After Janis Hall and I moved to Minnesota in 1982 from San Francisco, I was working as a dishwasher at Broders’ and jobbing as a musician when someone mentioned that our community paper at the time, the Whittier Globe, needed a delivery person. For the next six years, I became the Globe’s delivery driver and gradually took on the sales and collections tasks, while Janis typeset the Globe pages on our Apple laser printer.
When Janis and I moved to Linden Hills in 1988, we realized the neighborhood really needed a news- paper. So after a year of planning we started the Southwest Journal in our home at 39th & Sheridan. Once again, I took on the role of delivery driver until we could afford to hire delivery folks.
Our first issue in January 1990 generated enough cash to pay for itself. We skipped February, and the March 1990 issue revenues doubled. We were on our way.
Within four years we were publishing 80-page newspapers once a month. It was like delivering a phone book. We changed our publishing schedule to every other week and by 1995 we had a solid little business. We moved operations out of our home to an office at 49th & Washburn and never looked back.
I remember the second issue of the Southwest Journal especially well. We had purchased a rusted-out, baby blue Ford van to do the deliveries. We had our name painted on the side and drove to Shakopee to pick up the papers from the printer. I drove the van, fully loaded, over the Old Shakopee Road, when the load shifted on a turn and I was two wheels on the ground and two in the air. It was not smart to put a ton of newsprint in a half-ton van.
We finally hired a distribution company and used them until we received a call from a Southwest resident informing us that two of our delivery folks were passed out on their front lawn. The distribution service we had hired was employing some questionable folks. We fired the company and brought distri- bution in-house, hiring a manager, who created routes and managed our delivery drivers. It was an expensive model, but it has served us well for all of these years.
I’ve also been the sales manager since the paper began and eventually developed a series of video training lessons because the turnover was so high. Over the years, we developed a list of advertisers who had real success advertising with us.
One day in the early 1990s, a young guy pulled up in a pickup with a lawn mower in the back. He was covered with grass clippings when he came in to ask about advertising. We started running small classi- fied ads for him. He got great results and wanted to run bigger ads. Based on the success of his ads with us, he hired a crew and bought a couple of trucks and decided to run some inserts. He now runs a $4 million to $5 million per year operation in the Twin Cities. We provided that kind of opportunity for a lot of small businesses.
Janis just heard from our gardener that she was upset at the closing of the Southwest Journal because she gets all of her customers from it.
For many local businesses, the Southwest Journal was their entire marketing plan. Our circulation area was large enough that a business could focus on the Southwest area, which was good for Southwest residents.
Our strongest sales category has been home improvement. In April 1990, a guy called in and wanted to run a half-page ad. We agreed to run it for $300. I called him the next month and he said he didn’t get any calls from the ad. We learned from that mistake, and from that point on, we helped advertisers develop a budget to help them get results. We trained our ad salespeople to sell $50 ads for six times. We figured out that if we spent the advertiser’s money as if it were our own, they usually got good results.
My experience at the newspaper has given me a sense of community in Southwest, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of it. We happened to start the paper around the time the city launched the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), helping to fund neighborhood programs and improvements. Neighborhood groups were forming to take advantage of the money that was available from the city. Residents from one area were interested in the news about other neighborhoods and the paper enjoyed a great readership right from the start.
It wasn’t all positive at the beginning. As the Southwest Journal expanded into more neighborhoods, we became a choice for advertisers over the existing, smaller papers. We decided to expand the circulation into the Uptown area and asked to introduce ourselves at the East Calhoun Community Organization. A reporter from the ECCO, the area’s newspaper, wrote a scathing piece on us, explaining that ECCO residents already had a newspaper and quoted one resident as saying, “The Southwest Journal is too much to read.” The article was accompanied by a large illustration depicting us as a shark with dollar-sign eyes eating up a smaller fish below the headline, “Residents Tell Southwest Journal ‘We Don’t Want You Here.’” We expanded into East Calhoun anyway.
Janis and I were always aware of the conflict between advertising and reporting. It was very common for new advertisers to try to link a story (written by us) to an advertising contract. Now we call those agreements “sponsored content.” No matter what you call it, we never crossed that line between advertising and journalism.
We didn’t even buckle when a developer from Chicago flew in and threatened to pull a $70,000 advertising contract if we published a story about their condominium development having water leakage problems. A resident had reached out to one of our reporters, the reporter got the story and reached out to the developer for a comment and the developer came straight to us to kill the story. After meeting with our editor, we stood behind the story and suggested the developer write a letter to the editor if they disagreed with the story. In the end the story ran and the developer didn’t pull the ads. About a year later the Star Tribune got the same story from the same resident. Soon afterward, a 10-year warranty requirement was put in place on all new condo developments, which is one reason so many developers started building apartments instead.
I am grateful for the opportunity I have had to work with a dedicated group of reporters, editors, sales folks, admin staff and delivery people. Together we had a great run of 31 years.
It has been my privilege to work directly with hundreds of small business owners who spent their hard-earned money with us to support the Southwest Journal. Without their commitment to advertising we would never have had a chance. With it we were able to produce the best community newspaper in Minnesota and quite possibly the country. Thank you to all of those advertisers for giving us the chance of a lifetime.
Finally, it has been the readers of the Southwest Journal who made our model of community journalism work. When a readership supports local businesses, everybody wins. Our local businesses are a big part of what makes Southwest a great place to live and I for one will continue to support them.
As for the future, I plan to spend my retirement in the recording studio writing songs and performing around the area when the pandemic lifts. My band’s name is Terry Hughes Music and my website is terryhughesmusic.com. In between sessions you will find me on the golf courses around the Twin Cities.