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A Minnesota voice for newspapers nationwide at a challenging time

The voice of community journalism in the country will have a Minnesota accent. Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor News in Benson, is serving as president of the National Newspaper Association. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

BENSON -- Community newspapers are facing daunting challenges, and the need to tell people about them has never been greater.

It's why Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor News in Benson, said he agreed to serve as president of the National Newspaper Association, when its demands will ask much of him both personally and as a business owner.

"I have a passionate belief we are at a crucial time in history and I cannot step away from it,'' said Anfinson of his role as national spokesman for community newspapers.

He took on his new role at the association's convention last month in Albuquerque, N.M.

His concern is not just for the newspaper industry's future as print circulation and advertising revenue decline.

As newsrooms shrink, so does the amount of information available to the citizenry.

At the risk of sounding grandiose, Anfinson said that what's really at stake is an informed citizenry in democracy. "It's a fight for the future of this democracy,'' he said.

"If newspapers are at the brink, what replaces them? And the answer is nothing as far as what democracy needs,'' he said.

Anfinson is not saying that newspapers are at the brink, not just yet anyway. But he said the frightening news is that in three years of continuous research, he has not found a model that shows how newspapers can replace declining revenue from print with new revenues from their Internet products.

Yet that is where most newspapers are looking for their future.

"I am not a Luddite by saying this is reality. You find me one person who can tell me that the Internet will provide the income stream to provide the journalism we have today, and I will rethink my position,'' said Anfinson.

The loss of news gatherers comes amidst a steady assault on the access to information. Concerns about terrorism have resulted in more information being placed behind fences.

And, the economic recession has led to renewed calls to end the publication of public notices by placing them on the Internet instead. It would represent a large loss of revenue for community newspapers.

Anfinson said there are cases around the country where community newspapers have closed and citizens have had to turn to the Internet and other sources for information on local governments and community activities. Invariably, the result has been a reduction in public participation in civic activities, he said.

Newspapers are often the lone voice in calling for governmental transparency. Community newspapers take on the responsibility of gathering and printing the news that informed citizens need to know, not just the attention-getting stuff that is often more entertainment than real news. You won't find citizen bloggers attending city council meetings on a regular basis, he noted.

He likens the Internet to an offshore earthquake that has caused the sea to recede. Everyone sees all the fish flopping on the beach and believes it is opportunity, he said. But the tidal wave that will return to the beach is the "tidal wave of lost information to citizens in a democracy.''

"And it is going to swamp us if we don't start talking about what does it mean,'' he said.

His moment of epiphany on the financial dangers posed by the Internet to newspapers came when a subscriber who had just mailed her check called him. She told him she loved the paper's free website and wondered if she could get a refund on her print subscription.

"How can I produce this newspaper if I am giving it away free?'' he asked.

Getting paid newspapers to rural subscribers in a timely manner could also become a much greater challenge than ever before.

Anfinson takes on his office as the U.S. Postal Service announces plans to close rural posts offices and distribution centers, and contemplates the end of Saturday delivery. The next-day delivery of newspapers could be lost in large swaths of rural America.

These are big issues, and Anfinson has devoted time daily to researching and working on them ever since he knew he was on the route to the National Newspaper Association presidency.

All of that research has given him much reason for concern, but also has strengthened his resolve. The encouraging news, he said, is that it has left him convinced that newspapers and the role they play in a democracy are more valuable than ever.

His term as president is for one year, and he wants to make the most of it by bringing his message to audiences beyond the newspaper industry. He wants to engage the public in an open discussion about the strong tie between newspapers, citizens and civic education. "(I want) people to realize that newspapers are fundamental to an informed citizenry,'' said Anfinson.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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