From 1900 until 2020, the Minnesota Daily maintained a ubiquitous presence throughout the University of Minnesota campus. In the ’90s, as it racked up awards as the nation’s top student-run newspaper, circulation approached 30,000 daily copies. By the ’00s that number would start reflecting the fate of the broader news business, with the paper dwindling to 5,000 copies published just twice weekly in 2019.
Finally, during the COVID-19 spring of 2020, the print edition of the Daily was quietly killed off, never to return.
This significant development in local journalism history came as a major surprise to me—just last week! Dylan Miettinen, the Daily’s editor in chief until 2021, was also unaware the digital pivot had been made permanent. But he wasn’t all that surprised.
“The decision to cut printing for that year, part was financial and part was logistical–there weren’t really students on campus,” says Miettinen, who now works for APM’s Marketplace in Brooklyn. “That was a board decision, but it was also the obvious choice. However, it was kind of my fear a little bit that the print product would die out, and the pandemic would be the last nail in the coffin.”
As a nostalgic veteran of the Daily’s A&E department, I absorbed this news with a rapid-fire cycle through the five stages of grief. Ditto for my friend and former boss Andy Mannix, who was the Daily’s managing editor in the late ’00s.
“This is a huge loss for campus,” says the current Star Tribune reporter/U of M journalism instructor. “The Daily has always drawn power as a watchdog on the administration from being ever present and impossible to ignore. I think it’s up to the staff to make it still relevant online, but I worry it’s going to be a lot easier to ignore now.”
Our old-guy pangs of loss aren’t shared by the 50-person newsroom responsible for churning out the Daily.
“No one my age really picks up a newspaper from… anywhere,” says Maia Irvin, the Daily’s acting EIC. “Honestly, most people on campus now probably don’t know that we used to have a printed paper.”
In 2017, to the light grumbling of student-run purists, Charlie Weaver assumed the freshly created role of executive director/general manager at the Daily. A publishing professional, Weaver works as the only non-student at the Daily, serving as an advisor and ex-officio member of the Board of Directors. He recently talked me down over the phone, assuaging my fears of a death-spiraling Daily while sharing none of my tactile romanticism.
(My scientific polling, posted below, suggests a high degree of mourning for the paper Daily.)
Firstly, Weaver informed me of a major digital coup the paper recently received: Through an agreement with the university, every @umn.edu email in the directory—a total of 60,000+ users at the moment—is now automatically subscribed to the Daily’s morning newsletter. (Previously, the subscriber list only included 4,500 email addresses.) Because the Daily receives around $500,000 annually in student fees, Weaver considers those recipients paying subscribers. That beefy 60K tally has helped attract new digital ad buys, he says.
“I hesitate to call it a newsletter,” Weaver says, noting the robust open rate of roughly 50%. “I call it our email edition. It really is the new newspaper.”
Secondly, Weaver assured me that all of the cost savings realized by nixing printing and delivery—a yearly total of around $180,000—were re-invested into the organization. (Semi-related: Weaver’s salary continues to be the subject of light grumbling, at least among student-run purists.) Remarkably, he says, the Daily didn’t reduce staff through COVID-19, boosted salaries, and ramped up online readership, which currently sits at around 100,000 monthly website visitors.
“My entire tenure as editor in chief, I felt like a captain and I was like, ‘OK we have the fucking pandemic, just don’t sink the boat,'” Miettinen says with a still-exhausted chuckle. Mission accomplished. (Meanwhile, a cynic could argue the C-suite masterminds at Star Tribune Media Co. could have attempted literally anything to help navigate City Pages through those choppy waters.)
Both Irvin and Weaver cite depressing pick-up rates as one of the reasons that led to demise of the physical newspaper. A return rate of 50-60% meant most Daily stories ended up unread en route to the recycling center, Weaver says. Steeply declining print ad sales removed yet another argument for keeping the paper product alive. Three print special editions are scheduled for next year, Irvin says, so the ghostly newsracks that persist around campus will come back to life on occasion.
“I anticipated the students in editorial would want to bring the paper back first,” Weaver says, adding that the all-digital approach better prepares students for the newsrooms of the future. “Our board broached the subject, and all of the students were essentially of the mind: ‘Do we need to?'”
Over the past five years, he says, market research revealed that over 80% of would-be Daily readers had no idea a U of M student newspaper even existed. Irvin, now a senior majoring in journalism and anthropology, has acquired supporting on-the-ground anecdotal evidence.
“Our target audience is Gen Z, and that seems to be what they’re gravitating toward: social media and digital,” she says. “Half of the people I talk to on campus don’t know what the Daily is; that’s something to improve upon. After the past two years, we’re getting to a good place.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Weaver is involved “in day-to-day production of the news.” Gayle Golden, a U of M journalism lecturer and fellow board member, says that’s not true, noting that, per the Daily’s policy and procedures manual, the GM/exec director “will not have direct authority over the EIC or editorial decisions.”