Thursday, August 27, 2009

Death of a newspaper

This marks the final week of publication - as a daily newspaper - of the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and while it will survive as a twice-a-week publication, the news of its demise hit close to home.

Way back in 1857, the Red Wing Daily Republican began publishing. The growth of Red Wing later spawned a competitor, the Daily Eagle. The two papers ended their battle in 1940, merging to become the Daily Republican Eagle. It stayed that way until 1969, when the word "Daily" was dropped from its masthead, but there are still oldsters in town that call it the "D-R-E."

My call from the Republican Eagle came in the fall of 1980, and I was very excited to go to work there. There were a number of small-town dailies in Minnesota, but Red Wing had a reputation as one of the better ones. It was owned by two very good newspapermen, Arlin Albrecht and Phil Duff. Arlin had more of a head for business, but Phil was a newspaper guy through and through, and he had very high expectations of the paper, and the people who worked for it.

Phil believed the paper had an obligation to not just tell the stories of Red Wing, but to expose the 15,000 or so residents of the area to all different kinds of viewpoints. He insisted that the paper have two full editorial pages every day, with syndicated columnists from around the world. The paper leaned conservative editorially -and had "Republican" in the name - but the editorial and op-ed pages were very balanced. You could often find Cal Thomas and the New Republic's "TRB" column running side-by-side.

I was hired for two half-time jobs. Half the time I was the wire copy editor and a page designer, the other half of the time I wrote sports, helping out the full-time sports editor. After just a few months, they liked my work enough to create a second full-time sports position for me, and give me a weekly column as well. It was a genuine honor to have Phil Duff say he liked my writing. When one of my pieces won an AP award, Phil was the first one to tell me and congratulate me.

In 1980 the daily circulation was about 10,000, in a town of only about 15,000 people. We sold papers in smaller surrounding towns such as Cannon Falls, Goodhue, Zumbrota and Kenyon, plus a couple of Wisconsin communities just across the river, so of course we had to cover their sports teams as well. For nearly five years I trekked around the area to every football field, basketball gym and hockey rink to cover games, write features and meet the kinds of wonderful people you meet in small-town athletics.

As a daily paper, we could also get credentials for the Vikings, Twins, North Stars and Gophers, and because the sports editor was a fairly sedentary fellow who didn't like to leave town, I took advantage of the opportunities and learned a lot about covering big-time sports.

It was a great training ground for a young journalist, and it was a lively, vibrant newspaper that won a lot of awards, produced some great journalism and was deeply involved in the community. I left in 1985 to go to work in the Minnesota legislature, and it was shortly thereafter that the paper began its decline, though my departure had nothing to do with it.

First, Phil Duff retired. We didn't always see eye-to-eye politically - he became much more liberal as he aged - but Phil had a great curiosity about the world that was reflected in his writing. I remember driving Phil and my then-boss, Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, in about 1990 or 1991, talking about the ongoing collapse of the Soviet Union. We had a great discussion about whether the Soviets had collapsed from their own internal decay, or whether the collapse had been forced by Reagan and the U.S.' Cold War stances. When Phil retired, a great deal of the R-E's energy went with him, even though he wrote a column for some time before his death.

The paper had also moved its offices from an old building in the heart of downtown to a new plant on the outside of town, a move that largely isolated the staff from much of Red Wing.
Albrecht - demonstrating very shrewd business acumen - sold the R-E and his other papers to Forum Publishing, meaning the paper no longer had local ownership.

By the late '90s, - as the entire newspaper industry was trying to understand how to deal with the advent of the Internet - the quality of the publication was in serious decline. You could take any issue at random and pick out a handful of typos or grammatical errors. The low pay of small-town dailies contributed to a revolving door that robbed the paper of its institutional memory, and created a dearth of quality writing.

The handwriting has been on the wall for some time. A few years ago they dropped the Monday edition to cut costs. I remember the parent of a Red Wing high school hockey player saying - after a Saturday afternoon game - "That was a good game. I can't wait to read about it in Tuesday's paper." That reflected the way the paper had become irrelevant to most of Red Wing. There was a time when you could start a conversation by saying, "Did you see the story in the R-E....." and most people would nod their head. Today you are more likely to hear, "Really? You still get the paper?"

Even the paper's attempt at joining the Internet age was flawed. Its web site was slow, hard to navigate and remained so even after a recent update. Circulation has dropped to about 6,000, less than half of what it was about 30 years ago. Now they will publish only twice a week, and with only local content.

Red Wing is a wonderful city in so many ways, and one of the things that made it special was having an involved, vibrant daily newspaper. And while I understand that the Internet has dealt a mortal blow to much of the newspaper business - and deservedly so, in most cases - it tugs at my heart to see the R-E die. It gave me my first full-time paycheck, helped me become a better writer and will always have a special place in my heart.

1 comment:

  1. What a shame. That job allowed me to wait outside the locker room door of the Twins and see that cute, fresh from the shower, curly haired catcher who I'll always remember. I thought Wynegar was the most adorable thing I'd ever seen. Not to mention he could sure catch that ball.