Janis Hall, publisher & co-founder, 1990-2020

Janis Hall
Janis Hall

I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has asked me if I edit the stories. So what exactly does the publisher do? The answer is whatever needs to be done. In my years with the Southwest Journal, I’ve written stories, laid out issues, delivered the paper, run payroll, sent out invoices, recorded checks, hired employees, fired employees, reviewed countless pages, argued with advertisers, fielded reader complaints, taken out the trash — and the list goes on. I was even tech support for our company for many years.

I graduated from the U of M in 1987 with a degree in technical communications and planned on a career of writing computer manuals. When the Apple Macintosh came out I bought one as quickly as I could. But the purchase that made the difference in my life was a $5,000 Apple LaserWriter (which I still have – the damn thing weighs 80 pounds). That technology put the task of desktop publishing into everyone’s hands. I started up a small business to produce business cards and brochures, got hired by the Whittier Globe to produce page galleys and never looked back.

Terry Gahan and I moved into a duplex in Linden Hills in 1988 and quickly realized that the neighborhood didn’t have a newspaper. We started planning to publish one with Terry in sales, me in tech and typesetting, Mark Anderson (from the Globe) as editor and Paula Keller as photographer. We published our first issue in January 1990.

The first issue
The first issue

Terry and I agreed that I should have the title of publisher and have the final word, because Terry sold the ads and we didn’t want that to influence our decisions. As it happened, we never disagreed on the big issues. We never ran print ads or stickers on the front page and we never published “sponsored content.” The two of us filled positions until we could afford to hire for them. Terry delivered the paper and I typeset it.

Our daughter Zoe, who was born in 1991, grew up with the paper. When she was 3, she loved the rolling waxer that applied hot, sticky gunk to the back of white paper. Zoe loved nothing better than sitting up on the layout counter, gluing sticky paper to everything in sight, while we waxed down the actual pages on huge paste-up boards. Zoe’s first Southwest Journal appearance was on the front page of the Dec. 11, 1996, issue, with her teacher.

In 1994, we took the news staff on a retreat to Bluefin Bay on Lake Superior, where we created the Southwest Journal’s mission statement:

Our company exists to serve our community with integrity by producing a reliable, professional newspaper, Southwest Journal. We are committed to fairness, teamwork, and openness to new ideas.

On the last day of the retreat, we were sitting in the living room enjoying the morning sun, when a workman ran up and yelled, “Get out, there’s a fire!” A welder, who was heating up frozen pipes, set a fire in the adjacent townhouse. We scrambled to get our suitcases and run out of there, but we left one important object behind. I discovered the lack of it when we unpacked at home. We had left Zoe’s favorite blanket. I jumped in the car and went into Dayton’s in a panic. Thank goodness they had the same yellow and blue blanket! I got home and washed it a few times. I held my breath as Zoe climbed into bed with her imposter blanket. She didn’t suspect anything, and I didn’t tell her the real story for about 20 years.

Mark Engebretson, Mark Anderson, Janis Hall and Cynthia Scott
Mark Engebretson, Mark Anderson, Janis Hall and Cynthia Scott after fleeing the fire at Bluefin Bay that occurred on the last day of their 1994 retreat.

The Southwest Journal was a hit. We were printing 80-page issues once a month and giving a lot of our income to the printer. In 1995, Terry and I took a retreat to Lake Pepin to talk about the business and came back with a plan to double both the frequency and ad prices. We were concerned about losing advertisers, but every one of them stuck with us. The additional money allowed us to hire additional staff and a consultant, Donn Poll, who helped us redesign the paper.

We had expected Donn to advise us about fonts and ways to improve our photos, but he changed how we thought about the paper. He created a list of categories from City Hall to churches – all of the entities that affected the lives of people in Southwest. We used that list to track the stories in each issue to ensure that we covered each category at least once every six issues. Now we had a way to gauge the success of our coverage and make sure we weren’t missing anything.

Janis and Terry

In 1997, we bought our first office building at 31st & Lyndale and maxed it out within a few months. We were up to four or five reporters, two editors, four salespeople, three designers and a photographer, plus Terry, me, numerous freelancers, several dogs and Zoe running around. We were lucky to have our own parking lot.

Linda Picone came to us from the Star Tribune in 1998. She brought a level of professionalism that we had never experienced. Linda assembled an outstanding team of reporters and broadened our coverage to larger issues of race and inner-city poverty.

Over the next six years, Southwest Journal editorial staff would win four Premack awards — the most important journalism award given to Minneapolis newspapers. In 1998, Martiga Lohn won for her story “Painting the town.” In 2000 and 2001 the editorial staff won for special sections on affordable housing and racial issues. In 2003, reporter Scott Russell won for several stories he wrote about Minneapolis city pensions.

The newspaper was thriving, but we were experiencing growing pains. I was a tech person who had become a manager, a job I wasn’t especially good at. We experienced a nearly complete turnover of our staff and Terry and I just had to hang on and keep going.

Janis and Terry

In September 2001, David Brauer came on as the editor of our newly purchased Skyway News. The Star Tribune ran a story about our expansion in the Sept. 10 edition. The next day, the world changed, and we were all reminded of the importance of newspapers.

David brought a fine ear for news and a network of contacts from his days at the Twin Cities Reader. David became editor of both publications and assembled his own team of outstanding writers, whom he led to win numerous awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.

David was editor during the Downtown condo boom, when buyers lined up for the chance to purchase condominiums at opening prices, then quickly flipped them for thousands more. Advertisers were running in the door with money and we tried to keep up, hiring more people for customer service and graphic design.

Those were heady times for our company. In 2003, we purchased a building at 11th & Hennepin in Downtown Minneapolis. We bought two magazines — Minnesota Parent in 2004 and Minnesota Good Age in 2005. With a staff of 30-plus and an annual budget approaching $5 million, we boomed along with the rest of the country. But by the end of 2008, the condo bubble burst and our sales began a long, steady decline.

In 2006, we hired Chris Damlo, who quickly took over tech duties and went on to build a database system for our company that runs to this day, tracking ad sales, distribution, editorial, production and billing. It’s an amazing achievement and has allowed us to streamline every aspect of running our business.

Sarah McKenzie stepped into the role of editor after David Brauer left, and she led her team of reporters through the most stable period of our 31-year history. We all loved Sarah and her quiet competence. Sarah led her team on to win numerous awards and was in the editor’s chair when the Intestate 35W bridge fell blocks from our Downtown office, and every staff reporter went running toward the story.

After completing college and taking a dream trip, Zoe called from South America and said she wanted to come back and take over newspaper operations. But newspaper advertising and readership were already on the decline. The three of us worked together for the next several years, but sales were falling and Zoe’s dream of growing the paper didn’t happen. She left day-to-day operations in May 2020, after COVID-19 hit and sales fell even further. She’s in Alaska these days, working on fishing boats and waking up to a view of the mountains.

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

One of the joys of owning the Southwest Journal has been watching talented writers come through. It used to be that we’d hire a hotshot reporter, who would do outstanding work for a year or so, then get hired away by one of the many great Twin Cities publications. It was sad to lose great reporters, but we were always happy to see them further their careers. Now, almost all local publications are gone and there are few places for reporters to earn a living.

Like every other business, our 2020 sales have been impacted by the pandemic. We considered continuing to publish, but the sales just aren’t there. Times have changed and fewer people rely on print for their news. There’s so much competition for every ad dollar and we can’t compete with Google and Facebook. In October of this year, we made the wrenching decision to cut our last two reporters, Nate Gotlieb and Andrew Hazzard. For the first time in our 31-year history, we do not employ full-time reporters in our newsroom.

As the owner, I could not be more proud of my life’s work. Terry and I have been behind the scenes of the Southwest Journal for all these years, doing whatever needed to be done. Now it’s time for us to rest. Thank you to everyone who has created and celebrated the Southwest Journal. We hope that a new leader steps forward to cheer on the salespeople, designers, editors, reporters and delivery folks who make community journalism happen.