Readers in MN face blank front pages

Sep 12, 2017

More than 220 of the state’s newspapers participated in a program of printing blank front pages during the week of Aug. 13-18, in conjunction with the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s 150 anniversary.

By Stanley Schwartz
Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary

Minneapolis, MN—More than 220 Minnesota newspapers printed nearly or completely bank front pages in August as part of the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s 150th anniversary celebration.

MNA Executive Director Lisa Hills said the idea was first fostered more than a decade ago by a publisher who though it would be great if there were a coordinated effort to get the state’s newspapers to print blank front pages, symbolizing what people would be missing if they did not have their community newspaper covering their towns.

Over the years, some papers had printed blank front pages on their own, Hills noted. She said former National Newspaper Association President Gene Johnson, publisher of the White Bear Press in White Bear Lake, MN, had done this a few years ago. And during the last MNA convention, his son and current publisher of the paper, Carter, broached the idea of a state-wide coordinated effort to the MNA board.

Hills said the board signed on to the project, and she and her staff got the ball rolling, gathering material and getting the word out to the 320-member newspapers in the state.

“It came together pretty quickly,” she added.

The association got Gov. Mark Dayton to proclaim Aug. 13-19 Minnesota Newspaper Week, the same week the participating newspapers printed their papers with blank front pages. As seen in the photo on this page, most ran their flags with a big, bold statements, such as: “Without you there is no newspaper,” “Imagine there’s no newspaper …” and “What if … there was no local newspaper?”

Brainered Dispatch Publisher Pete Mohs said he thought this was the first time this was done as a state-wide effort by newspapers.
“I felt strongly about the message” the blank front page provided, he added. “It’s important for people to know the value of newspapers. We didn’t do this to get people mad. We wanted them to appreciate what they have.”

Hills said the word spread quickly, first by word-of-mouth, then through emails and in the association’s electronic newsletter. Newspapers started signing up for inclusion in the project. To help newspapers get started, the association provided some materials, such as a generic editorial, a column by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a template and a cartoon.

“As soon as the newspapers saw who was participating,” she said, “members quickly signed up.”

As a reminder the week before, Hills said MNA sent out an insertion order.

“It was amazing,” she said. “It was one of the most exciting things I’ve been involved with.”

Feedback from participating newspapers has been mostly positive, she added. MNA sent out a survey to gauge how readers felt about the project. That is still ongoing. She would not have a clear picture until more members completed and returned their surveys.

“I talked with some of the publishers,” Hills said. “It was mostly positive. Many readers called to complain about the lack of news on the front page.”
“I absolutely believe in the message,” said Lisa Drafall, publisher of the Redwood Falls (MN) Gazette. A lot of times people don’t think renewing their subscription is that important, she explained. The blank front page brought home the importance of making their renewal a priority.
Drafall’s editor, Troy Krause, was not so sure about the project.

“It was a mixed bag of responses,” he said, “but most were positive. A few people thought we were going out of business.”
“Local journalism is important,” Drafall added. “We are the watchdogs and the voice of the community.”

She also noted that most of the feedback she received was positive.

They both agreed that the blank front page spurred many readers to renew their subscriptions to the 2,000-circulation, twice-weekly paper.
At the family-owned Cannon Falls Beacon, Mike Dalton said he went one step further than most of the other participating papers. The Beacon’s front page was completely blank. No message. No flag.

“We received more than 250 phone calls from readers letting us know our front page was blank,” he said. “I was skeptical of the project at first. But I thought it was a great success.” His column explaining the blank page appeared on Page 2. “It was to let them know that we’re important, and that this is what you’d get without us.”

Dalton’s family has owned the paper since 1880. He is the fifth generation to get involved with the family paper.

Dalton said his ad director was not happy with the blank front page, and the paper’s receptionists really disliked it because they had to field all those calls.
Hills said the association is gathering PDFs of the front pages and the columns that ran in the newspapers explaining the reason for those blank pages. She said the association would combine them into a single document.

The question now, said Mohs, is what do we do next?

“We can’t do this every year,” he added. But he is considering doing something similar with the newspaper’s website. “Most of the news on the web comes from newspapers,” he said. “People need to know that, too.”