Why I Like to Think I’m Welcome at N.D. Free Press

By on March 29, 2013

Hey. Hi, there. Kelly Hagen. Good to be here.

I want to tell you a story about me, and then move onto some other people. I’m a lifelong North Dakotan, born and raised. You can tell this about me by how uncomfortable I get when someone tries to say something nice about me. We’re a modest people.

I’ve lived within 20 miles of Bismarck nearly my whole life. I grew up outside of Wilton, went to college at Bismarck State College, then moved to Fargo to attend Minnesota State University-Moorhead and receive my bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications. Also, I worked at Wendy’s for eight years total — four in Bismarck, four in Fargo — which really adds nothing to the story, but I got confused for a second and thought I was writing out my resume again.

I was a part of the media in North Dakota for quite a while. I wrote music features for the High Plains Reader while I was in college. I graduated and got a job as a copy editor for The Forum. I moved home to work for The Bismarck Tribune for five years. I was a copy editor, a page designer, a columnist, a special sections editor. I did a lot of stuff, won the awards that we give to each other to make us feel good about what we do, and then I quit.

I get asked by strangers, “Why did you quit?” more than most people are just because my picture and name were in the paper for years, and then they weren’t, without explanation. So that kind of stinks. I don’t know an unawkward way of answering the question. So I usually just mumble something about the migration patterns of birds I like. That usually does the trick.

I left for a whole lot of reasons. More than I am ever comfortable with thinking about. I was fortunate enough to be earning more in my last year of journalism than I did my first year, but not by much. Not enough to justify to my wife and kid why we had to eat so damn much Ramen noodles as we did. I wasn’t happy, either. I was doing a whole lot, every week, easily the workload of what two or more people should be doing, for little benefit and no appreciation. You end up taking your work home with you, constantly thinking about every detail of what you’ve published, beating yourself up for what could have been done better, checking your e-mail, responding to readers, etc. None of it for overtime pay, which does not exist in newspapers any more. No matter how much you do and how long it takes you to do it, 40 hours is what shows up on your timesheet.

I only really wanted two things, when I started out. I wanted to stay in North Dakota, and I wanted to write professionally to do that. And I achieved that, so I’m lucky. I also wanted to help people, because that used to be the goal of journalism. But in the current climate, where news needs to be immediate, needs to be on social media as it’s happening, needs to be posted online, and Internet users refuse to consider paying for something on the Internet. Where advertising revenues aren’t easily transferred from print to electronic. Where the workloads keep increasing, but manpower keeps lessening because newspapers are corporately owned and have share holders to answer to, ahead of any of their employees. … You’re not helping anyone in that environment. You’re just churning out copy to appease whatever advertisers you have left, and trying not to offend whatever readers you have left that are friends with the publisher.

I tell you all this to set up the premise of this first column: I’d like to see the locally owned and operated “community” newspapers have a chance at it.

After I’d left newspapers, I got a job or two, and it was good. But then I also ended up involved with something totally new in Bismarck — a community newspaper started by Matt Bunk called The Great Plains Examiner. Bunk was an expatriate who had left North Dakota a long time ago to be a professional journalist, and had been a reporter and editor at a lot of different places across the country. But what he wanted to do was live and work in Bismarck. But he didn’t want to do it for the daily newspaper already here, because he shared the same frustrations I had with corporate newspapers. So he started his own.

Good god, this has become quite the manifesto.

I’m abundantly proud of my participation in the GPE during its formative years, when Matt was in charge, because I believed in “the cause.” All Matt wanted to do was write in-depth stories about the community, for the community. He collected advertisers, but he didn’t cater to them. He just wanted to tell truth, no matter what the repercussions. If he had biases, he didn’t show them, and neither did his writers. It was all for a pretty simple purpose: Just tell the people what’s happening in their community.

I liked that a lot.

Matt had to (mostly) give up on this vision eventually, and he sold a majority stake of the GPE to a group of investors. So it still exists, and I still write for it. My hope is that this new group will emulate those same values and ethics that Matt did, and won’t be afraid to stir it up a little.

Part of what I’d always hoped for was a connection between our little newspaper that could with smaller newspapers across the state. All these papers are chugging along, collecting stories in their communities for their weekly or monthly newspapers, struggling in silence, depending on only themselves to survive.

Why not share that content with similar newspapers across the state? Create a co-op of information about what is happening in all our North Dakota communities? Valley City could share news from Bismarck, Fargo could learn about people in Williston, etc., etc.

There are already “news wires” for profit in operation across the state, to achieve this. The Associated Press has accomplished this “news sharing” for a century, but it certainly costs a lot to participate. The Forum is starting their own news wire, and the GPE is striking out along a similar venture. Good for them.

I was hopeful upon learning about this site, the North Dakota Free Press. Because, in learning about it and talking to its creator, John Jorgensen, it seemed like he had the same vision as I did. It doesn’t have to cost anything to share information. These papers are already pulling in revenue from advertisers. If they could share content, it could free up time and effort to put more work into the stories they are crafting, and better inform all people across the state. It doesn’t have to be about profit. It can be about creating a better product.

So I’m involved with the N.D. Free Press site. I like this site, and I like the idea it represents of possibly connecting small newspapers in the state. Whether that will happen, I don’t know. But I’ll contribute my own writing in the mean time. Above all else, I like to write. And nothing I ever write can be reasonably expected to harm, disfigure or maim any other human being on the planet, so, really, no one should mind too much if I take this opportunity to be part of this site, and write what I want, when I want, in pursuit of the goal of entertaining myself and, hopefully, any four of you readers.

Thanks for listening. I’ll try to be less whiny next time.

(Editor’s note — I revised the paragraph about the new ownership of the Great Plains Examiner. My previous word choices had come across as critical, which was not the intent. Can’t we all just love each other?)

About Kelly Hagen