Newspapering in a Minnesota town with two newspapers

John Sandford
John Sandford

It appears the Winona Post doesn’t much impress John Sandford.

At least that’s what I assumed as I savored a short scene in Field of Prey, Sandford’s 24th Lucas Davenport novel. The fictional Davenport character is an investigator for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. I’ve long been a fan of both the writer and the character.

A small part of the overall story, on pages 291-292, features the characters Henry Sands, director of the BCA, Davenport and Virgil Flowers, another BCA investigator who reports to Davenport.

“We got a call from the Winona County sheriff’s office that some drunk reporter from a shopper newspaper down there was found dead in a ditch.”

“Dead from drinking?” Lucas asked.

“From what I’m told, he might’ve been, except for the bullet holes in his back.”

And then Davenport calls Flowers to send him to Winona.

Lucas called Virgil, who said, without saying hello, “I’m already on the way over.”

“The newspaper guy?”

“Yeah. Not much of a newspaper, and not much of a guy, from what I’m told, but he’s definitely been murdered.”

With that, Sandford returned to bigger parts of the novel’s overall story.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Sandford — which is the pen name for John Camp, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native — really isn’t impressed by the Winona Post. All Camp, 71, has done is publish 35 novels after winning a Pulitzer Prize as a columnist and feature writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Prior to that, he graduated from the University of Iowa and then worked as a reporter for the Miami Herald.

His are, what I’d call, real writing credentials.

As for the Post, well, it’s the Post.

It was established in 1971 by John and Frances Edstrom as a weekly shopper with no news content. According to their telling of its history, they:

  • Started a second publication, the Saturday Morning Post, in 1978. It included news copy.
  • Merged the two publications in 1982 into one free weekly newspaper with news and ads.
  • Converted the merged publication in 1985 from a tabloid to a broadsheet publication.
  • Expanded the merged weekly newspaper to a twice-weekly publication schedule in 1991. Now know only as the Winona Post, it is still published on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

John died in 2012 and Frances sold the Post last year to Patrick Marek, the newspaper’s advertising director since 1994.

During my time in Winona, I often thought the Post existed because no one else would publish John’s long-winded and ultra conservative columns. He was Fox News before Fox News. I came along late in this story, from 2000 to 2004, as editor of the competing daily newspaper in Winona, which had been owned by the family of Horace White since 1926.

Beginning in 1934, Max White, the son of Horace, published the Winona Republican-Herald, which was renamed the Winona Daily News in 1954. He was succeeded in 1961 by his son, William, who sold the newspaper in 1980 to Davenport, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, which still owns it.

It’s not a coincidence that much of the growth and success of the shopper started by the Edstroms occurred after Lee Enterprises bought the daily.

Ron Semple was the first Lee publisher at the Daily News. I don’t know him. As near as I can tell, today he is 80 years old and living in upstate New York, where he is retired, but still writing. As publisher of the Daily News, he helped launch a USA Today-type format that featured lots of color graphics.

“Most readers liked it from Day One,” he said of the format during a convention of the Associated Press Managing Editors in 1983 in Louisville, Kentucky. But most journalists who had seen his newspaper, Semple added, did not like it.

All I know is it wasn’t remembered fondly 20 years later when I came along.

And while the Daily News for a while lost its way as a source for local news, the Post published everything that was submitted by readers. It became the source Winona newspaper readers knew they could turn to if they wanted to clip from the newspaper and keep a photo or story about their children and grandchildren. The Post was not an attractive newspaper. Nor was it what I’d call well written and edited. But it was amazingly consistent.

During my time in Winona, I thought I disliked John and Fran even though I didn’t really know them. Looking back at it now, I can’t help but admire what they did. As it turns out, the black hats I thought they wore weren’t really black. Nor were all of the white hats on my side as pristine as they appeared at the time.

In many ways, Virgil Flowers is right, the Post isn’t much of a newspaper.

But it has succeeded and thrived for many years, taking money away from a bigger competitor that should have never let the Post take root in the first place. I can’t help but admire that.