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Anamosa weekly newspaper buyers upbeat on the industry

Dave DeWitte, CR Gazette –

Jim and Bridget Johnson may have had worries about buying the weekly newspaper in the Jones County seat of Anamosa, but the uncertain fate of newspapers was not one of them.

The Johnsons published their first edition of the Anamosa Journal-Eureka on April 5 after buying the 2,300-circulation newspaper and its 8,800-circulation free circulation shopper from Wisconsin-based News Publishing Inc.

Newspapers across the country have struggled with a weak economy and an explosion in advertising channels, from social media to Groupon. Community newspapers, which serve smaller towns and suburbs, have managed to buck the trend.

Weekly newspapers still tell the story of life in smaller cities that isn’t told anywhere else, said Jim, 54, a career newspaper man who began as a photojournalist last served as news service director for the World Herald Company’s chain of 25 community newspapers. He said the business is still a good one.

“The newspaper is so much a part of the fabric of the community,” Jim said — the Little League teams, the births, the weddings — the things big newspapers ignore.”

Because they are often the only media outlet providing local coverage, the smaller newspapers can still attract advertisers in the age of the Internet, he added.

The Johnsons retained the existing newspaper staff of five full and part-timers. They announced plans to expand local coverage, and improve the newspaper’s web presence.

Within about 60 days, the website will be upgraded, Jim said, with plans to add news updates daily.

The couple had been searching for several years for a weekly newspaper to buy in Nebraska, Iowa or Minnesota when they hit on the Journal-Eureka. It got the nod not because of the newspaper’s journalistic reputation but for its size and the community it serves.

The couple wanted a newspaper market small enough that they could play an important role in the community, and large enough to support a full staff so that everyone could have vacations.

The deliberations got a nudge after Jim’s mother died last summer.

Jim had been updating his family tree on genealogy software, he said, when information popped up from the 1860 Jones County census regarding his great-great grandfather who lived in Anamosa. He still has several cousins living in Jones and Linn counties, and has visited Monticello for family reunions.

It was, Jim said, like a sign from his late mother that they should pick Anamosa.

The initial thrill of taking over the newspaper was to begin producing good journalism and get involved in the community, Jim said. Instead, he found his first week buried in administrative tedium.

The Johnsons wanted to provide health insurance for their staff, but couldn’t get Wellmark Blue Cross-Blue Shield to enroll them because they had incorporated their business in Omaha, where they last lived, instead of Iowa.

After numerous frustrations, they found they wouldn’t be able to offer health insurance on their first week of ownership as they planned.

“We sent them (Wellmark) a copy of the paper to show we are in Iowa,” Jim said.

The Johnsons introduced themselves to the community with a page one article under a headline proclaiming “Local Ownership Returns,” and a photograph taken by daughter Jacqui Johnson. The Journal-Eureka had not been locally owned since it was sold by Sid Blair to News Publishing in 1995.

The Johnsons received plenty of comments on their arrival, Bridget said, but most of them were on a guest opinion page column by one of their daughters — Washington Post higher education reporter Jenna Johnson.

The column discussed the advantages and rigors of growing up with Midwestern values in Nebraska as the daughter of a librarian and a journalist, with one brother and one sister.

“We mostly grew up without a television — a move that seemed like cruel and unusual punishment at a time when “Saved by the Bell” dictated lunchroom conversations,” Jenna wrote, “but a move I now credit for my vivid imagination as a kid.”

Jenna related her mother’s “unmatched level of professionalism” in parenting and her father’s love of writing. She said her dad still calls to point out grammatical errors in her Post articles, and advises her on approaches to stories.

Jim assigned Jenna the guest column. He seemed satisfied with the results.

“She pushed it right up to deadline too,” he grinned.

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