Deb Flemming

Flemming Questioned

Photo by Jeff Silker

No political organization could be more crooked than New York City’s “Tweed Ring” in 1868-71. “Boss” Tweed and his Democratic henchmen “Slippery Dick” Connolly, “Brains” Sweeney and “The Elegant One” Hall looted the City treasury of more than $45 million, primarily through shady deals involving unscrupulous contractors. Tweed himself amassed $12 million.

His well-greased political machine would have looted more if it hadn’t been for the Republican-tilting, one-two punch of New York Times editor Louis Jennings and Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast. Editor Jennings published smoking-gun proof of government corruption, and in doing so made New York City residents hopping mad at Tweed. The Ring collapsed, and Tweed served three years in prison. It was a defining moment for U.S. news-papers in establishing their industry role as community watchdog.

In the same vein, 47-year-old editor Deb Flemming has driven her newspaper forward in the watchdog spirit of Jennings, and personally as “the guardian” of its editorial voice. Her editorial positions and the news stories guided by her decisions are more than mere words to read while managing a Wells coffee shop, Madelia factory, Le Center beauty salon, or Waseca grocery store. Often her words take on a life of their own — in essence, an active black ink that moves people — shaping community opinions that ultimately can affect the fortune of any business owner or executive.

CONNECT: What changed here after September 11?
FLEMMING: The Free Press newsroom reacted to the tragedies of September 11 the way everyone else in the country did. From a professional standpoint we knew it was a big story, and that we had to make sense out of chaos. When you look at September 11, it was clear our readership — and even those who weren’t regular readers — were turning to us for information to help them make decisions about how they were going to live their daily lives. Our staff responded extremely well. I’m extremely proud of our coverage, particularly in the first two weeks after the attack. We continue to look for answers to those issues troubling all Americans.

CONNECT: And you have a son in the military?
FLEMMING: Yes, my son is in the Navy.

CONNECT: Could you separate your personal and professional lives?
FLEMMING: From my viewpoint, that question was the interesting aspect of September 11. Journalists proudly wear the objectivity robe. But with this story there wasn’t a person in the newsroom who didn’t have a personal reaction. Surely, I had additional concern.

CONNECT: Has it become unpatriotic now to ask tough questions and challenge our political leaders?
FLEMMING: Asking those tough questions is the media’s major responsibility as a watchdog. If you think back to the day we started dropping bombs, Minneapolis police stopped every truck downtown to search them that night. Was there a public outcry? No. But what they did violates every civil liberty that our country and troops have fought to preserve the last 225 years. After the fact, Minneapolis police admitted it had no reason for the action.

CONNECT: From my understanding, your parents own a Waseca lumberyard, and have an interest in motels in southern Minnesota. Has there ever been a time when they wanted you to take over for them?
FLEMMING: My father has retired, but was owner of Associated Lumber Mart in Waseca. If there was a time when he wanted me to take over for him, I certainly didn’t know about it. I did take a brief hiatus from newspapers in the late ‘70s to work for him. I did remodeling estimates, and could throw Sheetrock with the best of them. I also managed a dry cleaners in Waseca for a year before realizing that my calling and passion was for journalism. Anyway, I have other family members involved in the business.

CONNECT: You’ve had cancer. Did that experience change you?
FLEMMING: Others are better to judge that than I am. I do know that I have an appointment every six months at Mayo, and as each one approaches my emotions stir again. When I looked at the edition The Free Press put on the street the Sunday after the attack, I was extremely grateful that I was still around to do it.

CONNECT: Someone who knows you well said to me that ‘Deb Flemming gives feminism a good name.’ What do you think she meant by that?
FLEMMING: Wow! That’s what she said?

CONNECT: That’s what she said.
FLEMMING: We’re still at a point in society where a woman running an organization is the exception rather than the rule. I would hope what she meant was that, for the most part, I’m a good representative for women. I was the first person in my family to attend college. I didn’t grow up in a family that limited what I could do. The only experience I maybe had with that was in seventh grade when I wanted to be a drummer in a band — and girls aren’t drummers. I grew up in a family that said if you chose a career, and worked hard at it, you could succeed.

CONNECT: It’s true there aren’t many women, as a percentage, in upper management in the Connect Business Magazine reading area. And yet, hasn’t society progressed to the point where your newspaper can stop running special sections dedicated solely to “women”?
FLEMMING: I certainly wish we could. The Free Press annually publishes a special “Woman” section. Most readers probably aren’t aware that the section originates from our advertising de-partment and is an “advertorial.” I don’t want anything to do with that section. The days of that section, from a news standpoint, are over. If we don’t do a section on men who have “made” it, then why do a section on women?

CONNECT: Why not write your own column?
FLEMMING: Time is the reason — or should I say, the excuse. In 1995, when I returned to Mankato, we had a full-time editorial page editor who wrote most editorials, handled letters to the editor, and the columnists. In downsizing a few years ago we turned that position into a much needed graphic artist position. At that point, I began writing three editorials a week. I was just about to launch a weekly column when that occurred. It’s on my action plan for 2002.

CONNECT: To me it appears someone here made the decision the last year to have more hard, investigative news. If true, who made the decision? and why?
FLEMMING: The Free Press has a long tradition of solid, investigative and public affairs reporting. We have an extremely talented staff. One change the last year is that we have asked our reporters to select a topic of their own interest for a major project at least once a year. We free them up off their beat for that. I won’t deny we’ve had some good investigative journalism the last year, but you have to have the topic in order to get the good stories.

CONNECT: Do you catch much fallout from an especially “good” investigative series? For instance, let’s say you run an article critical of an area business. Don’t you catch flak from your sales department for potentially costing the paper an advertiser?
FLEMMING: That’s a reality, not a fantasy-type question. In covering the community sometimes our coverage doesn’t flatter people. Fortunately, The Free Press, and Ottaway Newspapers, strongly believe in the integrity of its news product and stand behind our newsroom when we make those tough decisions. Our responsibilities to readers and community outweigh any short-term financial considerations.

CONNECT: You’re chair of the “Small Newspaper” committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Why did you want that position?
FLEMMING: I didn’t seek it out. Tim McGuire, editor of the Star Tribune and the ASNE chair in 2001, asked me to take the position. In some way, each of us should give something back to our community and profession.

ASNE hasn’t taken up as much time as some of my local commitments have. (Then again, perhaps I’m not serving ASNE to the degree to which I could.) September 11, again, really affected ASNE. With the attacks, committee work virtually came to a standstill because our primary responsibility is to our local papers.

CONNECT: This summer your paper switched to a 50-inch sheet, which shrunk the physical width of The Free Press. Why switch? and are stories that would have made it in your paper last year being cut now because of the smaller size?
FLEMMING: There is no question we lost space on the page itself. However, my news “hole” now is roughly the same if not larger than before. It was a financial decision in that newsprint at that web-width is much cheaper.

At some other newspapers the switch to a smaller sheet was met with tremendous outrage from some readers. Here I’ve heard virtually nothing. We were up-front with readers, and told them what was happening. We didn’t make a big deal out of it because it wasn’t a big deal. Much of the space lost was between columns. But that’s not to say a 20-inch story today is as many words as a 20-inch story prior to the conversion. The staff has worked extremely hard to write tighter and smarter, and provide as much information as they can in the news hole.

CONNECT: When you say that your news “hole” hasn’t shrunk, is that in column inches or in percentage of overall space?
FLEMMING: Both. Many newspapers base their news hole solely on their advertising inches. So if you run 100 inches of advertising, 40-50 percent of it will be news, and 50-60 percent advertising. At The Free Press, we have a minimum news hole regardless of the amount of advertising in the paper. We provide our readers with what we call 94 columns of news a day. To do our job properly for our readers we feel we need that. Some days we might have 108 columns; others, 92. But as a percentage to advertising we average the same.

CONNECT: Explain the role of the Minnesota News Council, and why you disagreed with the Council’s last decision against you that involved a school board member in the region.
FLEMMING: The Minnesota News Council is a Minneapolis-based organization whose membership is half media members and half members of the public. It’s a place where newspaper readers, TV viewers or radio listeners who have a dispute with the media can be heard. I was a member of the News Council when I was with the Owatonna paper. It’s one of only three news councils in the country. News councils are being fought in other states as an unnecessary threat to press freedom, but I don’t see it that way. It’s an opportunity for an individual who disagrees with press coverage to present their case.

As an editor, I’ve been to the news council twice: first, while in Owatonna, and the second time, here. The Free Press itself has been there twice; once without me.

In the case of the school board member, we were covering a school board meeting and allegations were made by a citizen there suggesting an illegality on the part of some elected officials in the way a meeting was held. We reported the allegation. We wrote the story, saying that a citizen alleged an illegality. The elected school board officials weren’t pleased with that story, and one in particular submitted a response to be run on our editorial page. Unfortunately, we didn’t process that response very quickly, which then fueled the fire.

To make a long story short, the issue was this: Were we irresponsible in reporting these allegations? I’m a strong advocate of the News Council, but I think they made a wrong decision in this case. If reporters aren’t allowed to report what happens in an open, public forum, then as a democracy we are in trouble.

Keep in my mind there had been a lengthy bond referendum fight in that school district. Community tensions were extremely high. We were faulted by the News Council for not identifying the individual questioning the legality as an opponent to the referendum. In that sense, the news council ruling was a fair criticism of our coverage. But to me, what happens at any public meeting always should be fair game.

CONNECT: Last year you wrote an editorial critical of the Boy Scouts’ position on not hiring openly homosexual scoutmasters. At the same time, your publisher, who also is your boss, sat on the Boy Scouts’ Twin Valley Council executive board. That Council covers all southern Minnesota. Did he have anything to say to you about your stand?
FLEMMING: My boss is Sam Gett. As publisher, he is also on our editorial board. In the newspaper profession we try very, very hard to distance our personal lives and the organizations to which we belong from the newspaper’s editorial positions. He actually had a Boy Scout meeting the night that particular editorial came out, and had to face those folks. Sam did not interfere in any way with that editorial. There are about six of us that sit on the board to hash these editorials out.

CONNECT: Is it “majority rules”?
FLEMMING: Sometimes, but usually “majority rules” is reserved for election endorsements. People assume — and maybe I’m incorrect — that when the leadership of a newspaper changes, whether it is the editor or publisher, that the longtime philosophical positions of the paper are going to change. That’s not how I operate. My job is to be the guardian of The Free Press in its editorial voice. I may not personally agree with every editorial we write, or the publisher may not, but if we’re going to change the editorial voice of the paper we need to provide a reason to our readers beyond ‘there’s just some new folks in the job.’

Believe it or not, we have some conservative viewpoints on that board. I know The Free Press takes some heat for being extremely liberal. But interestingly, as I tell most organizations I speak before, our last readership survey found one-third of our readers saying we are too liberal, one-third saying we’re about right, one-third that we’re too conservative. That says to me we’re reflecting the voices of the area we serve.

CONNECT: So is The Free Press a liberal newspaper?
FLEMMING: I don’t believe so. We did the readership survey in 1996, and we’ll probably do another in a few years. It’s all a matter of perception. The real question: liberal in whose viewpoint? To the ultraconservative, yes, I think we would be considered very liberal. To a very liberal person I’m not so sure that they would think we were very liberal, depending on the issue. If you examined our editorials over a long period you would find we are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, which is a moderate position.

CONNECT: Dow Jones, the parent company of your parent company Ottaway Newspapers, has to be putting pressure on all its papers to improve earnings. Do you think Dow Jones views your newspaper as a vehicle to sell ads? or as a vehicle to present news?
FLEMMING: If anyone had told me when I began as a reporter that I would one day understand “EBITDA,” I would have laughed in their face. That’s the last reason I got into this profession. (EBITDA is Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization.)

Ottaway Newspapers, the community newspaper division of Dow Jones, has been working very hard the last couple years to bring the profitability level for its shareholders up to industry standards. Does that mean the news product suffers? If Dow Jones were only interested in profitability and advertising revenue (and the same could be said for Ottaway Newspapers and The Free Press), we would not have published a free paper to all subscribers — without any advertising — the Sunday after September 11. We had all the expenses of a regular edition and no revenue. That’s a commitment to journalism.

CONNECT: You can’t compete with cable news networks and the Internet in the sense they are 24-hour news sources. Have those more “immediate” news sources forced you in any way to change the way you present your news product? What have you done to counter them?
FLEMMING: First of all, we have our own online news product. At this point, though, we’re mainly posting information after publication and not posting much breaking news, although we are linked to the Associated Press wire. After the school board elections in November we posted results online that we couldn’t get into our paper in time. We view the Internet as a supplemental resource. If you go back in history, radio was supposed to kill newspapers, then television, then 24-hour news, and most recently, the Internet.

CONNECT: They have taken slices from you, though.
FLEMMING: They’ve taken slices, but left the core product. After September 11 our readership increased and the same happened with other papers across the country. Keep in mind, newspaper circulation had been declining for years, so we aren’t sitting around patting ourselves on the back about it.

A study released at ASNE this year (done by the Readership Institute at Northwestern Univ.) found, instead of an industry in trouble, a newspaper industry with a unique opportunity to thrive. Here is one statistic from that study that I think will give most people pause: the Super Bowl reached 86 million adults on TV in 2001, while on that same Sunday 132 million adults read a newspaper. I’ve never been more optimistic about where newspapers as an industry are headed.

CONNECT: Why become involved in Mankato’s 150th anniversary celebration? You’re already a busy lady.
FLEMMING: I am busy, but we were at a critical juncture as to whether Mankato would commemorate its history. One of my many hats as editor is to assume a community leadership role when needed, and I decided it was important for Mankato to look back — and ahead.

CONNECT: What was at issue with The Free Press lawsuit against the City of North Mankato?
FLEMMING: There were several factors involved, but in fairness to the City of North Mankato the key issue was whether or not they had violated the state open meeting law when interviewing for the city administrator position. On that issue the court sided with the City, saying they did not violate the law. We attempted an appeal to the Minnesota State Supreme Court, but they did not take up the case.

At issue is something very fundamental to democracy, and near and dear to my heart: the First Amendment. We need openness in government.

The City of North Mankato was hiring for its top, paid leadership position for the first time in many years. In the state of Minnesota, if a quorum of a council or an elected body is meeting together, that meeting has to be open whether they’re hiring a candidate for a top seat or if discussing road repair. In this case the City had hired a consultant who recommended to them that each city council member should individually interview each candidate. They placed individual council members in separate rooms at city hall and the candidates rotated between the rooms for interviews. Physically the council members were in the same building, but not in the same room. Our reporter not only couldn’t be in all the rooms at the same time, but was not even allowed to be in the separate rooms at all.

I’m a firm believer that the public — and I mean the public, not the newspaper — has the right to find out what kinds of questions their elected officials are asking of people seeking employment for such a high office. It was an issue of democratic principles. We went to court because we believed the process was wrong. On the big issue, the court did side with the City of North Mankato, though The Free Press prevailed on some minor points. It would have been nice to win the case, but sometimes winning isn’t what it’s all about. In this case it was a matter of principle.

CONNECT: Why not a Sunday paper?
FLEMMING: No one would like a Sunday paper more than me. As we illustrated the Sunday after September 11, when a Sunday paper is needed we’ll be there. But from a financial standpoint the costs are greater, and the demands of increased profitability from our company and stockholders must be factored in.

Still, Ottaway Newspapers leaves that decision with us. I’m not saying they wouldn’t have any input into starting a Sunday paper, but clearly they have demonstrated a strong will to rely on us. People in Mankato make decisions about the newspaper here, not people in New York.

Another anchor store at River Hills Mall, which potentially would mean another major advertiser in the newspaper, might have moved us to a Sunday paper three years ago. But the industry is in recession right now, and it would take more than an anchor or even two. When we did our readership survey in 1996, we found that a good number of our readers wanted us in their homes on Sunday, but not all did.

CONNECT: Why not an online Sunday edition, without the cost of newsprint?
FLEMMING: Believe it or not, there are still homes in our community that don’t have the Internet. Newsprint is one of our largest expenses, but people are as expensive if not more. As it is, with our six-day paper, the total number of people we have in the newsroom is one-fourth of the overall newspaper staff. And they work only five days a week.

Deb Flemming Biography

Born: August 5, 1954.
Personal: Husband, Loren.
Education: Waseca High School 1972; Univ. of Minnesota B.A.
Affiliations: American Society of Newspaper Editors, 2001 Chair, Small Newspaper Committee; Minnesota Newspaper Foundation, Board President; Summit Center, Board Chair; Downtown Mankato Kiwanis Club, former President; Leadership Mankato Area Steering Committee; Mid-America Press Institute, Board Member.

© 2002 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Daniel Vance

Daniel Vance

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine

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