Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A 1979 interview with Mike Max & reflections on community journalism June 12, 2020

A CARDBOARD BOX, stacked in an under-the-roof storage space on the second floor of my house, holds layers of yellowed newspaper clippings. Not stories of personal value because they are about me or my family. But rather stories I wrote, as a community journalist.

In March 1978, newly-graduated with a mass communications degree from Mankato State (now Minnesota State University, Mankato), I started my multi-faceted job at The Gaylord Hub. I was the first-ever journalist hired at the small rural weekly in Gaylord, the county seat of Sibley County. Prior to that, family at the then second-generation family-owned paper covered all the editorial work.

I did everything from writing news stories and features to taking and printing photos to writing headlines to going to the printing plant and then swinging canvas bags full of newspapers into the back of a van for delivery to the post office. I learned nearly every aspect of community newspapers except selling and designing ads and covering sports. Under the guidance of a supportive, encouraging and kind editor and publisher, Jim Deis, I grew my skills and my passion for small town community journalism.

 

A feature I wrote in 1979 republished in the June 4, 2020, issue of The Gaylord Hub.

 

Forty years after I left The Hub, the newspaper still arrives weekly in my mailbox. Jim passed many years ago. His son, Joe, just a kid when I worked at the paper, now serves as the third-generation editor and publisher. And last week he republished a feature, No need for the bubble gum, I wrote in July 1979. Perhaps my one and only sports story. I interviewed the Max brothers—Mike and Marc—for a feature about their sports card collection.

I recall going to the brothers’ home in Lakeside Acres and the piles and piles of bagged, boxed and loose cards numbering some 7,000. But I didn’t remember details of that interview with the 9 and 14-year-olds. So rereading that story I wrote 41 years ago proved entertaining, especially considering where one of those boys landed. Mike Max went on to become the sports director for WCCO-TV in the Twin Cities. And more recently, he expanded to hard news by covering the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

 

WCCO personality Mike Max, up close in a photo I took in 1979. Photo by Audrey Kletscher from The Gaylord Hub.

 

But back to that 1979 feature I wrote. Here’s my favorite quote from Mike:

“I was always interested in sports. I saw packs (of collector cards and bubble gum), so I would sneak some money and buy a whole bunch,” he said.

That was despite his mother’s orders to buy “only one pack.” He would buy about eight packs, hide seven in his pocket and show his mom the “one pack” he had bought.

Barb Max said she found out about her son’s tricks, but years later.

I love that part of the story.

But I find equally humorous this paragraph from my feature:

The two plan on keeping their cards, but speculate on selling some of them if the price is right. “I’ll save them until I get real old,” Marc said. “I’ll save them until they’re worth more and more, but maybe someday sell them if I need money real bad.”

 

A section of the republished story from 1979.

 

Reflecting on that feature of four decades ago, I am reminded of the importance of community newspapers. These are the stories we are losing as more and more small town weekly newspapers, and even some dailies, are folding. Declines in advertising revenue and subscribers, rising expenses and the growth of online media alternatives have all factored into the demise of print journalism. I can’t even begin to tell you how much that saddens me. We are losing such a valuable part of our communities. The watchdogs. The storytellers. The historians. The source of information about public meetings, community events, deaths—news in general. The media is too often under attack, blamed for reporting too much bad news. Don’t kill the messenger, I say.

I will always remain grateful for the two years I worked as The Cub from the Hub, a name tagged to me while in Gaylord. There I learned and grew as a writer, always striving for integrity, honesty and balanced reporting. By far, feature writing proved the most enjoyable aspect of my work. From Gaylord, I would go on to report for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch, The Mankato Free Press (St. James bureau), The Owatonna People’s Press and The Northfield News. Some were temporary fill-in jobs, others full-time. But no matter where I worked, I worked long, hard hours at low pay to cover the community. I reported the hard news and attended endless city council/school board/county board meetings into the late hours of the night. And sometimes I wrote, too, about kids who collect sports cards. Kids like Mike Max and his younger brother, Marc.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

With gratitude for community newspapers April 15, 2020

Published in the Faribault Daily News in August 2017 as part of a “Whiteout” campaign by Minnesota newspapers during Minnesota Newspaper Week. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

NOW, MORE THAN EVER, our community newspapers need our support. They, like so many businesses, have been negatively affected by COVID-19.

Ad revenue has plummeted due to business closures. One only need page through a local newspaper to notice the drop. Advertising, and subscriptions, pay expenses from printing to payroll.

 

The Faribault Daily News on my front steps, when it was still delivered by carrier. Today the paper lands in my mailbox, delivered by the post office. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Already in Minnesota, several newspaper—The Hastings Star-Gazette and the Bulletin, serving Woodbury and Cottage Grove and owned by River Town Multimedia—will cease publication in early May. In Fargo/Moorhead, The Forum is no longer publishing a print paper on Mondays and Fridays.

In my community and throughout the region, Adams Publishing Group employees’ hours have been cut. And more. I’ve lost work as a freelancer and columnist for an APG arts/entertainment/lifestyle magazine that has temporarily suspended publication.

I view this issue from an insider perspective, having earned a degree in journalism and with experience as a small town newspaper reporter and photographer, albeit decades ago. I understand the importance of community journalism. I understand how hard these reporters and editors work to bring you local news. I understand the long and odd hours and the low pay. I’ve been there. Now, more than ever, newspapers are an essential business in keeping communities informed.

 

Published as part of the “Whiteout” campaign in 2017. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

Journalists commit to bringing you the stories that matter in your community. Think about that for a moment. Stories that matter in your community. The feel-good stories. The watchdog stories about public meetings. The hard news. Only in a local paper will you see those stories and photos targeted specifically for your community or region.

 

The front page of the Faribault Daily News following a devastating tornado in September 2018. Local news found only in community newspapers. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

I am grateful to the reporters, editors, page designers, ad reps and more at my local paper, the Faribault Daily News, who continue to invest their time and energy in community journalism. All too often, people criticize their work. Complain. Please, don’t kill the messenger who delivers bad news, along with the good. The reporter is just doing his/her job.

Rather, we should be grateful. We should thank these hard-working men and women for all they do. And today that means making sense of COVID-19 on a local level—writing about locals sewing face masks, hospital staff cuts and, yes, even the difficult stories about people infected with the virus. You won’t necessarily hear or read those stories in other media outlets. Our community newspapers are just that, all about community. Your community.

Please support community journalism by subscribing to your local newspaper, by purchasing ads (if your budget and situation allow), by saying “thank you.”

 

What if your community lost its newspaper? This is the front page of the Faribault Daily News during the 2017 “Whiteout” campaign. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

FYI: I invite you to read my August 2017 post about a “Whiteout” campaign by 200 Minnesota newspapers reminding people about the importance of local newspapers in their communities. It’s worth a read. Click here. And remember that a free press is a vital part of our democracy. We need reporters asking tough questions, gathering information and presenting the facts.

JOIN ME in expressing your gratitude for community newspapers in the comments section below. Tell me what you appreciate about your local newspaper and those who work there. Thank you.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than just a riddle February 20, 2019

DO KIDS STILL appreciate riddles?

When I was a kid, I loved them. Some riddles were stupid. Others silly. Many challenged me. Whichever, riddles usually made me laugh.

 

 

So when I saw one of my favorite childhood riddles posted in a newspaper stand outside the Faribault post office, I laughed, exited the van and walked across icy surfaces to photograph the posting.

Q: What’s black, white and read all over?
A: A newspaper.

I heard that riddle countless times when growing up. I liked it then, like it still, although the riddle no longer rings reality. Newspaper aren’t read all over. And that saddens me, a former journalist. Too many people no longer value newspapers. Rather, they get their news from other sources, not necessarily the most reliable sources either.

Newspapers and journalists are too often the targets of criticism, much of it unjustified. I’m not talking about the publications that call themselves newspapers, but truly are not in any sense of the word. I’m talking about legitimate “news papers” staffed by hardworking, unbiased journalists.

 

 

I value newspapers, especially community newspapers. I value the stories reporters write, yes, even the hard news. I value that newspapers keep me informed, expose me to differing viewpoints on the editorial page, alert me to happenings and issues in my community and elsewhere.

I recognize that my feelings about newspapers and journalists stand much stronger than those of most people. In my days working as a news reporter, I was attacked by individuals who disliked me quoting them or writing on an issue they’d rather not see in print. But their disdain didn’t stop me from doing my job.

We need a free press, a strong press, a press that does not cave to political or societal pressure. Our democracy depends on freedom of the press.

Q: What happens in a country without a free press?

A:

 

TELL ME: Share your thoughts or share a riddle. Please be respectful in your comments.

 

Here’s an example of a riddle my second daughter shared with the public many years ago at a roller rink:

A: How do you make a Kleenex dance?

Q: Put a little boogie in it.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When reporters cover tough topics… January 31, 2019

 

THE NEXT TIME YOU CRITICIZE a journalist or rant that reporters are nothing but a bunch of biased writers, consider this. My local newspaper, the Faribault Daily News, recently placed first in the Social Issues category of the 2017-2018 Minnesota Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest. For a series on domestic violence.

The award-winning series, titled “Abuse,” published over a period of a year and covered the gamut from information to interviews with survivors and their families, advocates, police and more. These were powerful pieces, written primarily by reporter Gunnar Olson but also by Regional Editor Suzanne Rook.

It is the personal stories which made this series. Emotional stories. Gut-wrenching, difficult stories. Stories that needed to be told, heard, written, read and, then, remembered.

 

 

When a reporter can take a topic like domestic abuse and violence, interview people in a caring and compassionate way, and then share those stories through dynamic writing, that work deserves recognition. By fellow journalists. And by readers. I applaud the Daily News for raising awareness, educating and connecting people to this social issue via deeply personal stories.

As a former weekly and daily newspaper reporter, I will confirm that writing stories like this is difficult. I once wrote a series on eating disorders that included interviewing a survivor and the mother of a young woman who died from anorexia. Although I kept my professional persona in place while working on the series, inside my heart hurt for every single individual I interviewed. Reporters have a job to do. But they are still human.

I often hear newspapers criticized for printing nothing but bad news. That raises my ire. Do not kill the messenger. Newspapers are not PR mouthpieces. They are newspapers. It is their job to report the news—good and bad. Features and hard news. They do not cause the bad news. People do.

Today, more than ever, journalists are under attack. For writing fake news. For not writing something they should have or for writing something they shouldn’t have. They are losing their jobs. The free press is threatened. That should scare every single person. Democracy needs a strong and free press.

Yes, I’ve sidetracked a bit. But I’ll circle back now and reaffirm how much I appreciate my community newspaper. Reporters keep me informed of local issues and happenings, of good news and bad. I am grateful for their hard work and their willingness to stretch beyond the everyday news to cover important topics. Like domestic violence.

© Copyright 2019 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

 

When a small town Minnesota newspaper implements a “pay for” letter policy August 11, 2016

SHOULD A NEWSPAPER charge for publishing a letter to the editor?

My Minnesota State University, Mankato, journalism professor Robert Shipman would likely turn over in his grave if he read that question. He impressed upon me that the editorial page is the heart of a newspaper. A staunch supporter of community journalism, he would not advocate paying for letters to the editor. Neither do I.

I have great respect for this newspaper man who nearly 40 years ago taught me the basics of journalism—instilling in me a strong sense of fairness in writing balanced news stories. Opinion, he emphasized, should be reserved for the editorial page.

 

Gaylord Hub election letters policy - Copy

 

This brings me back to charging a fee for letters to the editor. Interestingly enough, my concern is prompted by a notice published in The Gaylord Hub, a third-generation family newspaper where I accepted a reporting job right out of college.

Decades after I left my two-year stint at this small southern Minnesota weekly, I still get The Gaylord Hub. Unlike most community newspapers, The Hub does not have a strong editorial page. Rare are the editorials. However, locals often voice their opinions in letters to the editor. There’s been significant controversy in Gaylord related to school issues.

But now the publisher/editor has established a new policy for election-themed letters. Policies for letters to the editor are the norm at newspapers. Many publications restrict length; monitor for libelous and offensive content and personal attacks, etc.; and don’t publish election-related letters in the final issue before an election. But, in a quick perusal of the internet, checking out several major dailies across the country and several Minnesota daily and weeklies, I found none with a “pay for” publication fee.

The Little Falls based The Morrison County Record, for example, states that “Letter writers are encouraged to stick to the issues and the positions on issues and qualifications of the candidates.” Letters that lean toward advertising aren’t published.

In Gaylord, though, under the new policy, if you want to write a letter supporting or opposing a candidate or a political party, you’ll have to pay for it. Thirty dollars for up to 300 words for a Paid Election Letter.

I get where the newspaper is coming from with this policy. Some people will abuse the system by viewing the editorial page as a free advertising opportunity. But to blanket apply that to all election-focused letters seems a suppression of opinions. The policies established by The Morrison County Record seem more appropriate, more balanced in curbing potential abuse while maintaining freedom of expression.

That said, there was a time when newspapers printed obituaries and engagement, wedding and birth announcements at no cost to readers. No more, at least in most publications. Would my college professor opine that change. He likely would. Robert Shipman was Old School community journalism. He was all about integrity, unbiased reporting, getting facts right and, above all, always always spelling names correctly. He taught me well. He taught me that the opinion page is the heart of a newspaper.

Thoughts?

Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The new letters to the editor policy published in the August 4 edition of The Gaylord Hub.

 

Oh, the interesting topics you’ll find in small town newspapers…of bullets, burgers & babies… August 14, 2012

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SMALL TOWN NEWSPAPERS make for some interesting reading. Stories can get downright personal and to the point.

For example, I found a gem last week online at The Redwood Falls Gazette, a twice-a-week newspaper published in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota. It’s the newspaper I grew up reading.

The Redwood Falls Gazette editor Troy Krause, right, interviews Todd Bol, co-founder of the Little Free Library in Vesta in early July. Bol gave a LFL to my hometown and installed it at the Vesta Cafe.

In the “Backward Glance” section of the newspaper, under 1987—25 years ago, this tidbit of information was published:

In the listings of the Redwood County 4-H county fair champions, Troy Krause of the Loyal Scotties was overall grand champion in flower gardens, while Kelly Zwaschka of the Vesta Vikings won champion child development.

(Note: Troy is editor of the Redwood Gazette, while wife Kelly gave birth to their seventh child, Gideon, this week. Congrats from the Gazette staff!)

How’s that for a birth announcement? Obviously Kelly’s interest in child development, even as a 4-Her, was a clear indicator of her future. As for Todd, I believe flower gardening could be connected to creativity/writing.

You’ll also find a brief about a game warden, shot through the head in 1937 by another game warden who mistook him for a bear. That’s listed in the 50 years ago section of “Backward Glances.” So, yes, apparently Merle Shields survived the incident as he was celebrating his 20th year as a Redwood County game warden in 1962. (BTW, since writing this post, I discovered that The Gazette has upgraded its website and the “Backward Glance” I reference here cannot be found, or I couldn’t find it.)

The third piece of interest was published in last week’s The Gaylord Hub, where I worked for two years as a news reporter and photographer right out of college. Avery Grochow, past president of The Gaylord Chamber of Commerce, penned a letter to the editor which I am certain is the current coffee shop talk of Gaylord.

I’ll summarize parts of his lengthy, six-paragraph letter and quote directly when needed. Grochow begins:

We, as the chamber board, are constantly trying to do our best for our community and are constantly being criticized by some for our decisions.

Apparently locals were grumbling about the food—who supplied it and how it tasted—at the community’s annual Eggstravaganza summer festival. New volunteers, replaced Dewey (whoever that is; my words here, not Avery’s), who “wanted a year off from all the arguments.” They stepped up and worked through a new bidding process for the supplies, awarding the bid to the lowest bidder.

Grochow continues:

We have had comments both ways about the supplying of hamburger. Some have criticized us in the past because the hamburger was too spicy, that they would rather have plain burgers, and we are now being criticized that we are having plain burgers and not spiced burgers.

No matter what we do as volunteers and directors for the Chamber, we can’t please everyone…We did what we thought was fair to everyone by taking bids on everything and stand by our decision.

Now, just imagine how difficult it must have been for Grochow to write this letter. Not an easy thing to do when you live in a small town like Gaylord where everyone’s lives are intertwined.

I give Grochow credit for having the guts to publicly voice his opinion in print. He doesn’t just vent, though. He offers a solution. And therein lies the point best taken by those who read his letter.

…if anyone has better ideas for us, we still are short of directors and could use all the help we can get to make our Chamber even more successful. We also have openings on the board so you can be part of the decision making, instead of just always making bad comments because you don’t like what we did. Remember, we, as the Chamber Board of Directors, are just volunteers trying to make Gaylord a better place to live and hopefully to have a great celebration.

Those closing remarks are words we could all heed because I expect you, like me, are guilty of occasional grumbling and complaining.