‘I’m just a small-town farm girl from a weekly newspaper in South Dakota’

April 12, 2017

Public Notice journalism winner covers her small South Dakota county like a glove

 

By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary

Amanda Fanger had a blast on her first trip to Washington, and perhaps nothing thrilled her more than standing at a podium at the National Press Club in front of an audience of newspaper publishers and editors, including Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, to receive a national award for investigative reporting.

Fanger, a journalist at the 2,000-circulation weekly Reporter & Farmer in Webster, SD, received the Public Notice Resource Center’s 2017 Public Notice Journalism Award for a story that delved into public notices to expose an alleged embezzlement in a tiny town her newspaper covers.

“Being here is so unbelievable. It feels very surreal,” she told the audience. “I’m just a small-town farm girl from a weekly newspaper in South Dakota. I felt I was just doing my job, trying to be a good journalist, using the tools at my disposal.”

One of those tools happened to be a public notice she was using to report on a town board meeting in Grenville, a tiny town, home to about 60 residents, located 15 miles north of Webster, the seat of Day County, in the northeast corner of South Dakota.

South Dakota’s public notice laws require local governments to publish the minutes of all their public meetings. Across the country, public notice laws are constantly under assault. In February, HB1167, which would have allowed South Dakota’s 17 largest cities to publish their public notices on their own websites instead of in the local newspaper, was defeated in committee.

Introducing Fanger at the Press Club dinner, PNRC President Brad Thompson said Fanger’s newspaper’s contest entry contained five stories and a photo with Fanger’s byline.

“They keep her busy at the Reporter & Farmer,” he said. “That means she and the other reporter at the newspaper can’t attend every official meeting in the paper’s coverage area, so when the minutes of the Grenville town board ran as a public notice in March 2016, Amanda took notes.”

She discovered that a recent legislative audit of the town’s finances had concluded that the town’s former financial officer might have embezzled as much as $72,000. After digging a little deeper, Fanger discovered the same person was being prosecuted for using a stolen credit card.

In January 2016, she was hearing rumors about a possible embezzlement, and she started asking questions. A state attorney told her a legislative audit was underway, and she kept her eye on the public notices coming out of Grenville. Her vigilance paid off on March 21, 2016, when she spotted the news that the town finance officer had been charged with employee dishonesty. She requested the legislative audit and received six typed pages detailing how checks were misallocated, how additional payroll checks were written, and how cash intended for the town’s petty cash box was missing.

Officials believe the embezzlement took place between Aug. 1, 2014, and Sept. 11, 2015. The finance officer was also charged with misusing a credit card, stealing $11,000 from her previous job as a bookkeeper at a local store.

Fanger did not know the woman who is charged with the crimes, yet she felt intimidated by reporting on a story that hit a tiny community hard.

“I grew up in a small town, and I sympathize with them. I understand what it’s like to live in a small town,” she said in a phone conversation along with co-publishers John and LeAnn Suhr, days before the PNRC event. “But I believe if I am not uncomfortable, I am not doing my job. This case could not be disputed, though it was tough asking the hard questions.”

Fanger grew up in Onida, SD, population 658. She was home-schooled and her favorite subject was English. The year she graduated, the local newspaper, the Onida Watchman, published biographies of the town’s graduating seniors. About a week before Fanger graduated, the editor of the Watchman called her mother. The editor, who had read Fanger’s graduation biography, needed to hire a reporter and reckoned because Fanger loved English, she might be a good fit for the job. So a week before her high school graduation, Fanger reported for duty at the local newspaper on a six-week trial basis and was hooked immediately.

“I did it all,” she said. “I was the reporter. I sold ads, helped in circulation and even cleaned the bathrooms.”

In 2009, Fanger was named the South Dakota Newspaper Association’s Outstanding Young Journalist in the weekly reporters division. After six years at the Watchman, she wanted to spread her wings, and she moved on to the Reporter & Farmer.

The Reporter & Farmer, founded in 1881, is the oldest business in Day County, according to co-publisher John Suhr. With a degree in journalism from South Dakota State University, he started his career at a newspaper in Minnesota but longed to move back home. In Webster, the Reporter & Farmer’s owner was looking to retire. Suhr, and his wife, LeAnn, thought the paper and the community were a good fit, so they bought it in 1998.

The Reporter & Farmer averages about 16 broadsheet pages per week. The newspaper covers Day County and seven small towns, including Lily, a tiny railroad town, founded in 1883 and briefly home to Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s father, who operated a drug store and married a hometown girl.

Lily’s population dwindled to four in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. Last January, the town shut down. The Suhrs learned about it from a public notice.

“There were no stores left, or commerce or industry of any kind in Lily,” John said. “Just a few churches and a legion hall that opens once a year for bingo.”

Hunters and fishermen still own property near Lily. In fact, Day County is a sportsman’s haven. Winter is dedicated to ice fishing, and summers are ripe for regular fishing.

“Sports are so popular, when the fish are biting, there are no hotel rooms available,” John said.

Despite the hardships in some of the county’s small towns, Webster is thriving.

“We have a strong industrial park, anchored by Dakota Fiberglass, Dakota Foundry and Anderson Industries, which manufactures specialty farm equipment,” he said. “We have a strong Main Street and strong retail outside of town.”

The local hospital with attached senior center is a source of pride in the community. In 1996, The Reporter & Farmer won a national award for covering its construction, John Suhr said.

Fanger and the newspaper’s other reporter, Emre Erku, cover everything. They rotate among the town meetings and rely on the minutes published in the public notices. In addition to ferreting out news, the newspaper puts headlines in the notices to draw attention to the actions and important reports on the meetings.

“The boards are only required to record the actions they take in the minutes, but we can use those actions to trigger questions that may lead to a news story,” John Suhr said.

The Grenville embezzlement and the Town of Lily’s closing were just two of many important news stories the newspaper has discovered in the public notices.

“A member of our local school board passed along a tip to check the minutes of a recent meeting,” LeAnn Suhr recounted. “We followed up and discovered the board had voted in closed session to pay a teacher. We have a good reputation in our community. People tell us things on background, and we follow up on our own. They trust us.”

The hubbub over “fake news” coming out of the White House hasn’t stretched across the plains to touch Webster.

“We do a good job of staying neutral, and our readers think we’re fair,” LeAnn Suhr said. “No one ever compares us to the national media.”

The newspaper maintains a minor presence on social media and its website offers a few free stories along with John’s weekly editorial and columns by Fanger and Erku each month. Everything else is behind a paywall. The print version carries a Monday dateline but goes to press on Friday afternoons and hits the streets on Friday nights. Six of the local communities receive the paper in Saturday’s mail. The remaining communities and subscribers receive it on Monday. The Advertiser, a TMC, is delivered in the mail on Mondays and Tuesdays.

At the National Press Club, Fanger framed her dedication to digging for truth around a local gathering spot in Webster, probably not unlike the country stores, watering holes, fellowship halls and other meet-up places in America’s nooks and crannies.

“In a small town like Webster, conversations take place in coffee shop gatherings, and questions come up where people ask what their public officials are up to,” Fanger said. “They say things like ‘the city spent how much? The schools are trying to do what? How do I find out more information?’”

The answer to those questions is public notices, Amanda told her audience, and she explained how she views her mission to find the stories that sit inside those notices, waiting to be discovered.

“I do feel strongly about the newspaper’s role in being a watchdog for the community. It is our job to keep the residents in our coverage area aware of the things their elected officials are doing,” she said. “Without public notices, our citizens would have never known anything more about the embezzlement case than coffee shop speculation.”

 

Details

Newspaper Name: Reporter & Farmer, Webster, SD

Owners: John and LeAnn Suhr

How long have you been owners and publishers of the Reporter & Farmer? We came to Webster in 1993 with the agreement of buying into the paper. Five years later, Larry and Jan Ingalls decided to sell out the remaining shares, and we have been owners since that time. John came to the paper as advertising manager and some reporting. LeAnn was brought on board a couple years later to do the accounts receivables and has since moved into every aspect of the paper, including printing and engraving.

What is its circulation? We are just over 2,000 circulation with subscribers in almost all of the U.S. and also provide a non-duplicating publication, the Lake Region Advertiser, to give our businesses a total market coverage of Day County.

What is its publication schedule? We are a newspaper that carries a Monday date line. We hit the presses on Friday afternoon and are out on the newsstands Friday night. Six of the local communities receive the paper in Saturday’s mail. The remaining communities and subscribers receive it on Monday. The advertiser, while printed at the same time, comes out on Monday and Tuesday in the mail.

Does the newspaper have a mission statement or a motto? Serving the Day County Area since 1881.

How many people are employed at the Reporter & Farmer? Currently we have six employees. Four are full time, two work 30 hours per week.

What is the most rewarding aspect of publishing and editing a weekly newspaper? Seeing the local news published and making a difference in the lives of our readers. We have a historical record of what has occurred so further generations can research events of their community. Also, seeing young employees grow in the field of journalism and know that it is more than writing a story or designing an ad. Working at a weekly involves a broad spectrum of knowledge outside of social media. It’s ink and paper first.

What are your biggest challenges? Covering the entire county and trying to be equal in our coverage while knowing almost all business advertising comes out of one community. It also makes it difficult as several communities we cover go to another school district with their own community papers.

What are your top goals for 2017? Community service projects and providing a well-designed and thought-out publication for our readers. Either as a newspaper or as an individual, we try to do something that will improve our community. For example, years ago Webster lost all its trees on Main Street because of a highway expansion. So, two years ago, we applied for a permit with the state because our Main Street is a state highway, to plant a tree to offer some green space. Last year we removed a fence and opened our space. This year, we look to place a bike rack in that space in hopes that other businesses will follow suit. LeAnn and John are on a community biking and walking path committee for Webster.

What is the Reporter & Farmer’s most distinguishing characteristic? A nice Main Street building in which we have tried to set a standard of improvement with the exterior and interior. We have taken it upon ourselves and employees of the paper to be involved in the community and remember whom you represent even outside the walls and after hours.

To what do you attribute the Reporter & Farmer’s deep penetration into your county? Our complete and unbiased coverage of the communities we serve.

How do you view your newspaper’s role in the community it serves? Not only as a historical record, but making sure our local governments and readers know we are there covering the meetings and reporting on what is going on, including the good and not so good. We have experienced writing stories of importance that have negatively affected the bottom line, but we know that in not doing, so we would have lost credibility with our readers.

Email: suhrs@reporterandfarmer.com

Phone: 605-345-3356

Website: reporterandfarmer.com

terisaylor@hotmail.com

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