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A death in the family

There were three newspaper deaths in the family last Friday, in the North Dakota towns of Killdeer, New England and Hettinger. I knew them all as the news director for Dickson Media in the ’90s, but the loss of the Adams County Record in Hettinger hit especially hard.

Following a 12-year radio career and a stint at the Williston Daily Herald, I was offered the publisher position at the Record. I was green, but they were desperate. The paper and its sister publications were in receivership.

That’s not rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, that’s jumping aboard. But I had a plan. Somebody was going to buy the group, and I thought that if I turned the paper around, I’d get promoted. That’s exactly what happened, and that never happens, but it was a magical town, a magical time.

On my first day in that cavernous building, I heard a booming voice that soon filled my doorway — Bert Berg, (former U.S. Rep. Rick Berg’s dad), the local vet. “I hear yuh got an earring!” he roared. I did. And a ponytail, too. I studied his toothy grin as we shook hands, and I noticed Bert was missing an ear, but I didn’t say anything. I just grinned back.

So it began, my eight-year love affair with that dusty, callused West River town. At my first county commission meeting, Lenny Jacobs, who’d later be elected to the Legislature, stopped the proceedings now and again to explain the background of the issues. Occasionally, Al McIntyre, the owner of the local radio station and an authentic leprechaun, interrupted the meeting with a question or even a tidbit of pertinent information. At first, I was put off by it — it wasn’t journalistic protocol — but it made for accurate reporting, and everyone in the room wanted that.

When I was in radio, newspapers were the enemy, competitors for the advertising that is the lifeblood of any media company, but Al apparently didn’t know any of that or care. He invited me to join a local lawyer, Tom Secrest, in a show dubbed B.S. in the A.M. (Bender, Secrest, and Al McIntyre) where we often said outrageous things. That led to Apology Corner, a segment in which we’d apologize for what we’d said the previous week.

Once, when Ginger Arndorfer was subbing for Al, Secrest and I debated a roadhouse stripper controversy in a neighboring county. We sophomorically discussed the topic for 30 minutes despite a red-faced Ginger’s multiple attempts to change the subject.

After the show, we were confronted in the lobby by her large cowboy husband who demanded I apologize to Ginger. (I didn’t. Hey, it’s show biz.) Tom, meanwhile, grabbed his coat and skedaddled. Coward.

Overall, though, threats were few, and together, the newspaper and I thrived thanks to a great staff, writers who made a difference, and a community that supported us.

You can’t do forensics at a distance, but I’ll tell you that newspapers and small towns survive when there are enough people invested in everyone’s success — community volunteers, board members, teachers, ministers, subscribers and advertisers, among them.

Hettinger lost a critical voice, the trustee of its history since 1907, the weekly reflection of its soul. I can hear the silence from here. Damn.

Tony Bender writes an exclusive weekly column for Forum News Service.

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