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Bugles, Heralds in Bloom

Times Staff Writer

Staring intently at her computer screen, Sandy Grussing reread the story she had just written for the next issue of the Sunfish Gazette -- about an electrical fire that charred a few feet of concrete sidewalk.

Nearby, local librarian Margaret Weigelt checked the spelling in the 10-page biweekly newspaper as she sipped a cup of coffee. Across the newsroom, retired English teacher David Johnson sifted through a stack of letters to the editor. The printing presses stand ready, and the news-hungry masses of Atwater are waiting for the Gazette’s exclusive on the sidewalk fire.

“Everyone’s going to be talking about this issue. They always do,” said Grussing, 54, editor of the paper and a retired marketing manager for a phone equipment manufacturer. “Everyone’s always excited when the paper comes out.”

For nearly a decade, Atwater had no newspaper. The only way for the town’s 1,047 residents to find out about fires, summer festivals and the latest births was to eavesdrop on conversations at Vern’s Town & Country grocery store.

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So, at a time when newspapers around the country are struggling to survive amid flagging readership, Atwater residents decided to start their own.

“Do you know how frustrating it is to be able to get up-to-the-minute information about what’s happening in Lebanon on CNN, but not be able to know what was said at the Atwater City Council meeting?” asked Connie Feig, a registered nurse and chairwoman of the Sunfish Gazette’s 12-member board of directors.

None of the townspeople had a clue how to put out a newspaper. Yet nearly all have been willing to donate money or volunteer time to keep the presses rolling.

Every day, people stop by to gab and gossip in the newsroom -- three desks, two computers and a coffee maker set up in an old butcher shop. Over the months, residents also left envelopes stuffed with donations, mostly in dollar bills and personal checks, totaling more than $20,000. The money, which has kept the paper financially afloat, has continued to pour in since the broadsheet published its first issue in October.

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What’s happening in Atwater is reflective of one of the newspaper industry’s few bright spots -- a slow but steady rise in small suburban and rural newspapers. In the 1960s, there were about 5,500 weekly community newspapers in the U.S., according to Brian Steffens, executive director of the National Newspaper Assn. Today, there are more than 8,000; more than one-fourth have a circulation of 1,500 or less.

“There are more titles than ever, and ironically, more readers,” Steffens said. “The Internet has been great for creating communities based on interest. But you cannot go onto the Web and find out what’s happening in these small towns because no one cares what’s happening there -- except for the people who live there.”

‘Losing Our Identity’

German, Norwegian and Swedish immigrants flocked to this one-square-mile town in the late 1800s, drawn to one of the richest farming districts in the state. The town flourished on the edge of the prairie, where the land was covered with buffalo grass and the lakes teemed with fish. A train stop downtown made it easy for farmers to load grain from elevators onto rail cars heading east to New York and south to Chicago.

There was so much activity and so much growth to report that the town had two newspapers.

Like other agricultural towns in the Midwest, Atwater has declined in the last quarter-century. Young people left for jobs in urban centers like Minneapolis, about 80 miles to the east. Atwater’s median age rose to nearly 41, and its population dropped 7% in that time.

Today, Atwater barely rates a dot on a map. There are no stoplights and, notes Grussing, “People don’t use turn signals, because everyone knows where you’re going.”

Nearly a third of the storefronts along the three-block-long downtown are empty. Atwater used to have four churches and now has three. There used to be two schools just for the town’s children. Now, there are two senior assisted-living and residential centers -- and one high school to teach kids from Atwater and two nearby towns.

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No reporter came here regularly to write about such losses. The town’s last paper, the Atwater Herald, shut down more than a decade ago as circulation disappeared along with the population and local businesses. The closest daily paper is about 13 miles to the west in Willmar, and stories about Atwater only occasionally find their way onto its pages.

The last time CNN crews were here was in the winter of 1999, when reports of a meteor crashing into a nearby pond had moms baking alien-head cookies and Anna’s Pantry & Family Restaurant dishing out bowls of “comet” soup. (Later, scientists found only a metal bowl and a small turtle beneath the ice.)

Residents say they understand that no one outside Atwater would be interested in news of better sewer lines or the victories of the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City High School football team. No websites will rush to report that the city auditor has found Atwater’s finances in good shape. No TV station will cover the tale of a winery trying to open locally, or the changes being made to the church calendar.

“We were losing our identity bit by bit,” said Robert Carruthers, president of Atwater State Bank and one of the paper’s founders. “We realized that if we weren’t paying attention to what was happening in our own town, why should anyone else?”

Happy Volunteers

It was nearly midnight on a recent Monday. Outside, the air was thick with humidity and the buzzing of insects. But inside the Sunfish Gazette office, the mood was giddy. Grussing and her team of volunteers had spent the last 10 hours rushing to put the finishing touches on that week’s issue. They were only a couple of headlines away from being finished.

Then, the paper’s phone lines died. The one computer with a dial-up Internet connection -- used to electronically send pages to a print shop four towns away -- crashed. The workers sighed and waited. Such technical problems happen often enough that the staff has learned to be patient.

An hour later, the Internet connection was functioning. Though some of the work was lost, the staff wrapped up the paper a few hours before dawn.

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The effort to launch the Sunfish Gazette started in the fall of 2004, when a dozen residents decided they missed having a newspaper. “We all liked to cut out photos of friends and kids and grandkids, and put them on the refrigerator,” Feig said. “Call us old-fashioned, but who doesn’t like doing that?”

Gathering in kitchens and meeting on front porches, the residents made lists of what was needed: an editor, some computers and a printing press.

Bob Meyerson, who runs a financial investment firm, donated the office space. Town officials used city funds to buy the computers. A press in nearby Hutchinson agreed to print the paper at a reasonable rate. Local business owners pledged to run ads and collected contest forms soliciting names for the paper. (The runner-up: the Wall-Eye Street Journal.)

A board of directors formed. Farmers and bankers, retirees and housewives, pastors and teachers came forward to join, but no one had journalism experience. They placed an ad on the state job website, looking for an editor to fill the paper’s only paid position.

Grussing, who lives about 30 miles southeast, in Hector, answered the ad. She’d had a couple years of reporting experience at a weekly newspaper and was eager to return to the field.

Grussing, who reports and edits most of each issue, recruited townspeople and friends to help write stories and sell ads. Members of the local historical society dug through old newspapers and gathered interesting tidbits from the past to print: “In 1834, sandpaper was patented by Isaac Fischer Jr. of Springfield, Vermont.”

Weigelt, the librarian, has volunteered as the paper’s photographer. Linda Hedlund, a retired Air Force Reserve flight surgeon, also proofreads stories and has pasted up pages. Depending on the issue, anywhere from two to five volunteers help put out the paper.

“We are the voice of our community,” Hedlund said. “Besides, it’s fun to go out and talk to people about what’s happening.”

A Larger Trend

That sentiment is shared elsewhere. An editorial team launched a tabloid last spring in Bluffton, S.C. In February, residents in East Palo Alto started a homegrown paper. The Coast News Group, a small media firm based in Encinitas, unveiled two weekly newspapers this month that cover the north San Diego County suburbs of Vista and San Marcos.

In contrast, the number of daily papers had shrunk to 1,457 by 2004, down from 1,611 in 1990, according to Editor & Publisher, a trade publication. Nearly 52% of American adults read a daily newspaper in 2005, down from 80% during the industry’s heyday in the mid-1960s, according to the Newspaper Assn.

“It’s easier to create a sense of community with a paper that’s devoted to only one place,” said Coast News Group Publisher Jim Kydd. “The daily papers are so big, so diluted -- people don’t feel like they’re paying attention.”

Tuesday afternoon is delivery day. Grussing carefully rolls up the freshly printed issues and drops them off at the town post office. Every household in the 56209 ZIP Code gets a free copy. Most people get the paper by mail, though they can buy a copy for 75 cents at one of several convenience stores in the area.

As word spread about the paper, former Atwater residents contacted the news office and pleaded to be added to the subscription list. Subscriptions cost $36 for delivery in Minnesota, $38 for outside the state and $48 for outside the U.S. Today, the paper’s circulation has grown to 1,400.

The Sunfish Gazette is sent to former residents in at least eight other states, including California, New York and Mississippi. Copies are sent to Iraq, where Jon Erickson -- a chief warrant officer 2 with the Minnesota National Guard -- is stationed south of Baghdad, serving his first tour there.

In return for the subscription, Erickson writes a regular column -- called “Writings in the Sand” -- about his experiences in the Middle East. In one, he wrote wearily of mess hall chow and jokingly begged for someone to “grill up a big, fat T-bone steak for me -- medium please, with homemade potato salad!”

For all its success, there have been growing pains.

Some of the writers, including retired teacher Johnson, argued against using bylines. “It felt like I was drawing too much attention to myself,” Johnson said, “and not to the community.” (Grussing later persuaded them to use bylines.)

The office phone rang when readers found a spelling error or a noun-verb disagreement. A typo in an ad for a New Year’s Eve special at the Only Inn Atwater bed-and-breakfast caused dozens of people to call a local nursery, irritating the innkeeper. The inn pulled its ad for a few issues -- a financial hardship, even for a paper that relies more on donations than ad revenue to stay in business.

“But they’re back, thankfully,” Grussing said.

Though the paper’s attentiveness has helped highlight the residents’ good life, it also reveals some pettiness. In May, the paper published a letter from a former Atwater resident.

It was short -- only 52 words. It criticized Sue Myerson, who owns the shuttered Atwater Hotel. The paper had reported that she and town officials were trying to agree on a price for the sale of that property.

“Sue, your terms sound not only arrogant and unreasonable, but high-handedly absurd,” wrote Will Elliott, who lived here from the 1930s through the 1950s. “You seem to me as a person who thinks their hand contains all the aces -- but then, maybe you do.”

Bob Myerson, her husband and a member of the board, was furious that the paper had run the letter. He quit when the other board members and Grussing refused to apologize.

Sue Myerson then wrote a letter to the editor, and the paper devoted nearly a quarter-page to her complaints. Under the headline “Hotel Owner Responds to Criticism,” Meyerson wrote: “Are the local citizens now to be encouraged by an opportunity in the Gazette to take a public swing at one another? Many of us were hoping for a higher form of journalism than that!”

Even months later, Grussing grimaced while recounting the tale. There’s nothing she can do but move on to the next story.

“People wanted to know what life is like in Atwater. There’s good. There’s bad,” Grussing said. “But it’s ours.”


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