‘I am a big believer in investigative journalism’
April 11, 2014
PNRC award winner’s heart is in hard news
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
Seth Tupper is on a roll. On March 13, Tupper stood before a roomful of newspaper publishers and CBS newsman Bob Schieffer at the National Press Club in Washington to receive the Public Notice Resource Center’s inaugural Public Notice Journalism Award. (See the story on Page One of this issue.) Schieffer was there to deliver a keynote address.
Five days later, he assumed his new position as publisher of The Daily Republic in Mitchell, SD.
“This is my dream job,” Tupper said in a telephone interview on his second day as publisher.
“This has been a great career so far,” he added.
Tupper is a young man. He grew up wanting to be a newsman.
He graduated from South Dakota State University just 13 years ago, with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism and a minor in political science, and he worked as editor of The Collegian, SDSU’s campus newspaper.
He joined Forum Communications, based in Fargo, ND, after he graduated from college, and he never left the company, first reporting for duty as sports editor of the Daily Globe of Worthington, MN, as soon as he got his degree, and moving on to The Daily Republic, also a Forum newspaper, in 2003. There, he rocketed up the ladder from his role as a regional reporter and Sunday night editor to assistant editor and finally editor in 2010.
“I never dreamed I’d become publisher in 2014,” he said.
It’s hard to know how many people know of Mitchell, SD, but say the words “Corn Palace,” and heads start nodding. The famous Corn Palace is right there in Mitchell.
“We’re not a destination, but we are a stop over,” Tupper said. “People heading west to the Black Hills have to pass through Mitchell.”
And there, the Corn Palace, located downtown, serves as a stopping place for about 200,000 tourists a year. They arrive in droves during their summer vacations, giving a big boost to an agriculture-based economy that is in a slow decline.
Like many businesses and industries, including newspapers, farms are consolidating. The family farms are slowing becoming a thing of the past as larger, mega farms are on the rise.
“As a result, young people are not staying. Instead they are looking for opportunities in larger population centers,” Tupper said.
Still, agriculture remains the No. 1 industry in central South Dakota. The farmers and ranchers there attract implement companies and other farm and cattle suppliers.
Manufacturing occupies another niche, and telecommunication companies are starting to locate in the area.
Mitchell is settled along Interstate 90, almost a straight shot 75 miles west of Sioux City. Rapid City also sits on I-90 at the western edge of the state and the Black Hills National Forest, about 276 miles from Mitchell.
Mitchell was incorporated in 1881 and is the seat of Davison County. It is home to more than 15,000 residents, according to the 2010 census.
Gold in Public Notices
Tupper was The Daily Republic’s editor when an alert reader phoned the newspaper to report on an item he read in the paper’s public notices—a payment by the local school district.
The revelation led to a long open records battle between the newspaper and the school district, including a lawsuit to unseal the records. The Daily Republic prevailed, reporting on this issue for two years, until it finally revealed a $175,000 severance agreement between the school system and the school superintendent, who had left the district.
PNRC President Bradley L. Thompson II, chairman and chief executive officer of the Detroit Legal News, presented the award to Tupper and said this secret sealed agreement between the school board and the former superintendent might have been swept under the rug if it had not been for the public notice in the newspaper.
Tupper was thrilled with the award, but not surprised that a public notice had led to a great piece of investigative journalism.
“As editor, I keep on top of the legals,” he said. “As a young reporter, I was always taught to look in the legals for story ideas.”
But beyond giving The Daily Republic a big story, the tipster proved that people do read public notices in the newspaper.
“That person was a newspaper reader,” Tupper said. “If the school district had put that legal on the Internet, the reader probably would not have read it online. But in this case, the reader saw this, got interested, and called us.”
Tupper knows the South Dakota Newspaper Association goes to battle over public notices every year.
“We have been supportive,” he said. “We print seven or eight weeklies and we recognize how much they depend on the legals.”
The Daily Republic depends on them, too.
The 11,000-circulation newspaper is published six days a week, with 64 employees.
Tupper is committed to providing hard-hitting journalism, in addition to the regular buffet of sports, features, and community news. The Daily Republic still runs free wedding announcements as well as anniversaries and births. The newspaper took a hit during the economic downturn, but did not lose any of its news staff.
Tupper is so committed to reporting hard news, he runs an investigative story every week. And even in a small community, his staff generates more hard-hitting story ideas than they have time to cover.
“I am a big believer in investigative journalism, and we are very aggressive,” he said. “We cover statewide stories, because people are interested in what goes on across the state. We are not bound to our little corner of South Dakota.”
The Daily Republic was an early adoptor in the online world. The newspaper is on Facebook and Twitter, and its vibrant website is scalable to any device without the need for an app, although it has an app, too.
“Mobile technology will transition our business in ways we can’t envision yet,” he said.
Reminiscing about the days technology began transforming the newspaper industry, he remembers publishers scoffing at computers taking over the news.
“Everyone said print will never die because you can’t take computers on the train,” he said and laughed. “We never imagined laptops, tablets and smart phones.”
Tupper’s biggest challenge and his greatest opportunity, he said, lie in hiring good staff, and as publisher now, he plans to develop a stringent and methodical hiring system.
“One thing I learned as an editor and manager is the importance of hiring. In managing people, if you can get the right person, that’s 90 percent of the job.”
Tupper may be part of a youthful generation, but he still has faith in newspapers—even in print.
The night Tupper received his award at the National Press Club, he paid close attention to Schieffer’s keynote remarks.
“Bob Schieffer said people want to know what goes on in city hall, the county commissioners, the courthouse and in sports, and there’s nobody better to do that kind of reporting than newspapers,” he said.
As a brand new publisher, Tupper is taking those words to the bank. © Teri Saylor 2014
Name of newspaper: The Daily Republic
Publisher: Seth Tupper
How long has The Daily Republic been in business? 135 years, since 1879.
The newspaper’s circulation? About 11,000.
Frequency of publication? Six days, Monday through Saturday.
How is the newspaper distributed? Probably about half home delivery, plus some mail and newsstands.
List your top goals for 2014: Winning the state newspaper association’s general excellence award for our circulation division for the fifth straight year, and making our budget targets.
What are you most proud of? Our tradition of big-market-quality journalism in a small market.
What is your newspaper’s most distinguishing characteristic? We provide everything small-town people want from their community newspaper, plus the kind of investigative journalism that isn’t always common in smaller markets.
What keeps you going to work day after day? The knowledge that we are making a difference every day for our readers by bringing them news and advertising they need.
What is your newspaper’s biggest challenge? Sustaining our revenue as print and digital delivery methods continue to evolve.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in the community it covers? We are absolutely essential to our community. We provide a place for readers to get informed and to take part in a community conversation. We connect local businesses to local buyers and clients.
Does your newspaper have a mission statement? We’re part of Forum Communications Co., which has this mission: “We take pride in the profitable growth of Forum Communications through utilizing our collective assets to provide outstanding customer service, a strong commitment to our communities, and providing opportunities for our employees.”
What do you love to hear from readers? Few things give me greater joy than being in an important public setting and hearing somebody say “I saw in the paper …” or “You probably read in the paper …” People say that quite a bit here, and it’s proof that we’re still very relevant.
One thing you’d never change? Our commitment to quality watchdog journalism on behalf of our readers.