Zoe Gahan, general manager, 2017-2020

Zoe Gahan
Zoe Gahan

It is a frequent and innocent question, and one we’ve all received at our respective jobs: “So, how long have you been with the Southwest Journal?”

After all these years, I’ve never quite figured out how to answer that question.

My parents Janis and Terry started the paper in their basement in 1990, a year before I was born. I grew up in a home with newspapers — our family’s, the Star Tribune and the Sunday New York Times — strewn across the breakfast table. From a young age, afternoons were spent at the Southwest Journal’s first office on 50th & Washburn, cutting and pasting my own mini newspapers on the wax and light tables. Yes, that’s the original cut and paste. I joined my father on sales calls, standing by quietly while the details were negotiated, fascinated at the behind-the-scenes activities of whichever restaurant, HVAC company or landscaping company we happened to be meeting with that day. The post-meeting rundown that followed in my dad’s car was full of wisdom on negotiation and sales tactics. Most of it went over my head. My dad still harps on me when I don’t negotiate hard enough.

Zoe’s first news story
In Zoe’s first news story, which she published at age 7, she reported on a bad, bad day.

I entered young adulthood having been steeped in my parents’ discussions of running a small business. Contracting a third-party distribution company alleviated a bottleneck in their small operation and gave them a chance to let someone else do the heavy lifting. But the subsequent phone call — “Excuse me, but I found a dozen bundles of your paper floating in Lake Harriet” — meant it was time to rethink and plot a new course. I saw that running a small business was a constant rollercoaster of action and reaction; taking the best shot and adjusting when it fell short or missed the mark. My parents worked as a team and held on through it all. I’m sure some of those periods felt more akin to being strapped to the front of the rollercoaster than to riding safely in it.

But the paper never missed a deadline and arrived on doorsteps, brimming with ads and valuable local news coverage. The readers and advertisers were happy and never saw the behind-the-scenes triumphs and tribulations.

Zoe on the cover of a 1996 issue
Zoe on the cover of a 1996 issue

I learned that the readers and advertisers were happy when I took the position at the front desk of the paper during the summers of my high school years. I fielded calls from advertisers frantic to get in touch with their sales rep: “Can we increase our ad size and extend our contract? We’re getting a great response and don’t want to miss the next issue.” I took messages for our reporters when readers called in to thank them for shedding light on a pressing issue in their neighborhood, or for stories that rekindled cherished memories of their youth in the City of Lakes. Years later, while working full time as the client services administrator, advertisers would do a double-take at my name and exclaim, “I remember when you were this tall! We’ve been advertising with your parents since you were in diapers!” Embarrassing, sure, but I really did enjoy those years at the Southwest Journal.

After some time away from the paper after college, during which I traveled and worked out of the country, I found myself mulling over the future of the family business. At the heart of all those discussions I had overheard at the dinner table years ago was the underlying principle that honest journalism is the cornerstone of a functioning society. “Thank god for reporters,” my mother always said when
a big story broke. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to help navigate the paper, our paper, to its next stage. I called my parents from a train in Argentina and told them I would take the open general management position that they had offered.

My parents and I worked closely together for the next three years, and I got a crash course in managing a business, managing people and managing the unexpected. I built on the lessons my parents had knowingly or unknowingly taught me, and we shared laughter, joy, tears and pride, all strapped to that rollercoaster together. I recall we spent one morning on final preparations for a difficult and long-planned meeting with an employee, only to have a fireman stride up the steps of our downtown office building, yelling, “Everyone out! There’s a gas leak next door; you all need to get two blocks away now!”

As general manager, I spent evenings researching new models of journalism for the digital age, conjuring big visions for the future of our small paper. I developed new methods to measure our success and made a hell of a lot of spreadsheets. It was intimidating to lead such a talented team of reporters, designers, salespeople and delivery personnel, many of whom had known me as a surly teenager with a mohawk. I saw countless examples of the paper’s importance to our community during conversations with advertisers and readers. The paper meant something to each of them, and they saw themselves and their community reflected in its pages. Even disagreements or conflicts about the paper’s ad or editorial content showed me that readers paid attention to what was printed in those pages.

Despite our best efforts, a talented team and all those spreadsheets, our sales continued to decline. A small business is nimble but also fragile. As revenues declined, so did our budget. And a shrinking budget made large-scale transformations to our business model seem further and further out of reach. A poten- tial purchase of the paper by someone we hoped could invest in a game-changing transformation fell through amid the pandemic, and the way forward became less clear. And after 30 years of leading the charge, my parents were ready to retire.

I decided that my future was not in management or publishing. I made the decision to depart the company this May and return to Alaska, where I fish and don’t make nearly as many spreadsheets. It was a formative experience to help nurture the business my parents began and manage the team that got an award-winning paper out the door. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity and the trust of my parents and our employees from whom I learned so much.

Zoe on a Boat

The phrase “high-quality, hyperlocal journalism” might sound like buzzwords used in sales pitches or lofty conversations about the virtues of a free press, but my family lived those words. We have countless stories that we tell at the dinner table, rehashing the hilarity of the unexpected moments, the excitement of our new ideas, the despair of a well-made plan deteriorating. High-quality, hyperlocal journalism is messy, fun, unpredictable, difficult and rewarding. It is ultimately produced through the hard work of many people, each with their own collection of stories. The union of all those stories and experiences is what made the Southwest Journal the gem that it is.

So, I guess the answer to the question is that I’ve been with the Southwest Journal since the beginning and just about to its end. And I still hope that a new generation of savvy and tenacious journalists and business owners will carry the community journalism torch in some form or another. As Henry Ward Beecher said, “The newspaper is a greater treasure to the people than uncounted millions of gold.” This paper has provided incalculable value to our community for three decades, and it will be greatly missed. Thank you to everyone who made it possible.