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Freelance Reporter Randy Olson Goes Looking for Work, Impulse Buys Small-Town Newspaper

Where the hell is Brooten, Minn.? Randy Olson is the one-man news machine who's trying to put the tiny town of 700 people on the map.

Back in 2005, Olson was a crop and livestock farmer. Dad passed away in a bull-goring incident and mom needed help on the farm. He did a bit of reporting on the side in those days just to whet his wordsmanship. Eventually, Olson signed on as editor of the Hoffman Tribune -- serving a population of about 400 -- and became a full-time sports reporter at the Saux Centre Herald.

When he hit up the Bonanza Valley Voice in November to see if the weekly newspaper had any work for him, the publisher talked him into buying the whole operation instead. Dazzled by the prospect of having 10 blank pages a week to do whatever in the world he wants with, Olson signed.

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Since then he's been reporting, editing, photographing, designing, selling ads, and generally trying to ward off the specter of print readership's eventual demise. Turns out, the smallest of America's small towns might be the last bastion of loyal newspaper subscribers.

Olson says all he has to do is walk a block and a half up and down Brooten's downtown, dropping in to the barbershop, the grocery store, the bank, city hall, and the liquor store on the east end of town to shoot the shit old-school style in order to get a sense of what people care to read about. The Bonanza Valley Voice isn't chock-full of murder and mayhem every week, but people love hearing about the high school speech team, he says.

"Like in any small town, it's second nature to be apprehensive to someone new, but they accepted me very quickly because they could tell I was sincerely interested in what was going on in their town," Olson says. "It's a pretty quiet town, but we're all in the same boat of trying to get people to buy our products and keep services going in the town."

A tight-knit community comes with established business advertising and strong readership. Olson says his circulation is just about 800, and so far it doesn't look like his family's going to be put out on the street anytime soon.

Send news tips to Susan Du.