNN, but not be able to know what was said at the Atwater City Council meeting?" asked Connie Feig, a registered nurse and chairwoman of the Sunfish Gazette's 12-member board of directors.

None of the townspeople had a clue how to put out a newspaper. Yet nearly all have been willing to donate money or volunteer time to keep the presses rolling.

Every day, people stop by to gab and gossip in the newsroom -- three desks, two computers and a coffee maker set up in an old butcher shop. Over the months, residents also left envelopes stuffed with donations, mostly in dollar bills and personal checks, totaling more than $20,000. The money, which has kept the paper financially afloat, has continued to pour in since the broadsheet published its first issue in October.

What's happening in Atwater is reflective of one of the newspaper industry's few bright spots -- a slow but steady rise in small suburban and rural newspapers. In the 1960s, there were about 5,500 weekly community newspapers in the U.S., according to Brian Steffens, executive director of the National Newspaper Assn. Today, there are more than 8,000; more than one-fourth have a circulation of 1,500 or less.

"There are more titles than ever, and ironically, more readers," Steffens said. "The Internet has been great for creating communities based on interest. But you cannot go onto the Web and find out what's happening in these small towns because no one cares what's happening there -- except for the people who live there."

'Losing Our Identity'

German, Norwegian and Swedish immigrants flocked to this one-square-mile town in the late 1800s, drawn to one of the richest farming districts in the state. The town flourished on the edge of the prairie, where the land was covered with buffalo grass and the lakes teemed with fish. A train stop downtown made it easy for farmers to load grain from elevators onto rail cars heading east to New York and south to Chicago.

There was so much activity and so much growth to report that the town had two newspapers.

Like other agricultural towns in the Midwest, Atwater has declined in the last quarter-century. Young people left for jobs in urban centers like Minneapolis, about 80 miles to the east. Atwater's median age rose to nearly 41, and its population dropped 7% in that time.

Today, Atwater barely rates a dot on a map. There are no stoplights and, notes Grussing, "People don't use turn signals, because everyone knows where you're going."

Nearly a third of the storefronts along the three-block-long downtown are empty. Atwater used to have four churches and now has three. There used to be two schools just for the town's children. Now, there are two senior assisted-living and residential centers -- and one high school to teach kids from Atwater and two nearby towns.

No reporter came here regularly to write about such losses. The town's last paper, the Atwater Herald, shut down more than a decade ago as circulation disappeared along with the population and local businesses. The closest daily paper is about 13 miles to the west in Willmar, and stories about Atwater only occasionally find their way onto its pages.

The last time CNN crews were here was in the winter of 1999, when reports of a meteor crashing into a nearby pond had moms baking alien-head cookies and Anna's Pantry & Family Restaurant dishing out bowls of "comet" soup. (Later, scientists found only a metal bowl and a small turtle beneath the ice.)

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