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Unchained newspaper
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The Timberjay comes out once a week in Ely, Orr, and Tower. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
There's a lot of teeth-gnashing about media ownership these days. Some people wonder if TV and radio stations can be truly independent when they belong to big companies. And they worry that newspaper companies have gotten too big. In Minnesota, all the major dailies are owned by big chains. It's getting hard to find independently-owned newspapers in cities, but you can still find them in small towns. Here's a look at one called the Timberjay.

Tower, Minn. — When you hear about a big media deal being struck, it's usually out in New York, or Los Angeles, or at least a city the size of Minneapolis. But there's plenty of wheeling and dealing in small towns, too. Up north, it's gotten hard to keep track of who owns some of the local papers.

A few years ago a mini-media empire emerged in Duluth. A local company called Murphy-McGinnis bought up 17 daily and weekly papers from Grand Marais to Hibbing to Superior, Wisconsin. Then last year, a new owner arrived. A company from the state of Virginia bought the papers.

Then some of the papers changed hands yet again this year. One of the biggest newspaper chains in the country got involved. Knight-Ridder already owned the daily paper in Duluth, and this past summer it bought up four of the largest papers in the former Murphy-McGinnis chain.

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Image Marshall Helmberger

Through it all, most of the smaller papers in the area stayed locally-owned -- like the Timberjay.

Marshall Helmberger and Jodi Summit moved north about 20 years ago. They built their own house in the woods near the town of Tower, not far from Ely. They did odd jobs to keep some money coming in. Then one day Helmberger found himself talking with a guy who'd just started a newspaper down the road in the town of Orr. The paper was called the Timberjay.

By the end of the conversation, Helmberger had agreed that he and Summit would open a Timberjay office on the main street in Tower.

"Of course, he conned us by telling us this would only take about 10 hours a week," Helmberger says. "About two weeks after we started he left, and he basically said, 'Here, you can run the newspaper now.'"

Helmberger says it was sink or swim at that point.

"We decided to swim for it," he says. "We're glad we did, I think, in retrospect. It turned out to be a really great change in our life, and it became a good livelihood, and -- most weeks -- a very satisfying job."

The Timberjay now has offices in Tower, Orr and Ely, and it publishes a weekly edition for each town. Jodi Summit says she and Helmberger work more than 10 hours a week. A huge chunk of time goes to just running the business.

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Image Jodi Summit

"Dealing with your customers, dealing with the bookkeeping, dealing with your employees -- that's a full-time job in itself," she says.

On top of that, of course, there's a newspaper to put out once a week.

Officially, Helmberger is the publisher and Summit is the general manager. They have three full-time employees and some part-time staffers, but Helmberger and Summit do lots of reporting.

"I basically cover the local governmental stuff," Summit says. "I cover school issues. I'm covering articles on new business owners in town. And I do most of the local photography."

If you read a few small town weekly papers, the front page of the Timberjay jumps out at you. It's full of news. Like reporters at all small town papers, Timberjay reporters cover official groundbreakings and city council meetings, but they also do interviews and research.

Helmberger says several other papers in the area take a more traditional approach to small town news.

"Who's visiting who, who's in the hospital, who had gall stones, things like that," he says with a smile. "We really wanted to focus more on some of the news and issues that we felt really weren't being well explored in some of the other newspapers in the area. So we basically took a different approach to newspapering here."

The paper frequently has stories on political battles over the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, or stories that spell out disputes over an update to a town's sewer system.

The best compliment I think that we can get from readers is when they do write back and say, 'Boy, I don't agree with your editorial page, but we sure like the rest of the paper.'
- Marshall Helmberger, publisher of the Timberjay

The Timberjay has won awards repeatedly for its reporting and writing. Last year the paper won a Premack Memorial Award from the Minnesota Journalism Center for a big investigative story on the foster care system in St. Louis County.

But the paper also gives plenty of coverage to high school plays and goings-on at the local nursing home. Jodi Summit says that's an obligation for a community newspaper.

"You're recording births, you're recording deaths," she says. "You're providing a picture of a small town that no other place is providing."

Summit says she sees the Timberjay sitting on kitchen counters when she visits people in town.

"It sits there all week because they need that paper," she says. "They know where to look in the paper to see what hours the dump is open, and what week is the bookmobile coming, and what time is that football game."

"We depend on that kind of information in a small town," says David Kess, a retired teacher living in Ely.

"I have three brothers plus myself here in Ely, and we all get the paper," Kess says. "If I don't read it at my house I read it at one of my brothers.' But I read it right from beginning to end."

Kess particularly likes the paper's photographs, and its coverage of bird migrations, and wolf counts and other natural phenomena. And he agrees with Jodi Summit that the paper is important if you want to know what's going on in town.

He knows from personal experience. Kess is the president of the Ely Historical Society, and he writes a column for the Timberjay every couple months about what the society has on display.

But not everyone's happy with what's in the paper.

Marshall Helmberger unfolds a newspaper and points to a headline on the letters page. It reads: "Helmberger's a hypocrite who can't accept accountability."

He gets his share of angry letters. Each week he writes an editorial and a column. His pieces are literate and opinionated. Recently he's written about the environmental effects of a local ATV trail, and what's wrong with privatizing Medicare, and he's written about the tribulations of owning a hyperactive puppy.

Helmberger often writes about the environment and about politics, and over the years he's fought many battles on the editorial page of the Timberjay. But it seems that people keep writing, and keep reading. He says the paper gets more positive letters than negative ones, by far.

"The best compliment I think that we can get from readers is when they do write back and say, 'Boy, I don't agree with your editorial page, but we sure like the rest of the paper,'" Helmberger says.

And the paper gets letters like that "all the time," he says.

Circulation at the Timberjay is holding steady between 4,200 and 4,500, and the paper is looking to hire another full-time staffer. Marshall Helmberger and Jodi Summit have no plans to move on. They've never been approached by a newspaper chain, and they don't expect to be.

But they say even if they are, they'll turn down any offers to buy the Timberjay.

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