St. Paul suburbs look on sadly as yet another weekly newspaper shuts down

Lake Elmo was one of the suburbs Lillie covered before it came to a shuddering halt.

Lake Elmo was one of the suburbs Lillie covered before it came to a shuddering halt. Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

By this point, the death of one more small-town weekly newspaper is usually met with more sighs than tears. Lillie Suburban Newspapers, which, up until mid-September, covered the suburbs of St. Paul, gave up the ghost with barely a whisper.

Readers could have seen it coming. Some 2,000 or so newspapers have been closed nationwide over the past 15 years due to declining readership and advertising. Just last spring, two Minnesota weeklies turned to GoFundMe in a desperate attempt to save themselves.

Lillie—which covered Maplewood, Oakdale, Lake Elmo, New Brighton, Roseville, St. Anthony, and West St. Paul—has been struggling since last summer, when co-owner Jeffrey Enright filed for bankruptcy. The largest creditor listed was the company’s pension fund, which was owed just shy of $1 million. All that remained was a slow, mostly unremarked departure.

Executive editor Mike Munzenrider told the Star Tribune that staff got word on September 20. There hasn’t been a new story on since September 27. The last article covered a Falcon Heights doctor who’d written a memoir called Mirth Is God’s Medicine.

It’s a headline typical of a suburban weekly, which cover events and local accomplishments that won't be touched by bigger media. Like the Lake Elmo wake surfer who won fifth place in a world competition, or the volunteers who cleaned up a bit of Long Lake’s shoreline. These things are only significant because they happened in somebody’s hometown—to a neighbor, or a friend.

Lillie’s bread and butter was everything that happened in the St. Paul suburbs. In a statement, the company told its readers it “appreciated” their partnership with the paper “over the past 82 years.”

On social media, commenters were calling it a “terrible loss.” There were a few remarks about the decline of an informed populous and demands to start paying for local news again, but just as many were sad because they were going to miss the “snarky crime reports” and the simple ritual of picking up a copy of the East Side Review at the YMCA.

Of course, any time one of these small local weeklies dies, there are plenty of people available to remind everyone what killed them in the first place. Former interns said that Lillie was a “good experience,” but the pay was paltry, even for a “declining industry.” Readers said Lillie spent too much time focusing on “fluff” instead of “tough” public policy and governance stories.

CrimeWatchMpls, a Twitter account that posts crime updates around the city, went as far as to say that Lillie’s editorial staff “created their own demise.”

“I don’t feel one bit sorry for them,” it said.

For the record, Munzenrider says "beyond the stories about doctor’s memoirs and wake surfing," his paper also extensively covered the police killing of Philando Castile and the displacement of people following the closure of Lowry Grove and St. Anthony, along with often overlooked suburband development and housing issues -- "right up until the weeks we were shutting up shop."

But there’s little point in criticizing a small bundle of weeklies for using ink on obituaries, soft features, and local gatherings. Big stories are hard to pursue with an undersized, overworked, underpaid staff. The one thing they can guarantee is their steady, unblinking presence. When the city council meets, when the high school soccer team wins, when a beloved small business owner dies, they will be there. They will report on every crime, no matter how small, and add the snark for free.

These things are not “tough,” “hard-hitting” news. But they are the details that connect a community—or, at the very least, fill a YMCA workout.