More than 42 years ago, I walked into the Waseca Daily Journal for the first time to become its editor.
The day before, the previous editor had been fired. Co-publisher Oather Troldahl, had told one of the newspaper’s reporters, whom I had just met, “I don’t want to meet him. Tell him to be to work at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning.”
Perhaps I was crazy to take a job under sight-unseen circumstances, but as I learned, you have to be half crazy to work in an industry where
everybody in town not only can see the fruit of all your labors, but pass judgment on it as well.
And so my career began, writing and editing story after story, most of them long forgotten.
In 1978, I moved on to the Mankato Free Press, and became its political reporter. Ken Berg, the editor, had a newsroom full of smart, funny people. I worked with some great newshounds.
In 1981, Berg promoted me to opinion page editor. I wrote 10 opinions a week plus a column. What I lacked in quality, I made up for in quantity.
In 1983, some co-workers and I determined that the only way to make money in the newspaper business was to own one. However, I was the only one nuts enough to go out and actually buy one.
My wife and I became the proud owners of the Janesville Argus. After eight years in the business, I thought I knew a lot about newspapering. Boy, was I wrong. I learned more in the first eight weeks than in the previous eight years.
If I wanted the sidewalk shoveled, I shoveled it. If I wanted the paper to be mailed, I drove it to the post office. And most importantly, I learned that if I wanted to feed my family, I needed to sell some ads.
We had seven good years in Janesville, but could see the future for what it was. The key event for me was covering a Christmas program at the school. The kindergarteners all wore grocery sacks with holes cut for their heads and arms.
Janesville had two grocery stores, our biggest advertisers, but 70 percent of the students wore bags from the new Cub Foods store in Mankato, 17 miles away.
In addition, I was working 80 hours a week. My solution? To start working 100-110 hours a week.
I made the biggest mistake of my career, and became involved in a newspaper war back in Waseca.
The daily had been put out of business by a free weekly, and that hadn’t sat well with some of the business community.
After 19 months of true insanity, both sides proved if you work at it hard enough, you can make each other miserable.
So we sold to a third party, and I went across town to become the publisher of one newly merged Waseca County News staff.
I’m sure the new owner, Bob Bradford, never thought I would last. The first week, Bradford was in the office every day. The next week, he was there every other day. Then he came weekly for a month and after that he came once a year to be sure the building was still standing.
Bradford, and his chief lieutenant Louie Seesz, were smart, tough but fair bosses. A month after Bradford bought the paper, the University of Minnesota decided to close its campus in Waseca. I won him over because I helped lead the effort to save it. We failed, but fought the good fight for the community, as any newspaper should.
Eight years later, Bradford decided to sell his holdings, and it became time for me to move again. By then, I was on the board of directors of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, so I had lots of publisher friends around the state.
We left Waseca for the Duluth Budgeteer News. The Budgeteer had upgraded itself to become a beautiful four-section weekly, but had gotten way ahead of itself on the business side. We went through five ownership changes, and were eventually bought out by our daily competitor, owned by Knight-Ridder, then one of the largest newspaper companies in the nation. I learned to be resilient.
The highlight of my Duluth years — indeed, of my career —was serving as president of the Minnesota Newspaper Association in 2004-05.
In 2007, I moved to Little Falls to manage the Morrison County Record for ECM Publishers (now APG). Two years later, in 2009, I was named a regional manager and began overseeing the Dairyland Peach in Sauk Centre as well. There has not been a week since that I have not thanked my lucky stars for having landed here. Thanks to great staffs, both papers have performed well.
However, while I intend to live forever, aging has caught up to me. I remain in good health, but 70 years is still 70 years. I will reach that milestone this week, and my “checkered” career (I call it that because I’ve hopped around a lot) will end three weeks later.
This column, to the delight of some or disgust of a few, will continue on for a while.
I can honestly say that there has not been a day when I have not looked forward to going to work. My biggest fault is workaholism. But while I know I will miss it, I also know it’s time to go on to the next stage of my life.
If you’ve read this far, I know you are a regular reader, and I thank you for that. And if now you will support our advertisers, I’ll be thrilled.
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 616-1932 or by email at [email protected]