A family newspaper for three decades

After 30 years, Southwest Journal’s publishers still believe journalism’s future is local

Southwest Journal publishers Terry Gahan and Janis Hall and their daughter and general manager, Zoe Gahan, are celebrating the paper's 30th anniversary this year. Photo courtesy of Tracy Walsh Photography

In 1989, Janis Hall, Terry Gahan and a team of writers and photographers brainstormed stories for the first edition of their community newspaper, the Southwest Journal.

They had “no money,” Gahan said, and no product to show potential advertisers. To sell them the concept, Gahan pasted the nameplate of their new paper onto another community paper, the Whittier Globe.

After getting 30 days credit from their printer, Gahan and Hall published a 12-page newspaper with nine bylined articles and advertisements from local businesses like Broders’ Cucina Italiana and Sebastian Joe’s.

Thirty years and hundreds of issues later, Hall, 60, and Gahan, 64, are still publishing the paper. The business has become a family affair, with their daughter, Zoe Gahan, 28, serving as general manager since late 2017.

While revenue has declined since the mid-2000s and they have been forced to scale back their Minneapolis coverage, Gahan and Hall said they still believe in the value of the Southwest Journal, which is delivered free to over 28,000 Southwest Minneapolis households every two weeks. Another 4,000 copies are distributed through 135 news racks.

“The future of journalism looks like this,” Terry Gahan said. “It’s not Afghanistan and Iran stories, but it’s Mrs. Smith’s 100-year-old oak tree getting cut down. … [While] it’d be hard to start [a community newspaper] right now, this is what the model looks like.”

In this photo taken in 2010, around the time of the Southwest Journal’s 20th anniversary, publishers Janis Hall and Terry Gahan walk their dogs Emmet Ray and Django Reinhardt.

Ups and downs

Gahan and Hall, both from California, said they never meant to get into the newspaper business.

In the early 1980s, they moved to Minneapolis, where Hall studied technical writing at the University of Minnesota and Gahan was a musician. They also operated a typesetting business. “That’s where we really became aware of the community press,” Hall said.

Sometime after the move, Gahan and Hall began working at the nonprofit Whittier Globe, a monthly paper. Hall wrote a column, among other roles. Gahan delivered the paper and sold ads. They also sat on the paper’s board.

Hall said she became increasingly fascinated by the inner workings of the newspaper business. Then in 1989, she and Gahan prepared to purchase a house in Linden Hills. The neighborhood had a monthly publication that printed coupons and ran a regular historical feature, but Gahan said he saw a potential market for a dedicated local news source.

Gahan and Hall recruited Whittier Globe editor Mark Anderson and his wife, photographer Paula Keller, to help them put out the new paper, which debuted in January 1990. After the 12-page first issue, the second issue, published in March 1990, had about twice as much ad space and ran 20 pages. The third issue, in April 1990, was 24 pages.

By the time Gahan and Hall published their 10th issue, in November 1990, they were printing 40 pages. Their coverage area had expanded past its original borders of 36th Street, Minnehaha Parkway and France and Nicollet avenues and into the Armatage, Kenny and Windom neighborhoods.

“We were surprised at how successful it became pretty quickly,” Hall said.

Throughout the 1990s, the paper grew in terms of staff size, coverage area and circulation. In 1993, it moved out of Hall and Gahan’s home and into the first of three offices. In 1995, it began publishing every two weeks. In 1997, it won the first of four Frank Premack Awards for public affairs reporting.

Anderson, who was editor through 1999, said the paper filled a perceived gap in coverage of news in the area.

“At that time, there was kind of a feeling that the two [daily newspapers] were following their readers to the suburbs and weren’t really focused on news in the cities,” he said.

By 2000, the Southwest Journal had four staff writers and covered all of Southwest Minneapolis, plus Bryn Mawr and a portion of Downtown. About 50,000 copies were distributed every two weeks.

In 2001, Gahan and Hall took over operation of the Skyway News, a community paper covering Downtown. Two years later, they purchased and moved their company into a 14,000-square-foot office building on the western edge of Downtown. They bought Minnesota Good Age and Minnesota Parent in 2004, Gahan said, and in 2005 changed the name of the Skyway News to the Downtown Journal (the name changed again in 2010, to The Journal, when it expanded its coverage to Northeast Minneapolis).

At its peak, Hall said, Minnesota Premier Publications (MPP) had 30 employees and annual revenue approaching $5 million. But like many publishing companies challenged by decreasing ad revenue and the Great Recession, it has seen revenue decline in recent years and has made staffing cuts. 

 Nowadays, Hall said, MPP has a staff of 13 and annual revenue around $2.2 million. For the Southwest Journal, a full-time editor and two full-time reporters (including the author of this story) are based in the company’s Downtown office and write about schools, parks, business, politics, development and the arts. More than a dozen columnists and freelancers cover everything from architecture and restaurants to pets and farmers markets.

A proofreader, an in-house designer, ad salespeople and client services staff work behind the scenes.

Hall said the company had a “really good 2018” but that 2019 “was not so great.” “We had to scramble a little bit to get expenses to meet revenue,” she said.

Zoe Gahan said it can be a challenge to get advertisers to see the value of print, especially when they need to spread their dollars over digital platforms. “You’re fighting perception a lot,” she said.

Matt Perry, longtime president of the Southwest Business Association, said placing an ad in the paper is “making a statement that you are part of the community.”

Terry Gahan seemed to agree.

“People in the community recognize advertisers who support the community,” he said. “They want to show their patronage to community advertisers.”

‘Fighting tooth and nail’

The Southwest Journal is in select company among Twin Cities community papers by simply surviving into the 2020s, according to St. Paul-based journalist Jane McClure, who has written for community papers for almost 50 years and edits Access Press, a statewide paper for people with disabilities.

At one point, McClure said, there were probably 40 community papers in Minneapolis and St. Paul proper. Nowadays, there are maybe a dozen. The local Neighborhood and Community Press Association hasn’t existed for years.

McClure said many of the community papers started in the 1970s in the era of urban renewal.

Most of the papers were nonprofits, she said, and a lot were run by volunteers.

McClure called the Southwest Journal “one of the great neighborhood papers” and said it has done a good job localizing stories out of Minneapolis City Hall over the years.

“There’s always been this strong commitment to quality community journalism and to covering the stories that other people don’t cover,” she said.

She also said the paper has benefited from stable businesses and a readership that seems to do a good job of supporting them.

Anderson, the inaugural editor, said Gahan and Hall were willing to invest in improving the paper and in paying reporters higher-than-usual salaries for a community paper.

Hall said they’ve been “fighting tooth and nail” to keep their existing reporting staff levels.

She said the paper includes more freelance work than ever but that she and Gahan recognize the importance of a paid newsroom staff.

“We owe everything to the newsroom,” she said. “Without the editors we’ve had [and] the reporters we’ve had, we would not be here.” 

‘Why we’re still here’

Despite the challenges, the Hall/Gahan family appears optimistic about their company’s future. Hall said she’s happy her daughter, Zoe, has taken on the general manager role, after years of working on and off at the company.

“I just had complete confidence in her,” Hall said. “I knew she was going to do well.”

Zoe Gahan said the job has been “the biggest learning experience of my life so far.” She said she and her parents are “very different people” and that “the three of us work well together” when they get along, which is “most of the time.”

“We each bring a really solid anchor to this three-sided component,” she said.

One of the first big decisions she helped make was to close The Journal, which had been published since 1970. Fifteen months later, she and Hall said it was the right call.

“The writing had been on the wall for a long time,” Gahan said. “We were producing a paper that I don’t think the community as a whole wanted. … There wasn’t enough of a groundswell from the community members and advertisers to make it work.”

Gahan said she’d like to see the paper continue its current local focus on the schools, parks, people, neighborhoods and issues of Southwest Minneapolis. She and Hall said they’re pleased with how the paper has looked under new editor Zac Farber, who started in 2019.

Hall and Terry Gahan said they plan to retire someday but don’t have a timeline for it. They plan to sell the building, which has annual property taxes approaching $72,000, though they don’t have a timeline. “We’re knocking on wood as we speak,” Hall said.

They said they’re proud of the publication they’ve created and that community journalism has been a rewarding way to earn a living.

“We’ve created something that has value to our community, that is responsible and done with a lot of integrity,” Terry Gahan said. “I think that’s why it’s still here.”