Last Friday, July 16, 2021, we published the first edition of the Rainy Lake Gazette, a brand-new newspaper serving International Falls and Koochiching County. The paper was distributed exactly two weeks after the previous local newspaper, the International Falls Journal, published its last edition.
We hope that what seemed so bleak two weeks ago has been replaced with a new sense of optimism. This is the story of how so many people, both from within and outside the community in I Falls, came together to launch a newspaper from the ground up in a three week’s time.
On the afternoon of June 4, 2021, Brian Larsen, Publisher/Editor of the Cook County News-Herald, reached out to let me know that the International Falls Journal was closing. Brian had learned about the closure from Sen. Tom Bakk, whom he had been corresponding with regarding the importance of keeping legal notices published in community newspapers. Brian and I agreed that we should try to do something to keep a newspaper in I Falls.
Brian reached out to Rep. Rob Ecklund to see if he could broker an introduction to the leadership at the Journal. Ecklund was happy to make some introductions, however it became clear that the decision to close the paper was not being made by the staff in I Falls. It took about a week of trying but I eventually was able to connect with a representative of the group that owned the Journal. After a brief conversation it became clear that there was not a path forward to acquire the Journal.
Immediately upon hanging up the phone with the owner of the Journal I placed a call into Tricia Heibel, President of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. Despite not knowing anything about me or our organization, Tricia took the call and engaged in a conversation about how we might go about starting a newspaper from scratch to replace the Journal. Tricia agreed to help in any way she could and so I asked her to organize a meeting of key community and business leaders.
On June 23, 2021, we attended a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce office with political leaders, business leaders, community leaders, the Postmaster and staff who had previously worked at the Journal. The meeting came together on a day’s notice, making the level of attendance quite remarkable. As a group we talked about the challenges of starting a replacement newspaper and what would be needed to make the initiative successful. At the conclusion of the two-hour meeting, it was clear that there was a path forward and a group we had reached consensus of how to go about doing so. From there the pieces started to fall into place and we were able to move to successful publish the first edition three weeks later.
While many so people participated in this effort, I do feel the need to acknowledge the following for their specific efforts to make this launch successful:
Tricia Heibel from the Chamber of Commerce, for putting her support behind the effort and making local introductions.
The staff at the Cook County News-Herald of Brian Larsen, Jennifer Fischer and Rob Perez, for pulling together the content.
Meryl Whitledge from our sister paper the Clay County Courier in Corning, Arkansas, who stepped in to do the graphic design.
Postmaster Juanita Hill and her staff at the International Falls Post Office, who answered countless questions and made sure the papers got delivered on Friday.
Jamie Olsen and the team at the Brainerd Dispatch printing plant, for their flexibility in getting the paper onto the printing press on short notice.
Rich LaDue, for making a special trip to deliver the paper to the I Falls Post Office at dawn on Friday morning.
And most importantly Nikki Rolando and Kami Kostiuk, for taking a leap of faith in joining us as our local staff.
The last three weeks have been the most rewarding of my career. To see how the community in I Falls rallied to help us get this initiative off the ground validates the importance of community newspapers. In speaking with people in the community over the last several weeks a common theme has been a sense of regret that they took it for granted that the Journal would always be there.
I hope this story inspires other communities to appreciate and support their community newspapers. It is interesting that this entire story started with a discussion with our elected officials about the importance of the continued publishing of legal notices in our community newspapers, which is essential for the well being of these newspapers. While this story has a happy ending for International Falls, let’s not let this scenario occur in other communities.
Please support your local newspapers.