Fairmont Sentinel

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Photo by Jeff Silker

For a businessman trapped in a shrinking market, Gary Andersen remains remarkably optimistic.

Andersen is publisher of the Sentinel, a daily newspaper that’s been serving Fairmont and its surrounding trade area in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa since 1874. Fairmont, long regarded as one of Minnesota’s most attractive little cities, lost some of its shine in recent years. In many ways the booming ’90s skipped most rural areas, where population shriveled, retail stores closed and farm families left the land.

“We rely on the farm economy around here and when farmers suffer, it reflects on our community. We’ve lost downtown merchants and our mall has suffered,” Andersen said. That kind of erosion can be harmful to the health of a local newspaper. Moving a 127-year-old daily newspaper down the road to greener pastures isn’t an option, so the Sentinel has little choice but to stay and fight.

“We’ve had to adapt,” Andersen said, and not just to a smaller pool of advertisers and readers. “There are many more media options for advertising today. There’s cable TV and the Internet. There’s probably 10 radio stations coming in here now, all selling advertising. Advertisers have many different options and they have all kinds of people pulling at them.”

This winter brought a surprise competitor for advertising dollars as some stores dipped into their advertising budgets to pay unexpectedly high heating bills, according to Andersen.

Adjusting to a growing number of competitors and a shrinking number of advertisers means “leaving no stone un-turned” in the search for advertising revenue, according to Andersen. It means finding other products and services to sell, especially commercial printing. It means “building on our strengths, our editorial product and our subscriber base.”

The Sentinel’s subscriber base is particularly strong within the community. Nearly eight of 10 households subscribe to the newspaper. “We capture 78 percent of Fairmont households,” Andersen said. The company uses a free-distribution shopper, “Sentinel Plus,” to reach every household within a 40-mile radius.

When Andersen joined the Sentinel nine years ago, Fairmont’s population was 11,265. It’s virtually unchanged today at 11,300. Fairmont is the county seat of Martin County, which dropped from a 1990 population of 22,900 to just 21,530 in the 2000 census. The same kind of dwindling occurred in the Sentinel’s trade area, which includes Faribault, Jackson, Watonwan and Cottonwood counties in Minnesota, as well as Emmet and Kossuth counties just across the border in Iowa.

As people pulled up stakes and left, the Sentinel’s circulation suffered. “When I came here, our paid circulation was 10,100. Now it’s down to 8,903,” Andersen said.

However, he remains confident in the ability of both Fairmont and the Sentinel’s ability to rebound. “The community was stagnant for awhile, but now we have some new young leaders. We have good industry. We have the jobs and the quality of life that all America wants,” he said.

“We just need to build on some of our extracurricular offerings, like shopping and restaurants.”

Andersen hopes that economic development efforts can reverse the dwindling of population and paid circulation. He sees promise in two initiatives now being pursued by the community.

• The Fairmont Economic Development Authority (FEDA) is contacting high school graduates from the last 10 years, inviting them to consider moving back.

• Large retailing companies are being contacted by the Fairmont Area Chamber of Commerce, pointing out “gaps” in Fairmont’s retail picture which they might fill.

In preparing the mailing list of graduates, Andersen said FEDA uncovered a little-known testimonial to the area’s ability to hang onto its young people. “A surprisingly high percentage of them (53%) still lived here,” he said. Now FEDA is going after the others. “We see our community aging and we want to get an influx of young adults coming back. Young people may go away to a four-year university in a larger community, but not everybody wants to live in the Twin Cities or a metro area. We’d like them to bring their strengths back and help Fairmont grow,” Andersen said.

The mailing to large retail companies came after an analysis of the trade area’s strengths and weaknesses by Dr. Kenneth Stone of Iowa State University. Stone is known nationally for such studies. He puts the study into a format easily understood by retailing companies, giving them the data required for deciding whether to locate a new retail outlet in Fairmont. Stone’s study cost $14,000, split by FEDA and the Chamber.

Stone’s study showed Fairmont extremely strong in automobile retailing and healthcare, according to Andersen. But it also showed where retail trade “leaks away” as shoppers go elsewhere for goods and services not available in sufficient variety or not available at all. As a result, FEDA and the Chamber are pursuing everything from shoe stores to large general merchandisers, advising them of the opportunities turned up in Stone’s analysis. Stone’s reputation lends credibility to the Chamber’s pitch.

“We have some work to do” in filling the gaps identified by Stone, Andersen said. Until the gaps are filled, Andersen sees Fairmont victimized by current shopping trends. “With both spouses working, people may do the majority of their necessary shopping in the local community, but on the weekend, they want to get away for the day. Too many of them keep going right up Hwy. 60 where they have multiple options for shopping, entertainment, restaurants.”

Andersen knows that the “first questions” prospective businesses or potential residents ask are “How are your schools, your medical facilities? What are your job opportunities? We’re strong in all those areas. We have a fantastic school system.” He adds that Minnesota State University offers regular off-campus classes in town, that Fairmont’s medical clinic now is part of the Mayo Health System, and that the community’s industrial park is nearly full.

Unemployment hovers just under 3 percent. Good-paying jobs are available in light industry ranging from 3M to Weigh-Tronix, a maker of high-tech scales. The community anticipates ground-breaking this fall for a Harvest States soybean processing plant. The project, which is moving through a cumbersome and complicated permit process, should provide 40 jobs when it opens in fall 2003.

Finding similar value-added manufacturing operations for farm products intrigues Andersen. He said that Martin County, historically strong in hog production, now produces more pork than any other Minnesota county. “We need to expand on our strengths. What businesses can we find that associate themselves with the pork industry?”

There’s an undisguised ache of frustration in Andersen’s voice as he muses about the traffic whizzing past Fairmont on I-90. “They see a Holiday Inn, a Perkins, a Superamerica. But that’s not Fairmont,” he said. “Fairmont is a gorgeous town, with many options, beautiful parks and lakes. If those people could see what Fairmont really is, they would be very surprised.” Given his attitude about Fairmont and the Sentinel, it’s not surprising that he remains upbeat about what’s ahead. “We’re going in the right direction now. I’m very optimistic about the next 10 years.”

The Publisher Goes On Record

Gary Andersen stumbled into journalism “totally by accident,” but lessons learned on his first newspaper job continue to influence his decisions and attitudes today.

“I learned early in my career what customer service is and what readers want in their newspaper,” said Andersen, recalling his first job in the industry 16 years ago, far down on the ladder from where he is today. Andersen is publisher of the Sentinel, a daily newspaper produced six mornings a week in Fairmont. A “publisher,” in journalistic jargon, is a newspaper’s chief executive officer who functions like a general manager, supervising the heads of the various departments within the operation.

A native of Illinois, Andersen came to Mankato on an athletic scholarship, playing football and pursuing a degree in business and marketing at Minnesota State University. In 1985, while still a student, he dropped by the Mankato Free Press in search of a part-time job. Instead, the Free Press handed him full-time work as a district circulation manager, supervising a contingent of carriers who delivered the newspaper door-to-door. “I learned that readers not only want their newspaper now, they want it before now!”

As a result, Andersen isn’t shy about grabbing a bundle of Sentinels and delivering a door-to-door route when a carrier is sick or his circulation manager is short-handed. “People count on their paper. They depend on it to get their day going, to know what’s going on,” he said. “It’s something that’s so important to people that if they don’t have it by 7 a.m., our phones will be ringing.”

Andersen supervised carriers for two years in Mankato, then sold Free Press advertising for five years. Determined to scale the management ladder, he took a job as circulation and marketing director for the Mesabi Daily News in Virginia, MN. After 18 months there, he looked back to a future in Southern Minnesota. “We enjoyed that area (the Iron Range), but we didn’t want to raise our kids there,” he said. (Andersen and his wife, Judy, have a seventh-grade son, Ben, and a sixth-grade daughter, Stephanie.)

Nine years ago, Andersen left the Iron Range for the flat cornfields of southern Minnesota, taking a job as the Sentinel’s circulation manager. After 18 months he became advertising manager and marketing director, then was promoted to publisher in the fall of 1996. He’s a “hands-on” type of manager who values a team approach, a style you might expect from the one-time MSU linebacker who still loves sports. “I just kind of steer the ship. The people on the front lines are my managers and their staff.”

But Andersen often crosses the front lines himself. “After being a sales representative in Mankato for five years, I really enjoy taking someone’s advertising account list here when they’re on vacation. I still help deliver routes in the morning if a carrier is sick or I may hop in our delivery van and go up to Madelia and wait for the papers to be printed at 2 a.m.,” he said. (The Sentinel is printed at the House of Print in Madelia, a large central printing plant.) Andersen feels this kind of hands-on involvement “shows the staff that you do care, that you can handle multiple facets of the operation. I don’t just sit in my office and look at a spread sheet.”

Besides being a medium for the marketing of goods and services, Andersen believes the Sentinel’s role is to “keep the community informed. We’re a public record, a public watchdog for county and city governments. We should be the pulse of the community.” He doesn’t think the Sentinel should “go so far as to lead our community in a particular direction, but we should try to be a reflection of the community. We could probably be more aggressive in the role of setting agendas (for the community), but we haven’t.

The Sentinel has been owned by Ogden Newspapers of Wheeling, W. VA., since 1980. (Ogden Newspapers owns 36 dailies, several weeklies and shoppers, and several national publications including Grit, Capper’s Weekly and Mother Earth News.) At the same time Ogden acquired the Sentinel from Mickelson Media of New Ulm, it also bought Mickelson’s dailies at Marshall and New Ulm and the House of Print in Madelia. That plant has been expanded and runs two shifts regularly, sometimes operating around the clock.

Technology has advanced in the last 20 years, enabling the Sentinel to publish full-color photographs on a daily basis, rather than just occasionally. The entire operation has been computerized. This allows the news staff to create pages electronically, delivering them via 56K telephone modems to the printing plant, rather than manually pasting them together and sending them to Madelia in a truck.

The Sentinel has a somewhat larger news staff than it did in 1980, although both the newspaper and community have suffered through a period of circulation and population erosion. Andersen appears protective of his news department. “You don’t want to cut staff because that hurts the product, which hurts subscriptions. I’d rather go find new advertising revenue sources,” he said.

“One of the great benefits of working for Ogden is that each publisher is autonomous. They let us have free rein as far as editorial content. They make the major financial decisions on budgets and so forth, but they want each paper to be a part of their community and reflect their community,” Andersen said. “Just as I have autonomy from corporate, I pass that autonomy on to my department heads to get the job done. We meet (with department heads) on a weekly basis so everyone is in touch with what everyone else is doing to put out the best product we can.”

Andersen said he also meets weekly with Lee Smith, Sentinel editor and Christine Rupp, city editor, to discuss possible local editorial topics. “We always cover both sides of a story. Then we can editorialize our opinion. We make our thoughts and opinions known,” Andersen said. “People sometimes think the editorial page is a reflection of the whole newspaper, but it’s a reflection of the publisher, editor and city editor.” (As a service, Ogden Newspapers offers editorials on national issues to its editors, who are free to decide whether to print them.)

One of a publisher’s most difficult tasks may be satisfying readers. “Everybody wants everything from their daily newspaper,” he said. “Our focus is on local issues, local sports, regional news. We’re very light on national news and it disappoints people at times that we don’t have a Twins feature story, just a brief item. But we’re committed to the local side of the news.”

Some readers want “high-flying, high-impact news and sometimes it’s not there. It’s a challenge to find an award-winning story that’s controversial. We don’t have a lot of controversial news. It just doesn’t happen,” given the nature of Fairmont and its people, according to Andersen. “This is a nice place to live, a nice place to be.”

It’s obviously a place Andersen enjoys living and working. “Every day is different. I enjoy meeting the responsibility that people put on you. I know I’m giving them the editorial and advertising product they want. We’re respected because people read our papers and depend on our staff.”

Andersen is a frequent player on area golf courses, but said “my favorite hobby is my kids.” He coaches junior high football and basketball and volunteers as a Little League baseball coach in the summer. “Sports is my love. I’m an old jock at heart.”

He’s president of the Fairmont Rotary Club this year and serves on the Fairmont Convention and Visitors Bureau board of directors. He’s also served on the Fairmont Area Chamber of Commerce board and serves as a Chamber Ambassador. “Ogden Newspapers really wants you to be connected to your community in whatever avenues you choose,” he said. “I’m so fortunate to have a job that allows me to do this.”

© 2001 Connect Business Magazine. All rights reserved.

Roger Matz

A freelance writer from Mankato. [Editor: Roger Matz passed away in December, 2003.]

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