by Kelly Smith
Local journalists are local. We live, work and play here and care deeply about getting information to our fellow Minnesotans. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, local has taken on a new meaning after our downtown Minneapolis newsroom, like businesses everywhere, closed last March. For the first time in 153 years, we put out a newspaper with 240 journalists working from their own homes instead of a central newsroom.
My tiny Wedge apartment has become my office where I interview most sources over the phone or by video and write articles. Instead of the daily commute on the 6 bus, I roll out of bed and walk six steps to my table. The daily chatter of reporters interviewing in cubicles next to me has been replaced by the hum of construction on a new apartment building nearby.
After work, I decompress with a run or walk around Lake of the Isles or on the Greenway. It’s definitely more isolating than being in the newsroom, which is usually abuzz with activity.
Instead, I haven’t seen most of my coworkers – from graphic designers and web editors to page designers and copy editors – for a year as they all work from their homes across the metro. Meanwhile, photojournalists have documented the pandemic safely from a distance or by photographing COVID patients from behind windows or doors, or by donning personal protective equipment (PPE).
Then in May, George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police spurred global outcry and civil unrest. Our photographers and reporters rushed to document what was happening across the metro area and, at times, were caught in the middle of violence and injured by projectiles. One photographer was punched in the face. Another photographer had his camera snatched and thrown into a burning Arby’s restaurant.
Months later, inside the U.S. Capitol, our Washington, D.C., correspondent huddled with other journalists in the press gallery, donning gas masks amid the insurrection. Someone scrolled "murder the media" on a door while others stomped on camera and TV news equipment outside.
In Minnesota, our newsroom has been preparing for the growing threats against journalists since the 2018 mass shooting at the Capital Gazette in Maryland, where a gunman shot and killed five employees. This year, our newsroom has bolstered security even more, with some reporters and photographers carrying gas masks and bulletproof vests along with their notebooks and cameras.
We also face a growing threat financially as a newspaper industry. Across the U.S., more than 2,000 newspapers have closed in the last 15 years, creating news deserts in these communities. In just one year, at least seven newspapers closed in Minnesota in 2020, including the Southwest Journal and City Pages in Minneapolis.
The pandemic has magnified the financial strain on newspapers, which generally rely on only two sources for revenue: advertising and subscriptions. Advertising essentially evaporated at the start of the pandemic, and subscriptions, for many news outlets, have followed a downward trend.
When local newspapers close, there is often no replacement, leaving that community without anyone covering local city councils and school board meetings or high school sports and community events.
Amid these extraordinary and difficult times, we’re grateful for the community’s continued support. Local news is perhaps more important than ever before, especially in an era of growing misinformation on social media.
At the Star Tribune, we haven’t stopped printing a newspaper since 1867 – the same year Minneapolis was incorporated as a city. And we hope to continue to be here for decades to come.
Kelly is a Wedge neighbor and reporter for the Star Tribune.