The Story of One Local Newspaper’s Unfortunate End
After printing the local farming, sports, and civic news for 121 years, another small-town paper faces the end of a noble enterprise.
Whenever she thought her small staff would be facing a particularly stressful deadline day, Rebecca Colden declared a Bloody Mary Monday. This was definitely one of those Mondays—indeed, the last of them. The Warroad Pioneer, the weekly newspaper that Colden published and which had served its tiny Minnesota town just below the Canadian border for 121 years, was one issue away from certain death.
When Colden woke up that day, she listened to a Christian hymn that had buoyed her spirit of late: “This is my story, this is my song/Praising my Savior all the day long.” Now she was trudging into the newsroom on a cold May morning with vodka, olives, and tomato mix. A mock-up of the front page greeted her on the newsroom printer, screaming out a bold, striking headline: FINAL EDITION. She sat at a desk and opened some bills, one of them stamped “past due.”
“I don’t want to feel like I’m letting the community down, but I also know I’m a small business, and it’s dollars and cents,” says Colden. “I’m broken with the decision. I’m just broken with it.”
With the distribution of its final issue on May 7, 2019, the Warroad Pioneer, which had printed about 1,100 copies per week, joined roughly 2,000 newspapers that have closed in the United States over the last 15 years, according to a study by University of North Carolina researchers soberly titled “The Expanding News Desert.” Today in many American communities, the researchers noted, “there is simply not enough digital or print revenue to pay for the public service journalism that local newspapers have historically provided.”
In Warroad, the Pioneer was full of photos of fishermen with their outsize catches, news of awards won by children and Shriners, and stories about city officials, the school board, and local sports.
This, then, was what the desert might look like: No hometown paper to print the obituaries from the Helgeson Funeral Home. No place to chronicle the exploits of the beloved high school hockey teams. No historical record for the little town museum, which had carefully kept copies of each issue of the newspaper in boxes going back to 1897. And what about the next government scandal, the next school funding crisis? Who would be there? Who would tell those stories? It was easy to imagine the news moving instead from person to person, unchecked, on social media networks.
“A lot of it is going to be word of mouth through kaffeeklatsches,” says Todd Miller, a former county commissioner. “And who knows what variant of bull gets passed around there.”
At the Warroad Pioneer, it had been a death by familiar cuts. Hardly anyone took out a classified ad anymore. Storefront retail has suffered. Doug’s Supermarket, the only grocer in town, preferred to put its color shopping inserts inside a fat, free, ads-only mailer called the Northland Trading Post.
Colden had announced the paper’s demise—one of about 65 to close in Minnesota since 2004—in a letter to community leaders. Warroad’s “dire retail reconfiguration and exodus,” she wrote, “has had a catastrophic impact on this community newspaper.” But what could be done? Mike Kvarnlov ran the local GM dealership for years before recently selling it to his son. He thought it was a tragedy that the paper would be folding, but the new world was what it was. “Fifteen years ago, we were 50 percent paper and 50 percent radio,” he said of the dealership’s advertising budget. Now most of the money goes to the Internet.
It was after 9 a.m. when the paper’s remaining staff—Koren Zaiser, the editor, and Jenée Provance, the page designer—rolled into the newsroom. Shelley Galle, the office manager, had already taken a job at the Seven Clans Casino across the river.
Provance mixed the Bloody Marys. The women hoisted their plastic cups. “We’re going to get this done,” Colden told them. “We’re going to get it out, and we’re going to do it well.”
Outside, there was no grand rally to save the Pioneer. It was another day in Warroad, population 1,880, in a remote stretch of Minnesota where winter temperatures can dip to minus 35 degrees F. Farmers gossiped over breakfast at the Daisy Gardens restaurant. Workers trudged by the hundreds to their factory jobs at Marvin, the big window and door manufacturer that dominates the town.
Part of the problem, Colden suspected, was that no one could imagine Warroad without the paper that had been publishing since the McKinley administration. “There’s that complacency,” she says. “With a 120-year-old paper, they are just so sure we’re always going to be there.”
There was also the reality that truth telling in a tiny town, while generating good copy, does not always generate love for the newspaper. On that Monday morning, Zaiser took her drink to her computer and formatted the Court Report, the Pioneer’s unflinching weekly roll call of anyone who had recently run afoul of the law. Everyone read the Court Report. Over the years, people had tried to bribe their way out of it, Colden says, to no avail. If you messed up, you were going in. In fact, Colden herself had made the Court Report for speeding, as had Provance, for driving with expired tags, and Zaiser, for driving while drunk.
It was the truth at its most raw, and Colden believes it served an essential small-town function: “Accountability,” she says.
After her appearance in the Court Report, Zaiser wrote a confessional column, acknowledging that her drunken driving could have killed somebody. The experience, she says, set her on a path to a renewed Christian faith.
“It’s one of those things that shows us that all of us are fallible,” says Wayne Maxwell of Woodland Bible Church, Colden’s preacher, who had been counseling her through the paper’s last days. “That nobody is above anybody else.”
Colden bought the Warroad Pioneer in December 2008. Her background was in marketing, but she discovered her inner assignment editor, incessantly scouring the town for story ideas.
She soon found herself swimming against the current of the Great Recession. Like other publishers, she introduced a website, but it did little for her bottom line. The paper never had more than four full-time employees during her tenure and had always relied on freelancers for much of its coverage. At a point, Colden had been forced to lay off her sole freelance local government reporter. The desert was creeping closer, and people felt it.
“Definitely, it got slim,” says Bill Boyd, a Marvin employee. “Even the ads—if you wanted to get a snowblower, you used to look at the paper. Now all of that’s on Facebook.”
On the Wednesday before the final edition, Colden returned from a meeting with an entrepreneur whose business acumen she valued. She had hoped it would generate some ideas that might save the paper. It had been held at Warroad’s small-business incubator, the Discovery and Development Hub, a collaboration between the Marvin company and local government. The DD Hub, as it’s called, is a vision of the best-case future Warroad imagines for itself, with contemporary furniture and hip sans‑serif fonts on the window.
But when she returned to the newsroom, her staff knew from looking at her that the meeting had not fixed anything. “We read each other’s minds,” Zaiser says.
“I think a lot of times people want that Hallmark story where a knight in shining armor comes out and we’re going to save the day,” Colden says. “That was not this conversation.”
Her staff saw the toughness in her in April 2010 when she was forced to tangle with John W. Marvin, known as Jake, the chief executive of the Marvin company at the time and brother of Warroad’s mayor, Bob Marvin. The paper had published an article about Jake’s daughter, Brooke Marvin, after she had been arrested on charges of misdemeanor domestic assault, obstructing arrest, and criminal damage to property.
Colden said she heard from Jake Marvin soon after the article came out. He was angry. Many considered the Marvins the town’s de facto royal family.
“Your name’s no different than anybody else’s name,” Colden recalls telling him, “and we publish other people’s children who get in trouble the same way.”
Jake Marvin told her he might rescind Marvin advertising—though he later walked back the threat. But he did rescind a favor. From that point forward, the Pioneer was no longer driven to Warroad from its printer in Grafton, North Dakota, on a Marvin company truck. And he canceled his subscription for good measure.
The next week, Colden wrote an editorial defending the article. “To anyone wanting to control the freedom of the press,” she wrote in a memorably tart final paragraph, or to those who “feel they can do a better job for the community, the Warroad Pioneer may be purchased for $500,000.”
The newspaper went on to cover two of the more important local stories of the last decade. The first was about a budget crisis in the school district that forced teacher layoffs and the consolidation of all grades into a single school building. The Pioneer used public records laws to request e-mails sent by school board members, which revealed depths of infighting and dysfunction, and pointed to a possible violation of open-meeting laws.
The second was a scandal at the county board of commissioners, where one of the commissioners had been accused of improperly benefiting from a county gravel contract. Colden described the matter as “ludicrous” and an “example of backwoods politics and finger-pointing.” The commissioner, Roger Falk, was found innocent of a criminal charge in 2017.
Colden’s rule for Bloody Mary Monday is that the vodka stops flowing at noon. In the late afternoon on that final day, like any other day, there were familiar headaches to deal with: The father of Scott Johnson, the Pioneer’s landlord, had died, and the obituary had just come in from the funeral home. Colden asked Provance to bump the issue up to 18 pages from 16. Zaiser was on the phone hunting for a student who could tell her the names of two high school baseball players in a photo.
Sometime after 5:30 p.m., they shipped the last of the newspaper’s pages to the printer. The final issue included an article about the future of the farmers oil co-op now that its general manager had resigned. There was an article about low-interest federal loans for farmers affected by natural disasters. There was an ad inviting readers to the 85th-birthday open house in honor of a woman named Ione Carlson. And the Warroad High School prom king and prom queen were on the front page.
The Pioneer sisterhood opened a few bottles of wine.
The next day, Colden dropped her last-ever stack of Pioneers at the Thrifty White Pharmacy on Lake Street, and in the afternoon she and her staff met for Bible study.
Zaiser read from the Book of John: “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again, and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything.”
Provance said she was still angry about the paper’s end. “I’m very ashamed of this community, and we deserve better.”
Colden told her to let the resentment go. But the publisher admitted she was having trouble letting go herself as she drove in the warming weather and saw the farmers in their fields.
“I thought, ‘We need to get those farm stories going.’ ”