Five years with ECM: a chance to put the community into my journalism

Let’s try this again – retirement, that is.

In June 2007, I retired from the Star Tribune after almost 24 years with that newspaper. Six months later, I accepted a position with ECM Publishers as general manager in Dakota County. After four years managing Thisweek Newspapers and the Dakota County Tribune, ECM expanded by purchasing the Sun Newspapers, and I was offered a job at ECM’s corporate headquarters in Coon Rapids.

On July 1, I packed up the family photos that decorated my corner office and “re-retired,” as one friend put it.

Last month marks 44 years since I graduated from Michigan State University and took my first full-time job as a reporter in Louisville, Ky. Much has changed in this business over those years, including a dramatic reduction in the number of papers and the number of people employed by those papers. Too many of you have dropped the habit of reading a paper daily, and the Internet has provided competition for advertising dollars to a degree television and radio never did.

But the one thing that hasn’t changed much is the relationship between community newspapers and communities. And by community newspapers I mean weeklies, like those ECM publishes.

I was reminded of this connection between communities and newspapers a few weeks ago at the church I attend in south Minneapolis. A retired school superintendent there that day told me about the trust he had in the editor of the local ECM paper. They knew each other and had a personal relationship.

Weekly editors go to the city council and school board meetings, to the civic festivals and the sports events. And when tough stories have to be written, the mayors and superintendents don’t hesitate to call the editors or stop them on the street.

That relationship doesn’t exist between communities and dailies. At least that was my experience, having worked for six of them all over the country since 1969.

When you work for a weekly, you meet readers. And you hear from the people about whom you write. Why? Because that newspaper is telling the story of the places where people live and play, where they send their kids to school and where, after they retire, they hang out at local coffee shops.

The daily newspaper is a powerful institution. The community weekly is a friend.

That personal relationship between newspapers and communities is one reason Elmer Andersen, at age 67, decided to start our company after a career as a business owner, legislator and governor. He bought two weekly newspapers in Princeton, then bought others, and now ECM publishes more newspapers (51) and delivers to more homes (about 650,000) than any other company in Minnesota.

One summer during college, I took a job writing for a weekly paper in Cass City, Mich. The owner of the Cass City Chronicle – John Haire – tried to talk me into working for him after graduation rather than heading for the big-city dailies.

I thanked John for the offer and then spent almost 40 years writing and editing for daily papers in Louisville, Detroit, Dallas, Minneapolis and elsewhere. But after my first retirement, I was lucky enough to land a job with weekly papers.

If John Haire were alive, I’d tell him he was right about the joys of working for the weekly newspaper. If Elmer Andersen were alive, I’d thank him for starting a company that gave an old daily news guy a chance to experience the personal relationship that exists between community newspapers and the communities they serve. I’ve told Elmer’s son, Julian, ECM’s CEO, how much I appreciate the opportunity to work as a weekly editor.

In 1986, John Haire convinced a young guy named Tom Montgomery to take a job in Cass City. In an email, Montgomery said he doesn’t regret the career choice he made 27 years ago.

“We raised four kids and now have eight grandchildren, and my work as the local newspaper editor is as rewarding as ever because I earn a living telling my neighbors’ stories,” he said.

It doesn’t get any better than that.  — Larry Werner

(Editor’s note: Until July 1, Werner was director of news for ECM Publishers. Keith Anderson, who has been director of news for the Sun papers, will oversee all the news for ECM’s 51 papers.)