Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Whiteout, and not the kind you think August 16, 2017

 

 

 

MY MIND WAS ALREADY reaching for the phone, punching the number for the circulation department of the Faribault Daily News when I paused.

With a sports headline printed above the nameplate and an ad stretched across the bottom of an otherwise blank front page, I realized—kaboom—that the white space couldn’t be accidental. There was a reason the paper I grabbed from my front steps on Tuesday morning was devoid of front page news.

 

 

I flipped to page two. There I found my answer. The absence of news was intentional. According to an article published there, more than 200 Minnesota newspapers are participating in a “Whiteout” to remind readers of the importance of newspapers in their local communities during Minnesota Newspaper Week.

Brilliant, simply brilliant. What an incredible visual way to make a point.

Quotes supporting freedom of the press ran in a sidebar:

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost.”—Thomas Jefferson

“Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”—Walter Cronkite

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”  First Amendment to the Constitution

As a former newspaper reporter, I especially value freedom of the press. I hope the average person realizes just how important a free press is to our democracy. When a government controls the media, we lose our freedom.

I can’t recall a time in the U.S. when the media have been more ruthlessly attacked by people in power than now.

 

 

 

When I think back to my years as a community journalist, though, I recall efforts by some locals to curtail my reporting in several small Minnesota towns. A high school music teacher once attempted to intimidate me after I wrote about controversial discussions at a public school board meeting. Likewise, a realtor verbally attacked me when I wrote about city council proceedings that involved him. A school superintendent in one community treated me with disdain after I covered a student walk-out. Thankfully my editors backed me up and I continued to do my job.

Being a journalist isn’t easy, especially in today’s world. I expect the pay, the long and odd hours and stress are just as awful as when I worked in the profession decades ago. And the criticism is fierce. People complain all the time about the media. Sometimes those complaints are justified. But mostly not.

I say, “Stop blaming the messenger.” Journalists do not make the news. They are only reporting it. And we should all value that they have the freedom to do so.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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And the Pulitzer Prize goes to… an editor in rural Iowa April 13, 2017

Art Cullen is in the center of this photo on The Storm Lake Times website. That’s his brother to the right, his son to the left.

 

HE BEAT OUT WRITERS from the Houston Chronicle and The Washington Post.

He is Art Cullen, 59-year-old editor of The Storm Lake Times. On Monday he won the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing “for editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”

 

A farm site just across the Minnesota-Iowa border on the west side of Interstate 35. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

That’s right. Rural Iowa. The state that welcomes visitors to “Fields of Opportunities.” The land of corn and beans and hogs. I like Iowa, just an hour south of my Minnesota home. It reminds me of my native rural southwestern Minnesota with fields, farm sites, small towns and wide open spaces.

That a writer from a northwestern Iowa community of around 10,000, from a newspaper with a circulation of 3,000, won the Pulitzer Prize delights me. You don’t need to be big city famous or work for some well-known newspaper to be recognized and honored. You just need to do outstanding work. It’s not easy being a journalist in a small town. I remember. I worked as a reporter, photographer and more at Minnesota weeklies and dailies decades ago.

To take a strong stand on the editorial page like Cullen did against corporate ag takes guts. And a deep understanding that the editorial page is the heart of the newspaper. As a journalism student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, in the late 1970s, I heard repeatedly that message of editorial importance. It ranked right up there with the basics of reporting—who, what, when, where, why and how.

 

Small farming communities define Iowa. This is downtown Garner, just across the Minnesota/Iowa border. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Cullen clearly understands community journalism and the accompanying responsibilities of a strong editorial voice no matter the risks. And there are risks—financial and otherwise. Express an unpopular opinion and you risk raising the ire of advertisers, subscribers and others. Read a sampling of Cullen’s editorials, and you begin to understand why he won the Pulitzer Prize. Here’s a man determined to consider the facts and then offer his common sense opinion.

I doubt Cullen’s new-found fame as a Pulitzer Prize winner will change how he approaches his job at The Storm Lake Times, a newspaper he co-owns with his brother and where his wife and son also work. I expect he will continue to work with the enthusiasm of a man passionate about community journalism. I appreciate that family-run newspapers like his still exist in an age when too many towns/cities have lost their hometown papers to newspaper chains. When that local ownership is lost, quality and quantity of local coverage usually diminishes.

The Storm Lake Times remains undeniably local. Alongside a photo and headline announcing the Pulitzer Prize are stories about a cat sanctuary, a second grader finding a four-leaf clover and a popular area fishing spot. It doesn’t get much more down-to-earth rural, more “this is still life in Iowa even when you win the Pulitzer Prize” than that.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How to write an obit 101 from Jim’s family March 1, 2017

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THE OLDER I GET, the more I find myself reading the obituaries published in the Faribault Daily News. And, yes, I’m old school. I still subscribe to a print paper.

I also have education and work experience in journalism, including writing obituaries. It’s one of the first skills I learned in the journalism program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. If you can’t write an obit—and make damn sure the name is spelled correctly—then you best choose another career.

But much has changed since I graduated from MSU in 1978. Newspaper staffers no longer write obits that once published for free. Today obits are paid-for pieces written by survivors of the deceased or penned in advance before death. That allows for creative obits reflecting personalities rather than the straight-forward factual death notices I once composed.

Source: Faribault Daily News

Source: Faribault Daily News

On Tuesday I opened the Faribault paper to find probably the longest obituary I’ve ever seen published. It runs 38 column inches, which takes you from the top of the “Matters of Record” page to the bottom, spanning two columns.

I figured, given the length, that I would find stories and humor therein. I did. I always appreciate humor in an obit. We all need moments of laughter in the midst of grief.

So here, for your entertainment, are some stories from the obit of Faribault resident James Dale Kittlesen, 87, who died on Sunday, February 19:

While at Gustavus, he met his future wife (Karen), of 59 years, although there is confusion as to how this happened…Others blame Karen’s brother Morrie who gave his fellow geology student a bag of brownies and told Jim that his sister Karen had made them especially for him. It became obvious to Jim that Karen knew nothing about the brownies while he was thanking her in the library.

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In 1991, after 16 years, Jim retired from his position as Director of Business Affairs of the Faribault School District having been hung in effigy only once.

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In recent years he became a fan of the Minnesota Windchill… After sitting in the bleachers for an entire game he discovered he could barely stand as his back hurt too much. When people would ask about his sore back he would explain it was a “sports injury.”

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At Trinity he worked with the pie makers where he learned “mad chopping skills.”

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Recently, while Jim was sitting in his comfy chair, Karen asked, “Is there anything on your bucket list you would have liked to have done?” He replied, “No, not really. I think I’ve done everything I wanted to do.”

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I never knew Jim. But I feel like I do now after reading his life highlights, stories and quotes.

There’s one more thing Jim’s family wants mourners to know regarding his funeral: Jim will not be wearing a tie so feel free to follow suit.

TELL ME: How do you want your obituary written? Straight forward journalism style? Or a mix of straight facts and stories? How do you want to be remembered?

FYI: Click here to read Jim Kittlesen’s complete obituary published on the Boldt Funeral Home website.

 

The evolving art of crafting an obituary May 12, 2015

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Even after family has departed this life, their memory is as close as the graves that surround Moland Lutheran Church.

This Moland Lutheran Church Cemetery in rural Steele County Minnesota lies next to farm fields. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration purposes only.

HAVE YOU NOTICED in recent years, like I have, the trend to personalize obituaries?

No longer are obits just a listing of factual information. Rather, they now often offer personal insights from loving family members. This is exactly what I was not taught in journalism school. I learned right away that nothing is more important than writing an obituary. That long ago lesson involved not a bit of commentary. Just straight facts. Birth, education, occupation, marriage, death, survivors. And, above all, spell the name correctly.

Times have changes. Most newspapers now charge for printing obituaries. Thus, if you’re paying for all those words about your loved one, you may as well write what you wish.

I find myself reading obits more often than I once did. Yes, I sadly now know a lot more people who are dying. But I’m also interested in reading the stories of those individuals whom I’ve never known.

For example, recently The Gaylord Hub, where I worked as a reporter and photographer at my first newspaper job fresh out of college and, yes, wrote my first published obits, printed three death notices that grabbed my attention. All of them were obituaries for retired or semi-retired farmers, men who devoted their lives to working the land in this rural southern Minnesota county.

I learned that Dennis Grams, 70, “enjoyed everything about farming—the equipment, animals, crops and weather. If you had a question about farming, he was the man to go to. He had a way of explaining everything so that you could understand and would not stop explaining until he was sure you understood.” Seems to me Dennis was not just a farmer, but a teacher, too. And a patient one at that.

And then there’s Kenneth Quast, 81, who lived his entire life on the farm his father purchased in the 1920s. Kenneth worked that land and milked cows. His obit states: “He enjoyed farming, it was his life.” Oh, to do what you love. Your entire life.

Finally, Elmer Otto, 93, just couldn’t stay away from his Kelso Township farm. “…even after retiring he still had to go out and make sure things were running smoothly.” Elmer clearly loved his life’s work, just like Dennis and Kenneth.

How about you? Can you say that about your life—that you did what you loved? What would you want included in your obituary?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A must-read Pulitzer prize winning report on domestic violence April 22, 2015

“IF I CAN’T HAVE YOU, nobody can.”

Then he shot her.

That story of a woman who was shot by her husband, and survived, is part of a powerful investigative report on domestic violence by the Charleston, South Carolina, The Post and Courier which Monday won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

The Pulitzer Committee calls the seven-part “Till Death Do Us Part” series “riveting.”

That it is. It’s a must-read for anyone who cares about domestic violence. And we should all care. These are our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends, our neighbors, our nieces, our granddaughters, who are dying and being abused (verbally/mentally/physically/emotionally) at the hands of men who supposedly love them. Men who control them. And then sometimes kill, or try to kill, them.

Whether you live in South Carolina—where the rate of men killing women ranks highest in the nation—or California or Minnesota or any place in between, you need to read this prize-winning series. Today. Now. (Click here.)

the logo

The logo for NO MORE, a national campaign for “No More Silence. No More Violence.”

The series addresses all facets of the issue. You will read stories and see images that will break your heart. You will read about survivors and grieving families. You will read about problems within “the system.”  You will read about frustrated law enforcement officers. You will read about lack of accountability and communication. You will read about warning signs and the reasons women stay in abusive relationships. You will read a list of problems and suggested solutions.

This is powerful information that will cause you to think and, hopefully, open your eyes and empower you to stand strong, to not look the other way. To care.

Here are some key bits of information that I gleaned from this series:

♥ Survivors often describe falling in love with “charming men who began abusing them well into their relationships.”

♥ Abusers are calculating and manipulative.

♥ Domestic violence is often mistaken as an “anger management problem.”

♥ Domestic violence is about control.

♥ Behavior such as choking/strangulation can predict a possible deadly outcome for those in relationships with domestic abusers.

♥ As South Carolina legislators recently debated domestic violence bills, all but one proposal died in committee. The sole surviving bill provided court-ordered protection for the pets of domestic violence victims.

♥ Domestic violence laws in South Carolina treat first-time offenders “about the same as shoplifters and litterbugs.”

♥ In dealing with domestic abuse offenders, it’s all about holding them accountable.

♥ When The Post and Courier emailed 30-plus clergy, asking whether they’d ever preached about domestic violence or heard a sermon on the topic, only four said they’d mentioned domestic violence. Most didn’t respond.

♥ Victims sometimes/often times fail to cooperate with law enforcement and prosecutors because “they are terrified of their abusers.”

♥ Zero tolerance of domestic violence leads to a drop in deaths.

The series concludes with the final section titled “Enough is enough.” Problems and solutions are presented therein.

Repeat that: Enough is enough.

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IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY in an abusive relationship, seek help. Call a local women’s shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

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FYI: April 19 – 25 is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week which focuses on supporting victims of crime.

Click here to read the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women 2014 Femicide Report.

I understand that men can also be the victims of domestic abuse. But the investigative report by The Post and Courier focuses on women, which is why I also focus on women in this post.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Yes, I sent this to Jay Leno June 11, 2013

I HOPE THE SON of my long ago boss possesses a sense of humor. When I received my June 6 issue of The Gaylord Hub, a community newspaper in Gaylord in southern Minnesota, I chuckled at the in-house subscription renewal ad published on the classified ads page.

Fortunately, I am not about to expire. Or at least I hope not.

Published in the June 6 issue of The Gaylord Hub.

Read the ‘Hub’scription ad published in the June 6 issue of The Gaylord Hub.

And, yes, I mailed this to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for consideration.

Now, please continue reading of my association with, and deep appreciation for, The Gaylord Hub in a letter addressed to the current publisher and editor, Joe Deis.

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Dear Joe,

Thirty-five years have passed since I arrived at your dad’s weekly newspaper fresh out of college with a journalism degree ready to set the world afire. Or at least Gaylord, Minnesota.

Your father, Publisher and Editor Jim Deis, set up a corner office furnished with a desk and chair and equipped with a phone and a Remington manual typewriter. He also handed me a stash of thin yellow paper upon which to type my news stories. (Yes, I can hear the quips about yellow journalism.)

Being the first reporter ever hired to cover happenings in Gaylord, I came to The Gaylord Hub in 1978 as a bit of a shock to the locals. Here was this 21-year-old out-of-towner suddenly asking questions, quoting public officials and seeking out stories beyond the usual Legion Fish Fry.

I was particularly disliked by the school superintendent; by a certain teacher, whom I quoted (how dare you do that) at a school board meeting; and by a local realtor, whom I had also quoted at a city council meeting. I will never forget their anger—which to this day I find totally unsuited to men in these positions. When you speak at a public meeting, expect to be quoted.

Your dad, bless him, totally backed me up. On everything. He knew my standards, my dedication, my journalistic ethics in getting it right. Today I still hold to the highest standards in decency, fairness and accuracy.

For two years I covered news and events in Gaylord, transitioning from greenhand to experienced in all aspects of community journalism—reporting to photography to lay-out to overseeing the final product at the printing plant to delivering the bagged newspapers to the post office.

I covered major fires (church, school and chicken barn), wrote about tragic accidents, sat through endless public meetings, found local angles in national news stories, covered the controversy over chicken barns and more.

Joe, I shall be forever grateful for your dad’s guidance those first years as a reporter. Every newbie needs a mentor and Jim was mine.

All these decades after exiting Gaylord for work at another weekly newspaper and thereafter a southern Minnesota daily, I still get The Hub each week. I read the familiar names, sometimes in the obituaries now (including your dad). And I think back on those long ago years of entering journalism shortly after Watergate was exposed by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

The profession was wide open then; I had my pick of jobs.

So much has changed. While community newspapers like yours still exist, many papers today are owned by large media companies. With that often comes a loss of community connection and care. Not always. But finances, more and more, take precedence over the editorial side. The internet, certainly, has factored into the demise of the newspaper as we once knew it.

Times change. I got out of the newspaper profession decades ago, knowing the long and odd hours would not be conducive to raising a family. My family became my focus and I’ve never regretted that choice.

Yet, during those years away, I never lost my passion for writing and have returned to writing, although not at a newspaper. (Click here to read a list of the projects I’ve pursued in recent years.)

All of that said, I find it remarkable, Joe, that you are carrying on the tradition of community journalism established first by your grandfather, Frank “Chick” Deis, and then by your father, Jim. Three generations running a small town newspaper. Outstanding, from my perspective.

Warm regards,

Audrey, “The Cub from The Hub

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling