Sometimes it takes fear of losing something before you can really appreciate it.
For readers of the Hill & Lake Press, that fear came in October, when the 43-year-old community newspaper’s editor Jean Deatrick put a note on the front page letting readers know the monthly paper was struggling financially and that it would need help to continue.
The Hill & Lake Press (HLP) covers the neighborhoods of Cedar-Isles-Dean, East Isles, Kenwood and Lowry Hill, offering news coverage and opinions and publishing meeting minutes and local notices. Like many small newspapers today, HLP is currently embattled, with fewer staff writers and a smaller budget than in its heyday.
“The question is, in this day and age, is a print newspaper still of value to the people in this community?” said Michael Wilson, an HLP contributor and local historian.
‘They had fun’
The Hill & Lake Press began publishing in 1976 as a paper for East Isles and Lowry Hill. Kenwood joined in the first few months, and by 1979, the paper included Cedar-Isles-Dean, according to a history compiled by Wilson for the paper’s 40th anniversary in 2016.
The 1970s were a boom era for neighborhood newspapers. In 1978, there were 37 neighborhood papers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to a University of Minnesota journalism and mass communications study.
At that time, Wilson said, putting out the HLP was a true community effort. People would gather at the home of the managing editor, a position that used to be rotated among the neighborhoods, to edit and lay out the press. Drinks were served. Most people involved were young professionals with families who wanted to highlight local news.
“They had fun,” Wilson said.
The paper ran joke issues and kids’ issues and tracked local development projects. It’s been following the Southwest Light Rail Transit project since the 1980s. Jerry Van Amerongen, a retired syndicated cartoonist whose “The Neighborhood” series ran nationally in the ’80s, got his start in the HLP. The Mondale family lived in the area, and when Walter Mondale was serving as ambassador to Japan in the 1990s, his wife, Jean, sent back dispatches that were published in the Hill & Lake Press. She later compiled those articles into a book called “Letters from Japan.”
End of an era
Deatrick came on board in the ’90s as the advertising manager and an occasional writer. The paper was coming to a crossroads, with several longtime contributors moving away or retiring. When the Southwest Journal launched in 1990, initially centering on Linden Hills, some at the HLP wanted to compete with the new paper, Deatrick recalled, but the paper opted against it.
By 2002, a group of longtime paper staffers wanted to take the rest of the money, throw a party and shut it down, Deatrick said.
But she didn’t want to do that. She and others said no, and Deatrick took over as managing editor. It was too important to let die.
“There’s a great sense of value in knowing what’s going on in the neighborhood,”Deatrick said.
Many neighborhood papers are gone now. The Longfellow Nokomis Messenger and The Alley Newspaper in Phillips still run in South Minneapolis. The Camden Community News covers Northside neighborhoods. In 2018, the Bryant, Central and Lyndale neighborhoods banded together to begin publishing a new newspaper, Voces de Central, which prints in English and Spanish.
When Deatrick took over, she homed in on the original mission of the paper: providing quality coverage of issues that matter to the four neighborhoods.
“It has been Jean who has kept this paper going since 2002,” Wilson said.
Deatrick is starting to think about retiring from the paper. She and her husband spend some time in Florida in the winter and she thinks the paper could use a new perspective. Someone offered to take it over a couple years ago, and she sometimes wishes she let them.
“It’s probably time for me to step back,” she said.
She has the same issues many editors do. There are a lot of moving parts. Contributors sometimes submit stories late or write too long.
It costs $4,500 to produce 6,000 copies of a 12-page issue of the HLP, Deatrick said. The full 16 pages it regularly published before scaling back last year cost about $1,000 more. The smaller space is cheaper, but it forces her to cram in stories and ads. They switched printing companies this year, which has brought a cost savings. The paper also receives funding from the four neighborhood organizations
Since 2005, Deatrick has been paid $800 per issue. The only paid contributor is longtime photographer Dorothy Childers, who gets $100 per issue.
The paper has loyal advertisers, she said, but she doesn’t have time to go out and sell ads like she used to. For the last few years, her daughter, Heather Deatrick, has served as the business manager.
After Jean Deatrick’s October article about the paper’s struggles, many people responded by opening up their wallets and their hearts — their donations accompanied by handwritten notes detailing memories of the paper. Deatrick was surprised and touched by the response and said the donations have been sufficient to keep the paper going.
“We’re not going to go under,” she said.
Correction: A previous edition of this article misstated the year the Hill & Lake Press switched printing companies. The paper changed printing firms this year.