Weekly papers: How these South Dakota communities are keeping local news alive

Weekly papers: How these South Dakota communities are keeping local news alive
Mandy Scherer, owner/publisher of the Bennett County Booster and four other weekly papers, runs the operation from her main office in Martin, S.D., where the press runs every Tuesday. (Photo: Bart Pfankuch / South Dakota News Watch)

As South Dakota News Watch prepares to host a panel discussion on recent trends in journalism and the importance of factual reporting at the Black Hills Playhouse in Custer State Park on Sunday, June 25, here are three stories of the people behind the pages who are keeping the tradition of strong weekly newspapers alive in the Rushmore State.

Clark County Courier: Running a paper right out of college

If Karli Paulson is the future of weekly newspapers in South Dakota, it appears that the future is bright — and potentially quite long.

Paulson grew up in Clark, a town of about 1,100 people west of Watertown, and graduated from college in Moorhead, Minnesota, in 2021 with an animation degree.

She returned home and took a job as office manager at the Clark County Courier almost on a lark.

More from News Watch: Weekly newspapers in South Dakota bucking national news trend

But before long, she began to consider the wild idea that she would buy the paper from longtime owner and editor Bill Krikac, who wanted to retire and sell the paper but had spent five years hunting without success for a buyer.

South Dakota weekly newspaper Clark Courier
Karli Paulson, owner of the Clark County Courier, shakes hands with Bill Krikac, who sold the newspaper to Paulson in December 2022 after spending 27 years as publisher and 22 yeas as owner of the paper in Clark. (Photo: Courtesy Karli Paulson)

“Four months into my job, I was already considering the idea of buying the paper from him and running it. But I didn’t tell Bill for a few months because I wasn’t sure about the whole idea,” said Paulson, 23.

After some negotiation, gathering of a down payment and approval of a five-year bank loan, Paulson shook hands with Krikac and took ownership of the weekly paper in late December 2022.

Focusing on the business side

While she was intrigued by the challenge of being a small business owner and of running such a prominent local business, Paulson was also well aware that the Courier could have closed, and Clark would have been without a news source, if Krikac couldn’t find a buyer.

“Every time someone comes into the office, they compliment me about how the paper is going, and say how glad they are that I took over the paper, and that we still have a paper in Clark,” she said.

Paulson does not have a journalism background, so other than helping decide what stories to cover, she leaves the reporting and writing to her full-time reporter.

By largely separating herself from the editorial process, Paulson hopes she can avoid some of the friction felt by Krikac, who wrote the vast majority of articles while also working on the advertising and publishing sides of the business.

“Bill is very beloved in our community, but he was also very opinionated,” she said.

Still, Paulson is aware that at some point, she is likely to face criticism or conflict over coverage of touchy topics or an issue that may anger an elected official or a business owner.

“I’m not really sure if anything in my life has prepared me for that,” she acknowledged. “I consider myself a kind and understanding person that doesn’t like conflict. But if someone were to be angry about something, I would try to talk to them calmly and explain to them, ‘It’s news, and this is our business, and I’m sorry, but I can’t help it.’”

Three key players at the Clark County Courier include, (L-R), Trudi Gaikowski, proofreader and office manager, Karli Paulson, owner/publish/editor, and Emily Yexley, reporter/writer, (Photo: Courtesy Karli Paulson)

Pays herself but also lives at home

Paulson said that so far, the revenue side of the business has remained in good shape, and she’s able to pay the bank, her employees and even herself.

“I do give myself a paycheck. But it also helps that I still live with my parents, so I don’t have rent and utilities and food for myself at the moment,” she said.

Paulson said Krikac warned her before taking ownership that running a weekly newspaper can become all-consuming, and that he felt the business deprived him of precious time with his family and friends.

Paulson listened but so far has kept mostly to a 40-hour work week and isn’t too worried about being invested in a business at such a young age.

More from News Watch: Communities rally to launch S.D. weekly newspaper with volunteer labor

“The paper is important, and it’s my job and I know that. But I still feel like family needs to be more important, so at least at this point, I can say the paper is very important, but it’s not going to rule my life,” she said.

Her hobbies include reading, watching movies, playing video games, writing fiction and spending time with family.

“To be completely honest with you, I’m kind of a hermit, so it doesn’t affect my social life because I really didn’t have one anyway,” she said.

Modernizing the Clark County newspaper

In six very busy months, Paulson believes she has taken the paper in a new direction, publishing more photos and — with her two part-time employees — bringing a different writing style and flair to the news articles and website.

Clark County, South Dakota newspaper
An edition of the Clark County newspaper.

Paulson, who considers herself tech-savvy, has other changes planned to modernize the paper compared with how it was run for years by Kricak, who still wrote articles out longhand on paper.

She intends to reformat the paper and publish it as a tabloid rather than a broadsheet; to digitize the archives; to create a Facebook page and use social media more frequently; to revamp the website; and to remodel the newspaper office and building.

So far, Paulson said, the community shares her excitement for what the future might hold for her and the Clark County Courier.

“From all the comments I’ve gotten, the paper is really important to the community,” she said. “When I get a compliment, I immediately feel really good about what I’m doing and what I will continue to do, and that gives me reassuring hope.”

Brandon Valley Journal: ‘It’s all in my hands’

With her vivacious personality and frequent presence at community events and meetings, Jill Meier is as well known as anyone in Brandon.

To add to her persona, Meier writes a popular slice-of-life column for the Brandon Valley Journal, where she has been editor since the paper launched in August 2016.

“A lot of people tell me, ‘I just go right to your column,’” Meier said. “I think they like to laugh at me and do it with me.”

Meier doesn’t have to wait long for people to recognize her or to hear praise for the important role she and the 1,300-circulation paper play in this rapidly growing community of 11,000 people east of Sioux Falls.

“It is not uncommon for every week or multiple times a week, people will just say, ‘I love your newspaper, I really love your newspaper,’” she said. “They’re excited to get the paper in their mailbox each week.”

Meier grew up in St. James, Minnesota, not far from Mankato, and moved around among weekly and daily newspapers in western Minnesota and eastern South Dakota for years.

After Gannett, publisher of the Argus Leader, shuttered its operation in Brandon, where she was an editor in 2016, Meier was tapped by some local investors to launch the Brandon Valley Journal.

Brandon Valley Journal celebration cake
This cake was made and eaten in 2022 to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the launch of the Brandon Valley Journal. (Photo: Courtesy Jill Meier)

Covers everything local: ‘You work seven days a week’

Meier has spent her entire 35-year career in community journalism, which means she doesn’t have a regular beat but instead covers everything from local government to crime to schools to business to sports to taking photos of children at play.

“We’re here for the little girl that has the lemonade stand on the corner and for the neighborhood that is upset about whatever is going to be built in their backyard,” she said.

All those topics are newsworthy for a weekly paper because there is no other media source for people to know what is happening in their own town. And sporadic postings on social media that aren’t necessarily factual will never match the accurate reporting in a newspaper, Meier said.

“No disrespect to daily papers or television stations, but they only come out here for the major headline moments, and they’re not covering the big pothole on Fourth Street that has taken out three cars and a couple kids,” Meier said with a laugh.

“I believe there’s always going to be a place for your community weekly because who else is going to tell your story? I mean, nobody else, right?”

Brandon Valley Journal editor Jill Meier
Jill Meier, publisher/editor of the Brandon Valley Journal newspaper, smiles for a selfie outside the newspaper offices in Brandon. (Photo: Courtesy Jill Meier)

Putting out a weekly paper requires a commitment far beyond a typical job, which works OK for Meier, who is single and has no children.

“You work seven days a week, though sometimes it’s two hours a day and sometimes it’s 15,” she said.

Meier knew her career calling early on

Meier and other editors and publishers have tried to find new revenue streams to move beyond the traditional but diminishing three sources of income: circulation, advertising and legal notice fees.

Readers can buy reprints of individual photos taken by the newspaper staff via email for about $10 or get a discount for larger orders.

She recently teamed with her advertising sales person and a freelance writer with an interest in car racing to produce a 38-page special section that previewed the upcoming season at three area race tracks. About 8,000 copies of the “Checkered Flag” section were handed out to race fans, and the section generated about $14,000 in new gross revenue, Meier said.

From a young age there was never much doubt that she would take up newspapering as a career. “I was one of the weird kids who was excited when the Sunday paper got plunked on our doorstep.

“I like being part of it all, and there’s just something about working at a community weekly that makes it a special place,” she said. “This newspaper is truly a community newspaper, and it’s all in my hands.”

Five community papers: Weekly owner wears many, many hats

In addition to her formal titles of newspaper owner, general manager, advertising sales rep, editor and office manager, Mandy Scherer can probably claim one more moniker: “Hardest working woman in South Dakota newspapers.”

Scherer and her husband (but mostly Mandy) own and operate five weekly papers in southwestern South Dakota and northern Nebraska, serving a large swath of ranch territory and Indian Country.

In her day job, Scherer oversees content, advertising, print and distribution of those five papers with a combined circulation of about 4,500. From her home office at the Bennett County Booster in Martin, she remotely manages six full-time and nine part-time employees.

But that’s just her normal 8-5 work schedule.

Before she arrives at the newspaper office, and after she goes home to her family ranch, Scherer spends several hours as a ranch hand.

South Dakota weekly newspaper press
Weekly newspaper publisher Mandy Scherer stands astride a paper cutting machine still in use in her company office in Martin, S.D. (Photo: Bart Pfankuch / South Dakota News Watch)

On a recent Friday in June, Scherer, 50, started her morning at 5 a.m., sorting cattle and sending them out on grass. After her shift at the paper, she anticipated working until dusk to wrap up the daily chores at the ranch.

Does she consider herself a hard worker? “I suppose so,” Scherer said.

Opportunity to keep the papers operating

The newspaper ownership gig wasn’t part of her life plans, until one day the owner of three local papers where she worked as an office manager and bookkeeper told her he’d had enough and wanted to get out.

She and her husband took out a loan for a downpayment and obtained another loan from the former owner for purchase, and suddenly they were small-town newspaper magnates. The Scherers made the leap, Mandy said, to prevent the papers from falling under chain ownership and also to simply keep them alive.

“It was challenging because I don’t feel comfortable with words,” said Scherer, a soft-spoken woman who emits a palpable sense of strength. “I’m a bookkeeper, and I like numbers.”

South Dakota weekly newspaper Bennett County Booster
Jonni Joyce is the lone full-time reporter for the Bennett County Booster, which has offices in Martin, S.D. (Photo: Bart Pfankuch / South Dakota News Watch)

So far, the numbers are working out, but there’s not much profit in the venture at this point, Scherer said.

They have since bought two more newspapers but have been unable to hire workers. The lack of an advertising rep or someone to bring in new commercial print jobs is cutting into her bottom line. “We’re not going down, but we’re just holding steady,” she said.

In five years, however, when her notes are paid off, she expects she can begin to develop a nest egg for retirement. While Mandy does most of the newspapering work, her husband and son run the presses each Tuesday to print the five newspaper titles.

Indian Country makes it interesting

Scherer, whose husband, Bob Scherer, is Native American, said publishing newspapers in reservation areas is interesting due to the sovereign nature and laws of Indian tribes.

But otherwise, disseminating news in Indian Country is no different than anywhere else in South Dakota, she said. “It doesn’t matter what color you are, we’re all in this together.”

South Dakota weekly newspapers
A few of the weekly newspapers owned by Mandy Scherer. (Photo: Bart Pfankuch / South Dakota News Watch)

Though not a journalist by trade or at heart, Scherer said she is keenly aware of how important her newspapers are to the residents and businesses in the communities they serve, including in Bennett, Fall River, Mellette and Todd counties in South Dakota and in Sheridan County in Nebraska.

“It’s very important to cover these communities so people know what is happening, both good and bad,” she said. “Our advertisers know that people really read our papers, and do so religiously.”

‘We are here to report the facts’

One of her papers, the Mellette County News, still contains a column called “Norris Area News,” in which freelance writer Carol Ferguson provides dozens of tidbits about which local residents traveled, dined together or experienced something of general interest.

The government oversight role of the Bennett County Booster was illustrated recently, Scherer said, when reporter Jonni Joyce attended a local meeting where officials were quietly working outside public purview to merge the city police department in Martin with the sheriff’s office in Bennett County.

After Joyce covered the first open discussion, the public interest rose and the process is now being conducted with greater public oversight. Since Joyce’s reporting, a county commissioner visited Scherer and expressed “disappointment” over the coverage.

“We don’t care if they merge or not, but the public needs to know what’s going on,” she said. “We’re not here to dig up dirt or cause problems, but we are here to report the facts.”

On Tuesdays, when the presses in the back of the Bennett County office are rolling, people will start queuing up outside to wait for the latest copy of their local paper, Scherer said. Those readers, she said, give her confidence that weekly newspapers are and will remain a critical part of life in small-town South Dakota.

“I think small weekly papers will be around for quite a while yet,” she said. “For now and in the future, we’ll just keep trudging forward, because that’s all we can do.”