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A small-town paper is making big news in part of Minnesota

ATWATER, Minn. -- While charges of US-sanctioned torture and riots in Paris led newspapers around the country during the second week of November, folks in Atwater were reading about a $450 school levy hike and a friendly reminder about winter street parking regulations.

Small potatoes, maybe -- but a refreshing change after a decade with no local newspaper.

At a time when the newspaper industry is struggling for relevance in a digital age, a group of Atwater residents went in a different direction -- launching a nonprofit newspaper staffed mostly with volunteers.

The Atwater Sunfish Gazette -- the name was picked in a contest -- published its first six-page edition on Oct. 12 and has put out two biweekly issues since. It is mailed free to the 1,100 residents of the 56209 ZIP code, bringing them the latest on a proposed sewer line, a local FFA Organization award winner, and the Atwater Falcons football squad.

The town's last paper, the Atwater Herald, folded in the mid-1990s. The nearest daily, Willmar's West Central Tribune, is about 15 miles west on Highway 12 in west-central Minnesota, and about 90 miles west of the Twin Cities, but it covers only the big stuff in this declining farm town.

''It was really hard to get information about the school, about sports," said Laverne Pickle, a retiree and 50-year resident.

''What we had was posters on bulletin boards and announcements in the church bulletin and notes sent home with kids," said Connie Feig, a nurse and chairwoman of the board of directors.

''That's how you got news around town. People were missing things unless the grapevine brought it to them."

The project started in the fall of 2004. A group of residents made lists of what was needed, gauged the support of local businesses, and talked to professionals. None had any newspaper experience.

''We were really learning the business one step at a time," said Donna Detlefsen, another board member and an employee of a local grain dealer.

So far, the group has raised about $13,000; each issue has cost about $1,800 to produce. Office space was donated.

The only paid employee is editor Sandy Grussing, hired in September, who had edited weekly newspapers in nearby Renville and Olivia.

''I had always wanted to start my own newspaper, but I wasn't financially equipped," Grussing said. ''This was the chance of a lifetime."

Board members and other residents write stories, sell ads, run errands, and make coffee. Feig writes a health column. Margaret Weigelt, the local librarian, takes pictures.

Other volunteers help to proofread, paste up pages, and design ads, among other chores.

After two issues of six pages each, the Nov. 9 edition had eight pages. Grussing hopes to go weekly in January and plans are afoot for a second paid staffer.

One question that has occurred to the Sunfish Gazette's board is whether a newspaper that is a collective enterprise of a community can cover that community fairly.

Grussing said she doesn't feel constrained in what she can print -- but neither will she go out of her way to dig up dirt.

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