Bottom line: Advertisers will miss the Southwest Journal

Molly Broder
Molly Broder, who advertised her Southwest Minneapolis Italian eateries in the paper, says she sees no obvious replacement for the Southwest Journal. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Southwest Journal publisher Terry Gahan knows full well the power of advertising, and not only because ad revenue was the paper’s sole source of revenue during its 30-year run. A classified ad quite literally changed the course of his family’s life.

The ad appeared in Minnesota Parent before Gahan and Janis Hall, his spouse and co-publisher, purchased the monthly magazine in 2004. It was a modestly sized spot for the Minnesota Waldorf School in Maplewood. Taken with the preschool’s mold-breaking approach to education, Gahan and Hall enrolled their daughter, Zoe — a decision that “ended up changing the trajectory of her education,” said Gahan. Years later, Zoe would become the Southwest Journal’s general manager, repaying the family’s investment in her early education several times over.

The experience was an epiphany of sorts for Gahan.

“If that one little ad that we answered changed our lives, how many times has that happened with ads in the Southwest Journal?” he asked. Given the paper’s 30,000 circulation and biweekly printing schedule, the true count is unknowable, but Gahan is willing to bet it’s big.

“We know from our experience as a community publication that [our ads help] connect people in positive ways,” he said.

By encouraging readers to spend locally rather than at big-box stores in the suburbs or with online retailers based out of state, the paper’s ads “keep people employed and generate revenue for businesses in the neighborhood.”

Those businesses include neighborhood fixtures that employ thousands in the Southwest Journal’s coverage area: hardware stores and appliance retailers, restaurants and food markets, professional and home services providers, tradespeople, real estate brokers. Choose a random Southwest Minneapolis business on Google Maps and there’s a good chance it’ll have an advertising record with the paper.

One of those longtime advertisers is Judy Shields, a veteran local agent with Coldwell Banker Realty who has spent about $1,000 per month with the paper in recent years. The investment — a significant fraction of her total print ad spend — produces an impressive return on investment, especially amid a pandemic that makes in-person networking all but impossible and blunts the effect of in-person display ads in formerly high- traffic public places. Shields’ Southwest Journal ads generated nearly $1 million in listing activity this year alone, she said, paying for themselves multiple times over.

“I’m a businesswoman,” Shields said. “If the relationship” — between Shields’ office and the Southwest Journal — “wasn’t good, it wouldn’t have lasted.”

Matt Loskota, an Edina real estate agent who has advertised with Gahan for years, never sat down and quantified his return on investment. But he said he didn’t really need to.

Loskota opened and ran a new Edina realty office in Downtown Minneapolis during the mid-2000s condo boom, advertising in the Southwest Journal’s sister publication, the Downtown Journal. Loskota’s office ran a back-page ad in every issue touting its condo-selling chops, likely earning dozens of listings in the process.

“That page really helped us establish the Downtown office,” he said.

Sebastian Joe's

Unlike some early competitors, Gahan and Hall resisted temptation, and sometimes outright pressure, to install back doors in the Southwest Journal’s editorial wall. When a Chicago-based property developer showed up at the paper’s offices with an ultimatum — kill a pending story about water damage in a newly built Minneapolis condo building or we’ll cancel our $70,000 ad contract — the staff didn’t budge.

But the years saw plenty of benign synergy between the Southwest Journal’s editorial and sales departments. Jonna Kosalko, who handles advertising for Coldwell Banker Realty agents Fran and Barb Davis, remembers a high-profile Lake Harriet listing promoted by the pair. The house was memorable, and some time after it sold, the office wanted to know what became of it. Sure enough, the next Southwest Journal had a feature story about the house being physically relocated off its original lot.

Other “synergies” directly impacted advertisers’ bottom lines. HouseLift co-owner Randy Korn is grateful for the paper’s Remodeler’s Spotlight, a rotating showcase of home service providers serving Southwest Minneapolis. Twice each year, featured contractors got a quarter- or half-page ad and a little blurb about their services. Korn can’t quantify the value of this exposure, but like Shields, he recognized a good investment when he saw one.

The paper’s high-touch sales model also helped keep longtime advertisers like Korn and Shields aboard.

According to Gahan, that model owes a big debt of gratitude to longtime advertiser and now-retired Warners’ Stellian president Jeff Warner. After a few years of “winging it,”

Gahan finally got a meeting with Warner, who was in the middle of turning a small family-owned shop into Minnesota’s largest independent appliance retailer.

“Every salesperson in five states was trying to talk to Jeff, but he let me pitch him,” Gahan recalled.

Impressed with the emerging strength of the paper’s brand, Warner bought some ad space. More importantly, he became a mentor of sorts to Gahan, dispensing unvarnished advice born of countless sales meetings. “Jeff taught me more about what I do than anybody,” Gahan said. “Now I consider him a great friend.” Warner’s early guidance matured into a sales process that endured for a quarter century. The key, according to longtime advertisers, was above-and-beyond service that only improved when Gahan’s daughter Zoe — the Waldorf school a distant memory — took over as general manager.

“They were not just sitting back and letting the contract go,” Shields said. Someone on the sales team would call Shields multiple times throughout the year to make sure she remained satisfied with the ads and suggest tweaks. For a busy real estate agent “up to my eyeballs in deals and paperwork,” that was no small thing.

“They were my creative department,” Shields said.

And the model was reciprocal. A hallmark of Korn’s relationship with Southwest Journal was the ad team’s receptiveness to change requests, which for Korn was a welcome contrast with the more corporate, transactional “shopper” magazines that dominated Minneapolis newsstands for years.

“I’d call my rep and they’d say, ‘Tell me what you want to change.’ I’d tell them, and they’d approve it, basically,” he said.

The past few years have been devastating for print media in general and independently run local papers in particular. For many publications, the pandemic was the coup de grace. Weeks after the Southwest Journal announced it was closing, City Pages followed suit.

Longtime Southwest Journal advertisers aren’t sure what to make of the void.

“It was nice to have that signifier in print,” said Molly Broder, who co-owns four Italian eateries in Southwest Minneapolis, referring to her restaurant group’s regular ads in the paper. Though Broder is “inundated with opportunities to advertise digitally,” she sees no obvious online stand-in for the Southwest Journal. For his part, Korn’s print ad spend has dwindled nearly to nothing; Lavender will be the only print publication he’ll keep patronizing. These days, he gets what he needs from local ad blocks on cable channels like HGTV and CNN, reaching about 70,000 households in parts of Southwest Minneapolis and the inner western suburbs. He’s planning a significant push into digital advertising as well.

The paper’s loyal real estate professionals aren’t worried about going out of business without the paper. Still, they openly mourn the loss of a reliable outreach partner that they believe had a stake in their success. Loskota expects to reallocate some adver- tising funds to still-existing community publications like Edina magazine but doesn’t view it as a one-to-one replacement for the Southwest Journal. Shields, who said the Southwest Journal was among her office’s biggest advertising contracts, sees nowhere else offering the same return on investment. “Losing [the Southwest Journal] is  really big deal,” she said. “I knew I’d never get lost in its pages. There just are not too many replacements.”

Even as the ranks of community newspapers dwindle in Minneapolis and around the country, demand for hyperlocal coverage remains lively as ever. The paper, meanwhile, remains up for sale. Perhaps a partial answer to the reallocation question lies with a future owner’s commitment to leveraging the goodwill Gahan and Hall built over the years — with both advertisers and the Southwest Minneapolis community.