Tevlin: A little paper scores one against a big contractor

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 16, 2012 - 7:46 PM

It has one of the coolest newspaper names around, the Timberjay. Its owners backed into journalism after careers in woodsy stuff and knitting. They live off the grid, in a solar-powered cabin in the woods, where they grow their own vegetables, harvest wild rice and shoot game for dinner.

But last week the little newspaper with offices near the edge of the world beat the corporate suits in court, a ruling that could mean the media, and thus the public, will have better access to contracts between the government and businesses that cater to it.

More transparency, more oversight for the public.

It started when Marshall Helmberger, publisher of the Timberjay Newspapers of Tower, Minn, began to notice troubling mistakes and added costs in a $78 million project to build and renovate St. Louis County Schools. As the project proceeded, Helmberger noticed code violations, change orders and simple billing miscues, such as failing to include the cost of rebuilding an exterior wall.

"This was like kindergarten stuff," said Helmberger. "My God, are you kidding me?"

So Helmberger used the Minnesota Data Practices Act to request a copy of the subcontracting agreement between the builder, Johnson Controls of Milwaukee, and Duluth-based Architectural Resources Inc. Johnson refused, claiming the contract contained proprietary secrets.

Most small-town newspapers have neither the money nor the gumption to fight that fight. They are more often resigned to move along and report on the things expected of small-town papers -- that Gladys Kravitz visited the Bundys last week and a good time was had by all.

But the Timberjay has a long history of investigative reporting. The newspaper, which covers the region around Tower and Ely, has won three prestigious Premack Awards, presented by the University of Minnesota for outstanding public affairs journalism.

So they sued. Last week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that government contractors are subject to state open records laws.

Under the guidance of Helmberger and his wife, Jodi Summit, the Timberjay has investigated such topics as the lack of dental care access for the poor, police treatment of a transgender person and foster care issues in St. Louis County.

Helmberger is the first to admit the small staff spends most of its time on traditional news, community events, profiles and meetings, but "the investigative stuff is what really gets my blood boiling."

Helmberger, 51, and Summit moved to Tower in 1984, to a dream home in the woods. Helmberger was a naturalist and planted trees for the Forest Service while his wife did custom knitting. When a previous owner started the Timberjay in 1990, he offered Helmberger a chance to do reporting a few hours a week.

Helmberger found he had a natural curiosity about the world around him, and a knack for getting information. When the owner decided to move, Helmberger and Summit bought the paper. "It was a fluke," he said.

The name Timberjay is another term for the Gray Jay, which is known to thrive in cold, remote places and have an innate curiosity. According to T.S. Roberts' "The Birds of Minnesota," the birds are "a welcome companion among the deserted and desolate surroundings of a northern forest in midwinter."

So is the newspaper.

Today, Helmberger and Summit do reporting as well as sell ads and manage the business. They often cover issues ignored by small-town papers. Most of the investigative stories involve government, rather than local businesses, but the newspaper is more likely to offer equal space to environmental activists than their competitors, who tend to favor such industries as mining.

"I really don't care if U.S. Steel gets mad at me," said Helmberger.

Helmberger and Summit also feel a need to engage in the communities their paper serves. When the school district decided to close the Tower high school and force students to take 26-mile bus rides, Helmberger and his wife led an effort to start a charter school, which will open in September.

Meanwhile, Helmberger will wait to see if the contractors petition the state Supreme Court to hear the case, or fork over the documents. He has no idea whether those documents will reveal any funny business, but the more the company fights it, the more suspicious he is.

"They were treating our board like a bunch of country bumpkins," said Helmberger. "So I said, 'OK, show me the contract.'"

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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