After 25 years and a couple thousand columns, that's a wrap
After responding in the affirmative to a question way back when that gauged my interest in writing a twice-per-week-column to add some local content to the Times’ opinion page, I was given a month before my inaugural column would publish.
So I baby-sat and massaged that first column like you wouldn’t believe. My topic focused on a tragic teenage mistake in Grand Forks that resulted in the death of a young girl, and an ensuing messy trial and a verdict. I wrote a first draft. More drafts and incessant bordering on obsessive proofreading followed as the days and weeks passed leading up to my deadline.
That first column was well-received by Times readers and I was stoked.
Then panic ensued. In addition to my other responsibilities in the Times’ newsroom, I’d agreed to write two columns a week, every week? How could I have possibly endorsed that ridiculous notion?
Immediately, I was in scramble mode. I had another column deadlining in a couple days and I needed a topic.
Then I watched Republican U.S. Senator Bob Dole on the TV network news later that day, standing behind a podium and ripping yet again on someone or something. Tucked in his right hand, which was always squeezed into a fist, was his telltale pen. Dole had a previous injury that rendered his right hand almost useless, and when asked from time to time about the omnipresent pen, he’d say that politicians have to shake a lot of hands, and as people approached him to shake his hand, it was his hope that they’d see the pen and extend their left hand to shake his left hand instead.
I look almost fondly these days upon Dole, who’s 98 now and battling cancer. He said in a recent interview that he’s a “Trumper,” but added that he’s fed up with him and that he legitimately lost to Joe Biden last November. Dole and Biden go way back and Dole calls him a “great man.”
Dole was old-school. He actually crafted important bipartisan legislation with Democrats. He even socialized with his colleagues across the aisle. But, no doubt, he’d be unceremoniously booted out of today’s Trumpist Party for being a bleeding-heart, snowflake liberal. They’d “primary” him in a second and ridicule him while kicking him to the curb after his loss to the latest Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert clone.
But around a quarter-century ago, I thought Bob Dole was little more than a cranky out-of-touch politician with a weird-looking hand who wanted to be the Republican nominee for president. So I made him the focus of my second column.
There was no Google back then; there was barely an internet. So instead of typing in my browser bar “bob dole injury” for the purpose of conducting an online search, I took my blissful ignorance and ran with it.
I ended my column by writing that I didn’t know what had injured Dole and caused his arm to be “gimpy” – a particularly poor choice of words, I was later told – and then, in full-on “Isn’t-Mike-clever?” mode, I concluded that he must have been injured by the weight of the tremendous chip he carried on his shoulder.
I was in a great place. I was already a column-writing legend in my own mind, it was a Friday, and it happened to be my birthday, too.
But my would-be glorious day went south in a hurry. First of all, there was a blizzard. It was late April, so it was a big deal, and who wants to snow-blow on their birthday? And then…
I’ll never forget the moment. My future wife and I arrived at my parents’ house so I could open a gift or two and eat some cake, and as we strolled into the kitchen, there was my mom and her mom seated at the table. Then came the question, “Michael, how could you?”
My grandma, the widow of a war veteran who had died when I was too young to even remember him, wanted to know how I could write a column about a World War II colonel who was critically injured in battle and had a permanently maimed arm and hand as a result, and be so ignorant and mean while doing so.
As a journalist, that was my first cold-sweat-I-think-I’m-going-to-throw-up moment. I’ve endured a few more in the two-plus decades since, but none ever topped that first one. My skin was pretty thin in those early days.
I walked into the newsroom with more than a little trepidation the next morning and heard Randy Hultgren, the Times publisher then, on the phone in his office say something like, “He just walked in. I’ll get back to you.”
The local VFW and American Legion were livid. They wanted an apology. A retraction. I think the phrase “boycott the Times” was even uttered as I sat down across from Randy to discuss how we were going to climb out of the hole I’d dug. I ended up writing an apology. With a grand total of two columns under my belt – counting columns and editorials, I’ve written at least a couple thousand since – there I was, authoring an apology to Times readers, the community and military veterans.
I’ve told that story at many a high school “career day” journalism session in the years since. I’ve told it to many young Times’ interns. If you’re unwilling or afraid or too lazy to get information you need to produce accurate, informed content, I advise – even if you’re writing an opinion page piece with looser rules and not hard news on the front page with its more rigid guidelines – then journalism is not for you.
Journalism was for me, but this is my final column as a staff member at the Times.
Time for a change
The Times is a Gannett newspaper. Gannett is the biggest newspaper corporation in the United States. They’re doing some good things. Really, they are.
For example, they’re moving their newspapers from simple “crime” reporting to “public safety journalism.” During training sessions, the company has said its newspapers, even understaffed, tiny newspapers, will no longer simply be a “megaphone for your local police department.” We’re not just going to regurgitate law enforcement press releases while we wait for law enforcement to give us more information. Instead of reporting from the police or the City or the government on down, we’re going to report more from the community’s perspective first and then work our way back up to the powers-that-be to see how they’re responding to the community they represent and work for.
At least that’s the idea. It’s a massive change, and it’s going to be extremely difficult to alter the way this kind of content has been reported almost on autopilot for decades.
No doubt, the roots of this change can be traced back to the summer of 2020, when the Minneapolis Police Department sent out a press release hours after George Floyd was killed by an officer – and the media basically copied and pasted it – with a headline that read, “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” We all soon saw the “interaction” and a jury later decided there was no “medical incident,” only a murder.
Also as part of these changes, if you’ve seen any print editions of the Times lately, you’ll notice that the list detailing all of the people recently arrested in and around Crookston is no longer a fixture on page two. The list is still being sent to us each day by the Northwest Regional Corrections Center, but we’re no longer publishing it. It’s another Gannett mandate; the days of the Times spotlighting people at their lowest when they’re arrested or charged with crimes but then actually following up and reporting on only a minuscule percentage of their cases as they proceed through the justice system are over.
If that’s enough to make you cancel your print subscription or not open the Times sitting near you in the lobby of All Seasons Lube Center to see who got busted, so be it. I support the change.
But that doesn’t change the fact that, this past spring, when I was notified in a Zoom meeting that the Times’ newsroom was being reduced from three writers to two, and that the impacted position was our assistant editor, Jess Bengtson, I knew the moment I exited Zoom that countless days marked by my incessant complaining to my wife and friends about working too much for too little pay – Things we all complain about, right? – were over. After two stints here adding up to 25 years – I worked at UMC from 2001-03 – I was going to leave the Times.
I still remember back in 2013 the moment I told Jess, who was seated across a big desk from me in an office at the Times, that she was my choice to fill a reporter vacancy in the Times’ newsroom. She had recently earned a communications degree from UMN Crookston but at that time was managing a wireless phone store – talk about overworked and underpaid – and when it hit her that she was going to get to be a journalist, she wiped tears from her eyes.
Gannett cut my newsroom this past spring, but not Jess, officially. They moved her to a “regional planning desk” position that meant she was no longer a journalist. Instead, she helped several Gannett publications get their print edition content ready for designers with the company to fill newspaper pages with. I asked her about her new gig several weeks back. “Basically, I just copy and paste,” Jess said.
When I told her I was leaving and asked if she wanted my job, she replied, in all caps and with multiple exclamation points, that she did. “I still care about our little newspaper,” she added.
I alerted my supervisor, the executive editor of the St. Cloud Times, to my plan, that Jess end her brief stint as a regional planner and be hired to fill my position, and she agreed that it made a ton of sense. Thankfully, Jess’ hire as the next Times’ editor was fast-tracked.
So we can all celebrate the fact that our community newspaper will be led by someone who is involved in our community, and loves our community.
There's just something about teaching…
When the program was still around locally, my wife and I for several years many years ago volunteered each spring with the “Junior Achievement” program. Basically, you go into classrooms for a few weeks to teach kids about the world around them, and the older they get, the bigger that world becomes. Kindergartners learn about their homes and families, first-graders learn about their neighborhoods, second-graders learn about their communities, third-graders learn about their state…and on and on it goes until the oldest elementary students learn a little bit about how the entire globe works.
It took a lot of arm-twisting to get me to agree that first year to be a Junior Achievement instructor. But I gave in, and then felt a mushrooming sense of dread as our first session approached on the calendar. I directed my wife to lead the show and work with the kids through their learning packets and various activities and said that I’d chime in every now and then.
And then, about five minutes into our first session, it was my show. I kind of came alive. Energized, I worked the room and engaged the kids, and my wife would hand out things the kids needed and chime in every now and then. From that point, when Ingrid Remick would reach out to us each spring to see if we were willing to lead a Junior Achievement class again, we did not hesitate.
I had the teaching “bug,” a teacher at Highland School told me after one session.
A bit later, during my time working with the service learning program at UMN Crookston, I was asked if I could carve out some time to be a “teaching specialist” and teach a composition writing lab for students who needed some extra support when it came to their writing skills. Over the next year or so, I taught several sections. It was certainly a far cry from trying to entertain/teach a room full of 10-year-olds, but it was still teaching. Once I got past my jittery nerves, I settled in, and my time with those college students in those writing labs soon became my favorite part of my job.
When I eventually found my way back to the Times in 2004, I turned our newsroom into a writing lab of sorts, with, over the next 15 years or so, almost 20 high school students working as student writers and photographers during the school year – for academic credit – or as summer interns, for pay.
I didn’t want to waste their time by having them type news releases or obituaries, so I just threw them into important work from day one and waited to see if they landed on their feet. Most did, a couple didn’t, and some stumbled before righting themselves and eventually becoming solid student journalists.
This past spring, for the Times’ annual “Community Connections” special edition, I was able to track down 18 of our former student reporters and do sort of “Where are they now?” profiles of them. I asked each of them about their experiences at the Times and what lessons they took from their time in our newsroom, and many of their responses blew me away. Their few short months at the Times changed them. They gave them valuable direction. They impacted them!
Their answers changed me. They gave me valuable direction. They impacted me! I told my wife I had a plan, and after sending in college transcripts and answering a bunch of online questions – and, thankfully, in a first for me, being fingerprinted at the jail – I secured my substitute teaching license. I’ll start this fall, teaching wherever they need me in Crookston Public Schools, from kindergarten at Washington School to high school seniors at CHS, and everyone between.
It’ll be a nice transition until whatever opportunity comes next. And if that opportunity is slow to show itself, maybe I’ll just stick with subbing for a bit.
So that’s that
I, with my future wife along for the ride back to my hometown, moved from Minneapolis in late 1993 after my mom mailed me a newspaper clipping from the Times seeking a “city reporter” and I was subsequently hired.
The publisher, Randy, told me later I basically had the job after my phone interview, but, not knowing that at the time, I spent hundreds of dollars on a double-breasted suit for my in-person interview. The Times’ longtime graphic designer who retired a few months ago, Lynn Oakes, told me later that when I walked in the door that day, she thought I was some kind of federal inspector.
When Randy officially hired me that day, I asked about a dress code. “Shirt and tie?” I wondered.
No, Randy said, adding that a more casual approach was necessary, and would probably be better received by the community I’d be covering. “This isn’t really a shirt-and-tie kind of place,” he said.
No, it’s not, thankfully. Over the years, people I frequently crossed paths with through my work would unofficially mark the arrival of spring when they first saw me wearing shorts – usually, in their opinion, shockingly early – and knew winter was coming when they’d see me, begrudgingly, wearing jeans again well into fall.
This is a great community that’s been good to my family and me. Thanks for everything. I’ll see you around town.
In the meantime, please support your local newspaper. You need it, and it needs you.