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  • Katlin Johnson, a nursing home administrator in De Smet, will work as a volunteer and play a role in managing content for the new Kingsbury Journal. Johnson is shown with her husband, Keith Johnson, and sons Odin, at left, and Theo. Photo: Courtesy Katlin Johnson
    Katlin Johnson, a nursing home administrator in De Smet, will work as a volunteer and play a role in managing content for the new Kingsbury Journal. Johnson is shown with her husband, Keith Johnson, and sons Odin, at left, and Theo. Photo: Courtesy Katlin Johnson

Bart Pfankuch, South Dakota News Watch

A group of business leaders and volunteers with almost no journalism training or experience has banded together to launch a local weekly newspaper in Kingsbury County, S.D., where two weekly papers were closed on April 1 due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Armed only with an untested business model and promises of help from unpaid volunteers — but steeled by a passion for their communities and a commitment to keeping people informed — the group plans to launch its new newspaper on May 20.

The effort to replace the De Smet News and Lake Preston Times, which closed due to financial losses on April 1 after more than a century in operation, originated within the economic development corporations in the two towns.

Board members with the De Smet and Lake Preston development corporations were aware of the financial hardships facing American newspapers, and knew that Dale Blegen, longtime owner of the two weekly papers, was looking to retire and sell his businesses. Blegen and owners of other small newspapers were facing slow declines in circulation but even greater losses of advertising revenues amid the pandemic.

Still, on April 1, when Blegen published his farewell editions that announced the papers were closing, many locals were shocked, and the closures immediately left a hole in the fabric of the two communities in east-central South Dakota.

“At first there was a feeling of loss, of something missing that we had to some degree taken for granted,” said Tim Aughenbaugh, a De Smet business owner who is on the board of the local development corporation. “The more we began to think about it, we realized what an important role a newspaper plays in a community.”

The first step was to buy the businesses from Blegen, who published the De Smet paper for 43 years and the Lake Preston publication for 36 years. The development corporations bought the newspapers’ brick buildings in the two towns for a combined $65,000.

A survey on Facebook overwhelmingly indicated that, despite years of sporting and civic rivalry between De Smet and Lake Preston, the group should combine the two papers into one countywide paper. The new name will be the Kingsbury Journal.

Aughenbaugh began an analysis of the former newspapers’ finances, their business models, methods of production and distribution and the content. 

The financial analysis showed that the income from subscriptions, legal notices and advertising would allow for a small profit after printing, production and payroll costs were paid. 

Aughenbaugh concluded that the only way to make the equation work was to eliminate or drastically reduce employee costs. That meant relying almost exclusively on unpaid volunteers from the community to write articles, take photos, design the website and the paper, and get the printed copies distributed around the county. 

Word of mouth and a social media campaign led to formation of a cadre of about 15 volunteers who have agreed to pool their talents and energies to gather news and produce and distribute the paper.

“We’re learning as we go; certainty a lot of us are learning as we go,” Aughenbaugh said. “But I’ve been surprised by how many people have some kind of background in journalism who have come out of the woodwork.”

That includes a man who did graphic design and layout at his college paper, a woman who spent several years as a sales manager at the Los Angeles Times, and Katlin Johnson, whose mother, Jeanne Limoges, served as the editor of the Sioux Valley News in Canton, S.D., while Johnson was young.

Johnson, 31, a mother of two who is the administrator of the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in De Smet, said she is not certain what role she will play in helping put out the new paper, but expects she will help shepherd through the content of the first few issues.

“I’m excited to be helping getting it going again, and I’m willing to help out any way I can,” Johnson said. “Maybe we can bring a fresh start and some fresh ideas, too.”

Aughenbaugh said the group has enlisted the help of a design firm that will not only help create the finished product but also provide training to volunteers.

Aughenbaugh said at this early stage, he is not too worried about maintaining objectivity or running into problems regarding conflicts of interest or libel, though those topics will be addressed in volunteer training.

The new contributors will not be paid for their work, at least at first, Aughenbaugh said. If the paper turns a profit, the volunteers will become what Aughenbaugh refers to as “paid volunteers.” 

The community-supported, mostly volunteer business model is not without successful precedent in American journalism.

In 2009, a group of concerned citizens in Carbondale, Colo., launched a nonprofit weekly paper after the established for-profit weekly, the Valley Journal, shut down.

The new paper, the Sopris Sun, now distributes about 4,300 free copies at 80 locations in the ski-resort region of central Colorado each week, said Editor Will Grandbois.

The Sopris Sun is now funded about 80% by advertising and the rest from donations from supporters, Grandbois said.

Aughenbaugh called Grandbois while doing research before moving forward with the plan to launch a newspaper in Kingsbury County.

“I told him that it’s possible, but that it’s not easy,” Grandbois said. “It’s an uphill battle and a labor of love.”

Blegen, 76, now entrenched in retirement, said he is hopeful that the new business model will provide financial stability.

Aughenbaugh said the new paper will take advantage of advanced technology, including use of the cloud and working remotely, and will be digitally focused and delivered on mobile devices in addition to the printed version.

“This is certainly an experiment for us and we have a lot of challenges in front of us,” he said. “But we have a broad skill set here, which I think will benefit us. I do think the pluses will outweigh the minuses.”

Read this full story here.