Reflections on 20 years in publishing

An interview with Southwest Journal founders Janis Hall and Terry Gahan 

The Southwest Journal was born in Janis Hall and Terry Gahan’s Linden Hills home 20 years ago. They would brainstorm story ideas with a small news team at their kitchen table. Since those early days in their publishing careers, they have taken ownership of three other publications — the Downtown Journal,  Minnesota Parent and Minnesota Good Age. Their company, Minnesota Premier Publications, has offices on Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis.

The Southwest Journal has earned many accolades over the years, including the coveted Frank Premack Public Affairs Journalism Award — one of the highest honors for journalism in Minnesota. Hall and Gahan recently spoke about what they’ve learned about the publishing business since founding the Journal in 1990.

SWJ: What initially inspired you to start the Southwest Journal?

Hall: We were living in Linden Hills and there were no [neighborhood] papers there. There was a shopper, but it was kind of a joke. It seemed ironic that here was the best neighborhood in town and there wasn’t a newspaper here. We worked at the staff of the [Whittier] Globe for years so we knew what a good community newspaper was.

Gahan: We thought we could have pretty solid part-time jobs.

 

What has been the most rewarding aspect of publishing the paper over the years?

Hall: It’s kind of a corny answer, but I think of that scene in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ when James Stewart comes into Bedford Falls and realized the impact he’s made on the place. I think there’s real sense of accomplishment to be involved with the community in the way that we have been — and recognizing that we’ve had an impact on a place where we have lived. … I think we’ve had a positive impact.

Gahan: We got involved in the Waldorf schools because we saw an ad in Minnesota Parent before we owned it. It was just a little classified. We had never even heard about Waldorf schools before. … That little local publication had a profound effect on the direction we took with raising our daughter, and then our lives as well. … I think about how many of those types of experiences have happened by our publishing the Southwest Journal. We’ll never know about the little things that happen in peoples’ lives.
It is really rewarding. It feels like every time we publish a Southwest Journal we’re giving back to the community. We could be making widgets somewhere, but we’re making a community paper that also provides us with an income.

 

What has been the most challenging aspect of publishing?

Hall: This really is the most challenging time. It’s always fun to grow a business. … But this has really been difficult to have to let people go and to downsize especially in a time that newspapers are needed more than ever. It’s frustrating to not have the support to be able to do what we’d really like to do. … Who knows what the economy is going to do. Are we still going to be here five to 10 years from now? I don’t know. No one can say that. If the small businesses aren’t around, we’re not going to be around.

Gahan: If we were just not to take into account that this is such a weird time — the Great Recession — the biggest challenge here has been to continually grow the publications to allow the budget to get large enough to be able to provide the kind of staff that we’ve always wanted. When we passed the $1.5 million mark, we knew we could afford two reporters and an editor. … We just kept growing. For me the challenge was always going out to see how far we could push it — what could we really get out of revenue here. We continually kept raising the bar on ourselves, quality wise and budget wise to make these publications really be part of each community that we serve. Janis would raise the bar and then I would have to go sell it. …
We are a reflection of the community because all of those dollars do come from the community. You look at the Southwest Journal today and I would tell you it’s the envy of any community paper — in other words the community is supporting it. The dollars are there.

What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned over the years?

Gahan: Getting advice from other people — not thinking we knew everything. When we would bump into something we didn’t know, the first thing we’d start to do is investigate and ask other people, either an attorney or a consultant, who could help us or at least give us a sounding board. A lot of entrepreneurs pretty much just want to do it themselves. We’ve made our own mistakes, but I think we’ve had a sense of, ‘wow, this is one we really don’t know about, let’s ask for some help.’

Hall: The management stuff has been an area of growth and learning. Really learning how to deal with people, how to motivate people, has been a huge learning experience. You get into it thinking you’re going to have this little part-time job, then in a matter a few years, you’ve got employees to manage. It’s almost like being a parent, you wake up and go, ‘oh man, I’m supposed to be the expert here.’ Coming up to speed on that — talking to other people, reading and taking classes and just trying to immerse ourselves into how we best do that.
We’ve learned a lot — about financial issues, business issues that I never knew anything about it before. That’s really been a wonderful offshoot of this whole process.

What have been some of the keys to the paper’s longevity?

Hall: Hands down it is the reporters and editors — the news that we’ve covered since day one. It’s really thanks to Mark Anderson, our first editor who just had a wonderful nose for stories. He’d send out his reporters and just get wonderful stories right off the bat, and showed us it could be done without spending a fortune. We were covering stories the Star Tribune missed all over the place. I think that’s why the Southwest Journal is as strong as it is to this day because it has really provided that to the community and it’s appreciated and valued.

Gahan: You could say everything that Janis just said about editing and reporting and stick it in a certain community and you’d not be successful. But clearly without that kind of reporting I don’t think you’d be successful either. It’s a combination of things — we’re in an educated market; we’re in a market where people actually read up here in the Upper Midwest. We have a combination of the demographic and a product that’s delivered to the doorstop. It’s free. It’s not encumbered by a lot of things that a daily newspaper is encumbered by — unions, subscriptions. It’s a model that I think is the future of journalism, which is the news is free. The 35,000 circulation is the right number, too. …

What are some of the highlights that stand out from the last 20 years?

Gahan: After four months of publishing, we were monthly at the time, we were looking at revenues that were astronomical. We couldn’t believe it. … We could see right away that we were filling a niche. After about five years of publishing, we were approached to sell the publication. The number they gave us was so low. We looked at them and we said this thing is on the launching pad … and you want to give us just peanuts for it. We declined it.
It went beyond anything we ever dreamed of. After that we began acquiring other publications and we became a publishing company.

Hall: When Linda [Picone] and her team won the Premack a couple years there. That was huge. That was really gratifying and rewarding. It just gave everyone on the staff a huge boost. …

Gahan: The other thing I would say is that we started this thing with no money. There was no investment, no rich uncle, no bank loan. We didn’t really even have the money to publish the first issue. We went out and pre-sold it. To see all of this recognition, as Janis says, within about 10 years, it really was organic.

What are your hopes for the future?

Hall: If I put my dream cap on, I’d love to have an investigative reporter — someone who could just dig. I would love to see what they could come up with. Most papers are laying those guys off and this is the time we need them more than ever. I’d really love to have more depth in our newsroom to really allow people to dig around into stories that might not even go anywhere. That is my dream, to provide the best news coverage we possible can. I don’t see the Star Tribune doing it. I still think there’s a niche for us.
… And stay in business! It would be nice to still be here in 10 years — still doing this. That’s not only up to me.

Gahan: When I look at the future, the things that I would like to have is a really interactive website that the community can participate in and use to share information — for it to be a true platform for each neighborhood. That’s an area where we could do better.

I’m with Janis on the reporting. The last thing we want to see happen is that we’d lose the edge. That’s why we’re still here in this tough economy. All we got to do is get through this economy and having that edge, it’s going to put us in a position to really grow and get back to larger  page counts. The goal is to keep doing what we’re doing — just do more of it and maybe do it better.