CherryRoad Media looks to the future of local newspapers
Last week, Jeremy Gulban, CEO of CherryRoad Media, announced the acquisition of a group of newspapers in Minnesota, including the Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch, all formerly owned by Gannett. After the press release printed online and in local newspapers, questions arose among the community members about what the acquisition could mean for the future of their local newspapers that have been through other acquisitions, most recently in 2019. Jessica Stolen-Jacobsen, Editor of our sister paper in Montevideo visited at length with Gulban and asked him that very question —here is what she learned:
It was in the summer of 2020 that newspapers made it to Gulban’s radar as a potential investment. As the owner of CherryRoad Technologies, which began in 1983 in New Jersey, he could see an avenue for his company’s technology to bring more resources to the world of rural, weekly newspapers. “As a technology company, we can bring a lot of assets to the table to improve and enhance the experience of the newspaper. Whether that’s streaming or more online services, or whatever it could be, we want to look at all of those possibilities, but we also want to continue the print paper. I want to assure everybody of that, because we know that there’s a lot of people in the audience who want to read a printed paper,” Gulban said.
In 2020, CherryRoad Media purchased the first newspaper in what would become a venture of newspaper ownership in various states. After the purchase of the Cook County News-Herald in Grand Marais, Gulban made the decision to start a newspaper from the ground-up in International Falls — a town that had recently lost their newspaper. Thus, the Rainy Lake Gazette was founded.
“I felt like there was a need,” Gulban said. “There was no longer a newspaper in International Falls and after it became clear that there wasn’t going to be an opportunity to buy the paper, I just felt I should call the Chamber of Commerce and see if it was possible to start the newspaper. From there, it really just took off.” After Gulban traveled to International Falls, he says it was clear that starting a newspaper there needed to be done.
Gulban says a weekly newspaper is important to a community for a variety of reasons. “I think that a weekly newspaper is really the kind of institution that brings the community together, keeps the community informed and entertained, and really is the fabric of the community in a lot of ways,” he said. The experience of starting a newspaper from the ground up, he said, was both interesting and exciting.
“I’ll give so much credit to the Editor in Cook County. He’s been in this business for a long time and knew all of the things we needed to do and how to find the content we would need. He knew how to work with our printer to get printed and work with the driver to get delivered, so we really leveraged a lot of the expertise that we had there,” Gulban said. “As a team, we all kind of got together and picked up different aspects of the project that needed to get done.” The process began in the last week of June when Gulban visited International Falls, and the first newspaper was printed on July 13, just three weeks later.
After CherryRoad Media’s initial acquisitions in Minnesota, Gulban made other purchases in Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Colorado. Most recently, his search for weeklies brought him back to the state of his original purchase when Gannett approached him with an opportunity for newspapers they were looking to divest with the Minnesota group including the Montevideo-American News, St. James Plaindealer, the Redwood Falls Gazette, the Granite Falls Advocate-Tribune, the Tri-County News in Cottonwood, and the Crookston Daily Times. “We felt like it was a good compliment to what we already had in the state. In looking at the newspapers, we could tell that these were good communities with a strong following of the newspapers and a good advertising base,” Gulban said.
As far as his vision for these newspapers, Gulban said, “We want to get back to having local Editors control the content of the paper and reflect what the community wants to read about and what the Editor wants the paper to look like. We want to move away from the standardized look and feel of the papers you see today.” Gulban also acknowledges that this will take some time. “We purchased other papers in June and by September/October, we were really starting to see them looking the way the local Editors wanted them to look. We’re walking through that process in Kansas and Missouri and we’ll work through it here in Minnesota but it is going to take a little bit of time to get from here to there,” he said. Most importantly, Gulban said, is that his vision is to have the newspapers put emphasis on only local stories. “Stories about the local community, whether it’s local businesses, the schools, sports, anything local that people want to read about because this is the source for that local information. There are other places to get State or National news,” he explained.
With the acquisition becoming official on January 1, Gulban said one of his first priorities will be to launch new websites that better highlight local news and to transform the layout of the newspaper to be unique for each location, better reflecting each community. “And we want to get to know each of the communities, and what those communities need, and what we should be doing differently as the local paper,” he said.
Gulban also plans to re-open local offices in the communities. “In our model, we have a local office in each community and we have the office staffed for at least some number of hours a day, certain days a week. We want people to be able to come in the office and purchase the paper, buy a subscription, place an ad, tell us about something going on, or tell us they hated the story we wrote last week. To me the key to accountability is access to the public and the ability for people to come in and see us and talk to us,” Gulban said.
With the acquisition officially taking place in just a couple of weeks, Gulban said his team is excited to get to work in the communities. “We’re looking forward to making some positive changes and getting out there and meeting everyone in person over the coming months. I just want to thank all the staff at each location for doing what they do and embracing what we’re trying to do here,” he said. Gulban hopes that people in the local community respond to the fact that they have a local newspaper that reflects what they want to read about again. “And I hope they’ll support us through subscriptions and advertising because we want to be there for them, but we need the community to be there for us also,” he said.