BROOTEN, Minn. – Walking down the hallway of his old high school, Randy Olson knows each person who passes. Teachers, parents, members of this year’s track team. Not just their names but their grandparents’ names, when they graduated, their varsity record back in 1998.
“Have you seen it?” Olson asked senior Weston Gregory, unfolding a copy of the newspaper to reveal a photo Olson took of the tall teen racing at a track meet. Olson smiled and handed it to him. “There’s your copy.”
Then he sped off to snap a few photos of the speech team.
Olson, 37, is the new owner of the Bonanza Valley Voice — which also makes him the weekly newspaper’s new publisher, photographer, reporter, editor, designer, subscription manager and sales representative. Despite concerns about the state of newspapers and small towns, Olson has staked his family’s future on both, convinced that their fates depend on one another.
“We’re fighting to stick around,” he said in a blaring voice that rarely quiets. “We’ve got our boxing gloves on.”
After years of reporting for a nearby paper, in November he stopped by the Voice’s storefront on the main drag of Brooten, pop. 750, to chat with the longtime publisher about work. The publisher suggested he buy the paper, instead. “It was the first time that had ever crossed my mind,” Olson said.
But he immediately liked the idea of immersing himself and his family into a community he knew so well.
“Everyone has a story,” he said. “I want to be at the point where I can tell the story of everyone.”
A few weeks later, Olson owned a newspaper. With an 8-year-old Sony camera slung around his neck and a worn reporter’s notebook sticking out of his pocket, Olson covers as much of this rural pocket of central Minnesota as possible in a dozen pages. If he wants his prom photos to pop, he must cobble together $20 ads to pay for color printing. Then there’s school board news, speech team results, Jaguars games. Parades, antique tractor pulls, lutefisk feeds.
“It’s not glamorous,” he said, “but that’s our towns.”
Piles of newspapers in the Bonanza Valley Voice’s offices tempt Olson from the handwritten lists of tasks taped to every surface of his desk.
He loves to scan their old ads: “I guess we used to have a Hardware Hank.” He checks which business owners they profiled: “She was one of my sister’s best friends. Class of ’97.” He notes the sports stories, adding his own statistics: “This guy, as a senior, finished 32 and 1 … a school record at the time.”
Issues from the late 1980s detail a debate over merging the Belgrade and Brooten high schools. “That’s a story in most of these towns,” he said. “That history... I feed on it. I love it.”
A grocer founded the Bonanza Valley Voice in 1969 after purchasing a market in town. He needed a place to advertise his lutefisk, Olson said, but also believed having a paper was important.
“Back then the paper was 100 times as big a deal — the lifeblood of the town,” Olson said.
A year later, a 20-year-old lithographer named Howard Johnson bought the makeshift paper, eager to leave north Minneapolis and return to a small town. He was given no list of subscribers, “nothing written down,” Johnson said recently. Plus, “people were skeptical when I came because I wasn’t from here.”
So for the first few years, Johnson’s salary from driving a school bus “kept us alive,” he said. By the time he sold to Olson, though, Johnson was making decent money, he said.
A larger newspaper had approached Johnson about buying the Bonanza Valley Voice, but he sold instead to Olson, worried about the company closing the office and comforted by the fact that Olson lives just blocks from it. “He does a lot of hustling,” Johnson said.
In two months, Olson nabbed more than 100 new paid subscribers, bringing the total to 780. It’s now 815. Ads, too, are up. In his first issue of the Voice, printed Jan. 1, Olson told readers that “a website is coming, but it could be a year away.” For now, he puts breaking news on two blogs.
Nationally, fewer people are reading or advertising in newspapers, according to an April report by the Pew Research Center. But readership is still strong in Minnesota’s small towns, a 2013 survey by the Minnesota Newspaper Association showed. In 2005, there were about 370 newspapers in the state. Today, there are 332, said Lisa Hills, the association’s executive director. Most were consolidations in cities that once had two newspapers, she said.
In many cases, a small-town paper is “the only local news really being produced,” she said. “No one else is covering the city council meetings, or the school board meetings … To have a vibrant community, usually the connection is a good newspaper.”
‘That changed everything’
In the first issue, Olson introduced himself: “Raised on a dairy farm in the southern outskirts of the Bonanza Valley, about a stone’s throw from the northwestern corner of Norway Lake, I have never lived more than 48 miles from that farm,” he said. “No need to! Life in the Bonanza Valley is terrific.”
A framed aerial photo of his family’s dairy farm, snow topping the barns, sits in the front of his office. That farm made the front page in January 2005: Olson’s father, who cared for a herd of 46 cows, was gored by his dairy bull and didn’t survive the 25-mile trek to the hospital in Willmar.
“That changed everything,” Olson said.
After studying political science at the University of Minnesota, Morris, Olson ran unsuccessfully for state representative. He worked at a car parts place, mostly to stay in the area. He freelanced for a few small papers, covering the Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa School District’s teams.
But for three seasons after his father’s death, Olson farmed.
“I wasn’t looking to be a dairy farmer,” he said, so they sold to a young family, and Olson jumped into journalism, becoming “the most inexperienced editor in the world” at the paper in nearby Hoffman, , then reporting for the Sauk Centre Herald.
There, he often wrote a dozen stories a week, with little time for his wife and their four children. In the new office, Barbie dolls sit alongside newspapers, a dollhouse in the backroom. His kids accompany him to games, a stroller doubling as a pack for his camera gear. His 10-month-old daughter sleeps on his lap as he blogs via his phone.
“Now I kind of fit in my work between my family time, not the other way around,” Olson said.
On a recent Thursday, Olson ran from the speech team’s practice to his eighth-grader’s game to the opening of a new craft brewery in New London, where he snapped a few photos, pausing to greet a county commissioner.
“He doesn’t quit,” said Julie Reade, a freelance reporter who has covered the City Council for the Voice since 2010. “I don’t even know when he sleeps.”
Olson packs the paper with his stories, “not just sports or obituaries,” she said, drawing new readers. “Honestly, it was really a dying paper, in a way … Since Randy took it over, it has just flourished.”