With only $400 in the bank, new owner brings a small-town Minnesota newspaper back from the dead

Sep 1, 2020

Pam Bluhm worked at the Chatfield News for nearly 40 years. When the newspaper serving Olmsted and Fillmore counties closed earlier this year, Bluhm knew what she had to do: Buy it.
Lonny Berge, who once sold advertising for the Chatfield News, picked up a box of pickles and caught up with Pam Bluhm, who went from being office manager to publisher.

News Reporter | Minnesota Star-Tribune

CHATFIELD, Minnesota — Pam Bluhm started working at the Chatfield News 40 years ago, barely out of high school, thinking it would be all right until something better came along.

Something better never did come along. And now Bluhm, 60, owns and publishes the paper in this town of 2,800 residents some 20 miles southeast of Rochester.

That’s a bigger deal than it sounds because Bluhm singlehandedly resurrected a newspaper that’s older than the state of Minnesota — an organization that its previous owner left for dead, closing the News in March after 164 years and leaving Chatfield without a hometown paper.

Bluhm, the paper’s office manager, was stunned when she found out that the News, which traces its history to 1856, would be closing. But it didn’t take her long to figure out her next step.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do after 40 years,” she said. “And I thought, ‘This [ownership] is what I gotta do.’ And Chatfield needs a newspaper.
“It was either this or go to work at the deli.”

The News is a throwback to a simpler time when practically every small community across the nation had a locally owned newspaper. That’s not always the case anymore. In the last 15 years, more than one-fourth of the country’s newspapers have disappeared, according to a report by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina.

That’s left millions of Americans — mostly in rural areas — living in “news deserts” lacking a news organization to cover local happenings. That’s an ominous development, said Reed Anfinson, who owns three weekly papers in west central Minnesota and serves as president of the National Newspaper Association Foundation.

“If citizens don’t have knowledge of things going on in their community, they don’t have that unity that helps them accomplish tough goals together,” Anfinson said. “They lose that sense of community.

“We bond a community together with shared information.”

Bluhm, a lifelong Chatfield resident, knows how to forge those bonds. She lives on the second floor of the News’ building and is almost always around the office, showing up at 9 a.m. and sometimes not leaving until 3 a.m.

People drop by with news and gossip to share, encouraged by Bluhm’s refrigerator, which is always stocked with cold pop.

“The other night the chief of police came in at 1 a.m.,” she said. “He saw the lights on, and he came in and had a Mountain Dew. That’s my social life.”

You’d think a newspaper owner might be wealthy, but that’s not the case with Bluhm: “I’m a poor person,” she said.

Bluhm had $400 in the bank when the paper closed, and her startup money was the $1,200 COVID stimulus check she got in the spring. That was enough to register a new corporation with the secretary of state and buy the paper’s computers and file cabinets.

She scrounged the lobby chairs from a hair salon that had closed down. And she still has a part-time job, working 10 hours a week cleaning a local medical building.

Area residents have pitched in to help. She has a small freelance budget but gets most of her content from community members who write for free.

“It’s fun for them, and they want to see the newspaper make a go of it,” she said. Bluhm does write one weekly feature: a recipe column called “What’s Cookin’ With Pam.” Recent “What’s Cookin’ ” columns have featured recipes for boiled spice cake and raspberry salad, liberally sprinkled with Bluhm’s reminiscences of growing up on a dairy farm.

Volunteers make the weekly 60-mile run to pick up the papers in Calmar, Iowa, where they’re printed.

Since Bluhm took over, the News’ circulation is up about 15% to 865 subscribers. A yearly subscription costs $35 — or $40 for out-of-towners.

As word of the paper’s resurrection has spread, so has a desire to help Bluhm succeed. She reaches into her file cabinet and brings out a stack of cards and letters, dozens of them, from current and former residents of the Chatfield area. They’re thanking her for keeping the paper going — and many are saying it with cash.

As she opened the letters, Bluhm recounted, she’d find a $100 check in one. A $400 check in the next. She opened one envelope and two $50 bills fell out.

“I keep getting a lot of encouraging little notes,” she said.

The last issue of the old Chatfield News published in late March. The first edition under Bluhm’s ownership came out on June 1. A typical issue might feature a story on a local farm family along with the latest news from the city and county governments. There’s a regular weekly roundup of news from the Chosen Valley Care Center, a bird column and “Cold Cases,” a look at unsolved mysteries.

There are also obituaries, and unlike many publications, the News doesn’t charge for them.

“Nope. That’s a community service,” Bluhm said emphatically.

It’s just one of many services this small-town publisher provides. On a recent visit, Chatfield resident Lonny Berge stopped by to pick up a case of homemade pickles that Bluhm had been holding for him. Berge used to sell advertising for the News, and he’s one of many who hopes to see the reborn paper succeed.
“We need it in a small town,” he said, adding with a laugh, “And you can get pickles.”

Dawn Cole owns the Hangman — a custom drape and blind store on Main Street. The News, she said, “is kind of a staple here in town, especially for us business owners. There are still a lot of people in Chatfield who like to have the paper in hand.”

Bluhm will keep putting the paper in their hands for as long as she can.

“Service to humanity is the best work of life,” she said. “That’s my motto.”

John Reinan is a news reporter covering Greater Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. For the Star Tribune, he's also covered the western Twin Cities suburbs, as well as marketing, advertising and consumer news. He's been a reporter for more than 20 years and also did a stint at a marketing agency.