Fire destroys ND weekly, paper comes back strong

September 8, 2015

By Stanley Schwartz

Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary

NEW ROCKFORD, ND—Volunteer firefighters battled flames for hours Aug. 15, but could not save the New Rockford Transcript building.

Even though the structure was gone, the spirit that created the weekly remained, as the owners and staff moved to a donated space and set up shop, working to get the next issue out the door.

A witness spotted flames about noon that Saturday, said General Manager Amy Wobbema. Firefighters arrived within eight minutes, she added. It took four hours to contain the fire, and the firefighters stayed on the scene until 8 a.m. Sunday knocking down the hot spots.

“I was in another town shopping,” she said, when one of the other staff members called her. “I rushed back and stood with the owners (Craig and Bonnie Voigt) and watched as the fire” consumed the building.

“The witness saw smoke and sparking coming from the electrical service line,” Wobbema said. She noted that the fire marshal indicated the fire had been electrical in nature. “It will take about 30 days before we have a complete report.”

“When I first got to the fire I couldn’t believe it was happening,” said Craig Voigt. “After the reality set in, I thought they would get it out right away. It didn’t take long before I knew it wasn’t going to be good.”

Wobbema said she and the other people on staff went through a whole range of emotion.

“We were hurt and in shock,” she said. But later they felt triumphant when they were back in business so quickly. While standing outside watching the fire, they began talking about what was being destroyed in the office. The paper was started in 1883 and is in its 132nd year of operation.

“One staffer mentioned the 500 business cards and document holder she had on her desk,” Wobbema said.

Voigt said, “My hope was to save the computer files, and that’s all I could think about—losing everything and having to start from scratch. That almost happened. I still have a knot in my stomach and I feel sick everyday to think what was lost in the fire.”

Wobbema said the firefighters went into the building and were able to pull out a few of the computers.

Luckily, she noted, they were able to retrieve the graphic artist’s computer, which was intact and Voigt’s computer. Another hard drive survived relatively unscathed. Eighty percent to 90 percent of what they needed to operate the weekly was on those saved hard drives.

The 1,000-circulation weekly received national notoriety when news of the office’s destruction was featured in a segment of the Aug. 18 “Rachel Maddow Show.” She talked about the newspaper, what kind of coverage it provides to its community and the devastating loss the owners and staff faced.  Wobbema sent a video to Maddow that showed the burned out office and took her on a short walk to where they had set up temporary offices in space donated by a local real estate developer. Maddow was impressed with the tenacity of the owners and staff, getting the paper up and running withn 48 hours of the fire. She then extolled her readers to subscribe to their community newspapers.

“Every little town, somewhere is part of our local story,” Maddow stated on her show. “If you do not yet subscribe to your local paper,” she added, “if you do not pay to get behind the paywall on your local paper’s website, do so. If you need to give a kid a gift, give them a subscription to their local paper. Really. Do it. Your country needs you to.” The video can be seen at www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow/watch/friends-help-newspaper-keep-going-after-fire-508150339994.

Wobbema was amazed at the amount of coverage the Transcript received on Maddow’s show. She said the help they received was overwhelming. First town residents showed up with food for the firefighters battling the blaze. They received a call from North Dakota Newspaper Association Executive Director Steve Andrist asking what they needed. At least 10 newspapers offered equipment so they could set up their temporary office.

Wobbema said Voigt called her that Monday, asking if she was ready to get the next issue out. “I said, ‘Of course!’”

Voigt said he still gets tears in his eyes when he thinks about how his staff rallied to keep the newspaper going.

“If it wasn’t for them I would have thrown in the towel,” he said.

He and his wife bought the paper in 1985. It was not always housed in the office that burned. That building had been the office for a lumberyard before the newspaper took it over and put in a print shop as well as the front office.

Wobbema said they are currently researching the building’s history to see how old it was. New Rockford has been the scene of at least four devastating fires over the years, she added.

Wobbema said it took her until the next morning after the fire before she was able to start posting photos and information about what happened.

The shock of the loss was so intense, the words would not come, she explained.

“You can imagine what that’s like for a writer,” she said just barely holding back the tears as she talked about the fire.

Eventually, she was able to write about it. She, Voigt and the rest of the staff were able to get out the next issue on time.

 Also mentioned in the Maddow video was the possible loss of the paper’s archives. The heat from the flames and the debris after the fire was out, kept Voigt away. But during the week, he was able to get to the vault and retrieve the archives.

Wobbema said she sent Maddow a video clip of them opening the vault. The archives were not damaged by the fire. And expect for a few of them, they were dry as well.

“She did another two minutes on us opening the vault,” Wobbema said.

Currently, Voigt and the staff are preparing to move into leased space in town. His daughter set up a fundraising campaign—the Transcript Fire Fund at http://m.gofund.me/5k2eenes for those who would like to help out the weekly.

stan@nna.org

 

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