When the readers living in small Minnesota and Wisconsin towns opened their weekly newspaper, Robert Lee Bradford II wanted to make sure they could find themselves.
They could read stories about who scored the game-winning touchdown during the high school football game alongside recaps of the City Council meeting and the goings-on along Main Street. Their lives — and those of their neighbors — were charted in the announcements about births and deaths, marriages and divorces and sometimes, the local crime log. They counted on the local paper to be the community watchdog that held public officials accountable.
Bradford, a onetime reporter and longtime newspaper owner, believed weeklies were a vital link to keeping small towns connected.
“He felt they were the heart, the pulse of those small towns,” said his younger brother Curt, a longtime attorney in Hutchinson. “It was the town crier.”
Bradford, who died in August in Minneapolis at age 80, owned 17 weeklies across Minnesota and Wisconsin before retiring in 1998. “Newspapering was in his blood,” his brother said.
As a teen, Bradford worked for his father, who owned the Moose Lake Star Gazette, learning nearly every facet of the newspaper business. After graduating from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks with a journalism degree, he went to work as a reporter at the Austin Daily Herald. Eventually, he returned to work for his father in Moose Lake and later took over as publisher and owner.
Over the years, Bradford set his sights on other papers, selling some and buying others all while making sure they were as good as they could be. The man who would rather wear a tweed sport coat than jeans as a college student was fastidious about how his papers looked, taking his light-blue pencil to the pages that would soon be printed, correcting mistakes and improving headlines, said Rich Kleber, Bradford’s son-in-law. “He hated mistakes,” Kleber added.
After buying the Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch in 1981, he “kept adding one paper pretty much every year for the next 12 to 13 years,” said Kleber, who worked in the family newspaper business dubbed Mainstream Publications because many of the towns ran along the Minnesota River.
The business also spoke to Bradford’s entrepreneurial spirit, which first emerged when, as an 8-year-old, he displayed the moxie to get a permit from the city to open a lake concession stand — a cooler that he bought and stocked with pop, water and frozen candy bars. “Instead of playing with the other kids, he sold frozen candy bars,” said his daughter, Elizabeth Kleber, of Edina.
When Bradford began acquiring newspapers in the 1980s, it was a business that was profitable, said his son-in-law.
“It was kind of the golden age of newspapering,” said Mark Beito, former publisher of the Sleepy Eye paper. “Back then, there was no internet, no Google, no Craigslist. So the traditional ways of making money at a newspaper were all still working.”
But the internet and large retailers in regional centers put a major dent in revenue.
“When I came to Sleepy Eye, every building on Main Street had a business in it and they were potential advertisers. Now retail here is more limited. You used to have two or three grocery stores; now you’re lucky if you have one,” Beito said. “It’s just different now.”
Along with his daughter and brother, survivors include his wife, Betsy, of Minneapolis and Fort Lauderdale; sons, Robert III of Minneapolis and Justin of Bloomington; and three grandchildren. Services have been held.