‘I don’t like to think about the number of hours I work’
November 4, 2013
is small but mighty
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
I bet your subscriptions don’t expire until your readers do,” a contest judge predicted in comments describing the Delano (MN) Herald-Journal’s first place finish in the National Newspaper Association’s 2013 Better Newspaper Contest.
That judge was right on target, awarding the top spot for best local news coverage among the NNA’s smallest newspapers to the tiny Delano Herald-Journal, which boasts a grand total of 1,900 subscribers.
“It’s a great honor; a very cool thing,” responded Managing Editor Ryan Gueningsman by phone. “We won last year, too.”
The contest judge went on to describe the Delano Herald-Journal as “an excellent community newspaper regarding local news coverage (with a) broad range of topics from births and obits to city hall, school lunches, and sports. Local columnists and editorial cartoonist. Records from police and sheriff blotter to emergency responses. Lots and lots of local names and faces.”
All of this content springs from the labors of just two reporters: Gueningsman and Sports Editor Matt Kane. They shoot all of the photos, too.
“I don’t like to think about the number of hours I work,” Gueningsman said, laughing. “It varies from week to week. There are a lot of meetings and a lot of after hours, but most times it’s not like work.”
On a fall afternoon in early October, Gueningsman was on his way to St. Cloud, MN, where he would interview country music legend Mel Tillis in concert at the Paramount Theatre. He loves covering the music scene, and routinely interviews rock and country music artists at Winstock, the annual Country Music Festival in Winsted.
Rascal Flatts, Ronnie Millsap and Merle Haggard were inducted into Gueningsman’s personal hall of fame a long time ago.
The Delano Herald-Journal is one of a trio of weekly newspapers, clustered about 30 miles west of Minneapolis. The Herald-Journal of Winsted is the largest, with a paid circulation of 3,050. The Dassel-Cokato Enterprise Dispatch has a paid circulation of 2,400.
According to newspaper archives, all three newspapers have been independently owned and operated for decades. Chris Schultz and Dale Kovar, longtime employees of The Howard Lake-Waverly Herald and the Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, purchased the newspapers in 2001 from owner Bill Ramige, who had owned them for 15 years under the corporate flag Winsted Publishing.
The new owners merged the newspapers and changed the corporate name to Herald-Journal Publishing, covering seven communities. Four years later, they bought the Dassel-Kokato Enterprise Dispatch from Bob Bradford, who had owned the paper for five years. In 2006, the partners started the Delano Herald-Journal. The company also owns the Herald Journal shopper, with free distribution of 6,600.
Both publishers have deep roots in the community, according to newspaper archives.
Kovar brings more than 30 years of newspaper experience to the partnership. He was instrumental in bringing Internet service to the area in 1997, and today, the company has a strong Web presence with millions of page views, according to its website.
Schultz started in sales with Winsted Publishing in 1992 and a year later, moved up to ad manager. He writes a weekly outdoors column, bringing his lifelong love of sports and the outdoors to his readers. He also loves baseball and played for years on his hometown team, where he met Gueningsman.
Gueningsman grew up in Winsted, a small town of 2,500, located right outside Minneapolis. He was just a little boy when he dropped into the local newspaper office and pretty much never left.
“I was a batboy for the local baseball team, and Chris Schultz—the newspaper’s co-publisher was the pitcher,” Gueningsman said. “I started out at the paper as an errand boy and then a typist.”
He worked for the newspaper part time through high school, and when he graduated, he bypassed college, stayed home, and stayed with the newspaper.
When Schultz and Kovar started the Delano Herald-Journal, Gueningsman joined the newspaper as managing editor.
Right away, he got busy building relationships with town leaders, residents and civic leaders.
“Developing and establishing relationships is huge, to help them get to know and trust you will help you produce quality work, week after week,” Gueningsman said.
Especially when a newspaper’s staff is tiny and the workload is massive.
To do it all, Gueningsman and Kane depend on their knowledge of their community and the relationships they have built.
“We are news reporters; people understand this and respect us and what we do,” Gueningsman said. “People let us know what is going on. When something happens, our phones light up.”
He covers two town councils, a school board and a local township. In addition to writing feature stories and covering news as it happens, the pair feed news and information into their newspaper’s website and the company’s collective website.
“It’s a very strong website,” Gueningsman said.
All three newspapers come out on Mondays.
“I like that,” he said. “A Monday production day allows us to recap the prior week and preview the week ahead. After the weekend, Friday night sports are still fresh, and so is news about the weekend activities.”
Events that impact the community also impact the newspaper.
A large highway construction project five years ago blocked access to the tiny community, causing a couple of businesses to go under, and threatening others. The Delano Herald-Journal pitched in, and ran a promotion letting its business community know the town was still open for business, and that Delano was still accessible. The business community pitched in to support the town. Today, post-construction, things are great, said Gueningsman. A new bridge over the local Crow River allows better access than ever. The local businesses have rebounded, and commerce is on the rise.
“It’s pure grassroots journalism,” Gueningsman said. “I appreciate the community being receptive to the newspaper and I respond by trying to get the best paper possible out the door.”
If the Better Newspaper Contest judge has any say in the matter, it’s working. © Teri Saylor 2013
Newspaper Name: Delano Herald Journal.
Managing Editor: Ryan Gueningsman.
How long have you been in the newspaper business? Since 1998.
What is the Delano Herald Journal’s circulation? Just less than 2,000.
What are the circulations of the other two newspapers? 5,500 combined.
What do you like best about your job? I enjoy the interaction with the community and being able to be part of civic and commerce organizations in town.
Frequency of publication: Weekly—published every Monday.
List some top goals for the next six months or year: A digital transition with our Web presence and shifting more content to behind a paywall, while still updating our website on a daily basis. Like most newspapers, working to develop subscription promotions and also marketing solutions for customers that reach across multiple platforms.
What are you most proud of? That the staff of the DHJ was able to launch the publication as a new venture in 2006 and has been able to keep it strong since then.
What is your newspaper’s most distinguishing characteristic? Being the only newspaper that is truly concerned with everything Delano.
What is your newspaper’s biggest challenge? Constantly-changing technology and the public’s new found need to want to know everything now.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in your community? It is our job to tell the community’s story every week. To be the scrapbook and historian, and to report the good and the bad in as fair and balanced of approach as possible.
What we love to hear from readers: They enjoyed reading or seeing photos of their loved ones in our paper and that they can’t go a week without it for fear of missing something important.
One thing we’d never change: Our commitment to the community and our readers.