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Minnesota Newspaper Convention evokes memories, pride and changing times

Ely Echo - Staff Photo
ELY ECHO award winners at the Minnesota Newspaper Convention included Karl Scheuer, Parker Loew, Tom Coombe and Nick Wognum. Photo by Mary Wognum.

by Tom Coombe

Echo editor

A little more than a half-century ago, Ely had itself a new publication by way of the Ely Echo.

An outsider by the name of Miles Aakhus came to town, decided to give the existing Ely Miner some competition and started up the Echo.

Full of bombast, ol’ Miles picked a fight or two with the powerful at City Hall and in town and the Echo quickly made its mark.

Not a journalist by trade, Miles hired a canoe outfitter who spent decades as an outdoors writer in Chicago - Jackpine Bob Cary - to serve as the face of the paper and add both newspaper acumen and further flair.

Not long after Anne Swenson moved to town with her husband and two kids and joined the staff.

By the mid-1970s, ol’ Miles had probably worn out his welcome and had a couple of health scares, and Swenson became one of the first women in Minnesota to own a newspaper. Jackpine Bob continued to be synonymous with the Echo, garnering publicity for the paper and himself with edgy editorials, expert features and articles on fishing and the outdoors, and spoofs such as his fictitious run for president in 1980.

It wasn’t long before Anne’s son Nick took a liking to the newspaper business and became a jack of all trades at a young age, learning everything from running the massive printing press located in the back of the Echo’s old home on the corner of Sheridan and Central, to writing stories, prepping ads and learning the business side of the operation on the fly.

Of course the Echo belonged to the Minnesota Newspaper Association, a group that has been around a mind-boggling 157 years.

Each winter, usually in late-January or the start of February, the organization holds its annual convention which doubles as a trade show and a chance for newspaper owners, editors and employees to trade ideas and recognize their best work via a series of award.

The Echo is part of MNA and has made its presence felt at the convention. It was there in the late-1980s that Nick cemented his relationship with Babbitt’s Mary Deinhammer with an engagement ring.

That was when the convention took place in downtown Minneapolis and served as an attraction in its own right, with numerous vendors including some who showed off printing presses that could fill a room by themselves.

By the 1990s the convention moved south to the suburbs in Bloomington, and a young reporter’s first trip to the event came as a student journalist from Duluth, vying for awards and looking to the future. There was familiarity in the halls as it didn’t take long to run into Swenson and renew acquaintances from summer past, and initial steps into the newspaper industry writing sports stories for the paper.

Not long after the reporter joined the Echo staff, covering three-hour city council meetings and typing away at computers that had yet to be linked to this new thing called the internet.

Jackpine Bob still served as the face of the Echo, swooping in a couple or three days a week, bellowing out stories and cackling in laughter at the news of the day or the latest foibles from the Forest Service or national politics.

Nick remained the glue of the paper, holding down the fort and still doing a bit of everything while he raised a family and served on countless local committees.

The convention came calling again in the late-1990s. This time the young reporter was an editor, still learning while heading south to represent the Echo as it won a state award. The conventions were full of energy, Mall of America nearby was still a novelty, and there were late nights listening in as giants of the industry held court and offered both wisdom and political predictions.

In the meantime, the Echo slowly evolved with time. The Miner was long gone. Jackpine Bob retired and later passed on, while Anne dialed back some of her duties while retaining her passion for her business.

For a time, Anne didn’t believe much in the MNA contests. Maybe the Echo was burned once when she felt the paper had earned an accolade. Maybe she was too focused on building and maintaining her pride and joy. For whatever reason there were a few years where the convention carried on without us. That changed by 2010, and we began to enter - and win - in the various MNA Better Newspaper Contest divisions.

The trips to Bloomington became a welcome mid-winter respite, although it was clear the conventions weren’t quite what they used to be in the 1980s and 1990s.

Despite competing in a division with newspapers with better than twice our circulation and far more resources, the Echo got back in the MNA contest game and is more than holding its own.

The newspaper is now recognized on an annual basis and treks to the convention, now held in the northern suburbs in Brooklyn Park, are part of the Echo calendar.

Nick and Mary returned in 2023 to collect the Echo’s awards, and the publication is recognized each year. There were five awards last year while the 2024 contest included three first-place finishes, two seconds and a third for Ely’s only locally-owned paper.

These are trying times for the newspaper industry and the 2024 convention includes some sobering numbers.

About a third of the newspaper’s nationwide have disappeared in the last decade and news organizations that once employed hundreds, or thousands, are mere shells of what they once were.

The advance of the internet and social media have changed the landscape for delivering news and publications are either adapting - or fading away.

Count the Echo among the former and not the latter, with new innovations including daily audio broadcasts along with doing what we do best - focusing heavily on the Ely area, its people, organizations and businesses.

It’s both humbling and heartening to see our work recognized, and this year’s convention evoked intersecting images and memories, past and present.

While Jackpine Bob and Anne have moved on, Nick and Mary returned to the event where they celebrated better than 35 years ago. The young reporter is now a seasoned editor, still enjoying the business, while the page was turned to the future with our new reporter, the red-headed Parker Loew, collecting the first of many MNA awards.

Like the convention and the newspaper industry, the Ely Echo too is both carrying on and being recognized on a state level for its work.

As the awards ceremony came to a close, Nick made sure there was a photo taken that marked the moment.

I’d like to think that somewhere, Anne and Jackpine Bob are looking on and beaming with pride.


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