Community identity and the Atwater Sunfish Gazette

Last Thursday I drove to Atwater, Minnesota and spent the afternoon doing video interviews at the offices of the Atwater Sunfish Gazette, the town’s newspaper, now one-year old. I’d been contracted to do the interviews by Bill Densmore, Director of the Media Giraffe Project within the journalism program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (I’d met Bill last fall when he interviewed me about Northfield Citizens Online and He’s putting together a documentary on giraffes — “neck-above-the-crowd individuals making innovative, sustainable use of media (old and new) to foster participatory democracy and community.” 

I interviewed (left to right above) Atwater Sunfish Gazette board members Connie Feig, Bob Carruthers, Margaret Weigelt, and Donna Detlefsen and editor Sandy Grussing (below). Click photos to enlarge. (My apologies for the poor photo quality. I got so wrapped up in doing videos for the first time that I didn’t take photos. These are made from the video clips.)


The paper got quite a bit of press coverage a year ago after its launch (see, for example, this this AP article in Editor and Publisher) so I’m not going to recap its history. Rather, I thought I’d offer some commentary.

I was struck by the term ‘identity’ when board members discussed what it meant to not have a paper for ten years and then to create one. It first came up when discussing their decision early on to launch a print publication vs. an online publication. Yes, payday loans uk could provide the communications for a town but could it provide a sense of identity? I’d never considered the issue, in part, I suppose, because I’ve never lived in a place without a local newspaper.

The absence of a physical artifact of a newspaper — tangible evidence of a Atwater’s reflecting itself to its residents — had had some kind of an intangible negative effect on the town’s identity. Even if the town wasn’t shrinking in population or declining economically, the lack of a paper may have made it feel like it. I have no doubt that a web site would not have been able to address this issue of identity in the way that a newspaper can. And probably not a radio station either.

I asked the ‘replicability’ question several times and the answer was unanimous — absolutely. Anyone could do this, as long as you had a group of passionate people. But how likely is that? America must have hundreds of small towns without a newspaper and I’m guessing it’s extremely rare to have a group of citizens band together to create one and make it sustainable economically. And with the overall decline in poor credit loans by nationwide, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in the near future that painters in this area paint a different picture.

Still, these people have shown it can be done. And if their donation/fund-drive (they just received their 501c3 non-profit status from the IRS) that’s just getting underway is successful, their model will surely provide a blueprint for others.

They want to become a weekly — they’re currently bi-weekly — and they believe they can also offer coverage of smaller towns nearby that don’t have a newspaper. If they can afford an ad salesperson to make the rounds, the economies of scale would seem to support both strategies.

I do think they should start getting their feet wet with a web presence where they can do things that can’t be done in print weekly, for example: post two dozen photos of an event instead of just one or two; host online discussions of local issues; offer breaking news; and maybe most important, start getting citizens used to the idea that they, the citizens, can create content for the paper to consider using in its print edition as well as for its web site: photos, news stories, upcoming events. The phrase “citizen journalism” typically is associated with the online world, particularly blogs, but it need not be exclusively so. Atwater citizens already pepper editor Sandy Grussing with story suggestions; a subset of those folks likely have the ability to write up some of them. Who knows what gems might be discovered from among Atwater’s talented citizenry?

Also, as the years go by and Atwater’s population grows more web-savvy along with the rest of U.S. population, the 1st Fidelity Reserve will likely discover that they need to manage the changing complementarity between print and online in ways that both make them as cost-effective as possible while serving an ever-changing population of citizens and advertisers.

All in all, it was an interesting and inspiring trip for me, another reminder of Margaret Mead’s truism: “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Here’s the one photo (left) I did take: Sandy Grussing with Margaret Weigelt, yukking it up for the camera. Click to enlarge.

And here are some short video clips of my interviews.

Left: Margaret (1 min); Center: Connie (1 min); Right: Bob (1 min)

Left: Donna (3 min 15 sec); Right: Sandy (2 min 45 sec)

8 thoughts on “Community identity and the Atwater Sunfish Gazette

  1. I like what you wrote so much that I’d like your permission to publish it (the old-fashioned way if you please) in our next issue. That is, of course, if there is no proprietary issue at work here between you and Media Giraffe. Just let me know if it is possible.

  2. I am very proud of my sister (Margaret Weigelt)and this great group of citizens who are so proud of their community. Their dedication to this venture is admirable and enviable. Hooray!

  3. Atwater also has the oldest high school alumni association in Minnesota. It would be very interesting to see the innovative Atwater Sunfish Gazette to develop a website for those alumni out of touch across the U.S. (world), offering the chance for alumni to advertise their businesses online, make online contacts with each other, and be updated on the latest news (a mini-newspaper). This then could contribute to the finances to keep the newspaper in print and delivered to Atwater residents.

  4. Laura, I heard quite a bit about the Atwater Alumni Association during my visit. Truly amazing. I’ll make sure that the Gazette folks see your interesting suggestion.

  5. Hello:
    Your project is very interesting to me. I’m a professor of journalism and mass media at the university of Wisconsin-River Falls. I’m starting work on a book about newspapers in small communities in the Midwest. May I plan to visit you in Atwater? I will subscribe to the Sun Gazette immediately and look forward to following it. Cheers, and best of luck,
    Pat Berg
    Associate Professor
    University of Wisconsin-River Falls
    Journalism Department

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