When I was chosen to be co-editor of our high school paper, it was exciting to learn the ropes of planning a publication, assigning stories, cleaning them up and eventually putting them on the page for publication. I can’t say there was a some underlying desire to change the world, but I definitely developed a better understanding of the importance of being informed and keeping others informed to the best of my ability. The power of the printed word is important, but I was always aware of how easily it could be misused if not done ethically and fairly. To be honest, I always had trouble with the fact that expressing my opinions in a column or editorial lent it more power than someone simply expressing their views in casual conversation over dinner. I saw it as something that could easily be abused and I always preferred working behind the scenes. When I was a layout editor, I relied heavily on what the editor-in-chief of the publication wanted on the front page, since I felt that was their role, and mine was to make it look good. That is not to say that I didn’t express my opinion at times, but it was never solely my choice.
With our newspapers, we always tried to find a balance with focusing on one or two important news stories, coupled with at least a teaser of a more light feature story that would have a general public interest.
Here’s how the deRuyter-Nelson business developed over the years. It was nothing magical – a lot of flying by the seat of our pants in hopes of surviving.
Typesetting/design/grief publishing divisions
When Calvin deRuyter bought the Midway Monitor in 1975 he knew that the financial viability of running just one paper might support one person, but it would be hard to support multiple full-time employees. I was a senior at Hamline University at the time, taking journalism courses at Macalester through the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities (ACTC) program, but majoring in political science. I had worked with Cal on the Hamline Oracle as the production editor. My goal was to attend law school or get a masters in public administration after graduating. He asked if I would be interested in working for him selling ads, and helping out with the layout of the paper. Hamline offered students the ability to seek internships in their field of interest and to receive academic credit for their work, so I applied with my advisor for an internship, and it was granted. It was a way for me to earn some much needed money as well as get academic credit.
I had been the editor of my high school newspaper and had always enjoyed writing, but I never seriously considered a career in journalism. My writing style lent itself to more feature-style journalism, and quite frankly, I did not care for the journalistic requirements of news writing and was not very good at it. I was pretty good at production work, and was able to envision page layout and work creatively to make a newspaper page visually interesting. Obviously at that time there were no computers, so layout consisted of cutting and pasting the typeset articles to create the layout. So, my skills complemented Calvin’s, and we were a good team in producing the newspaper during those early months while sitting on the floor of his apartment with news articles spread from one end of the apartment to the other.
Upon my graduation, the newspaper was growing rapidly and Cal asked if I would be interested in joining him in the business. I had been accepted into a masters degree program in Oregon in Public Administration. I was also engaged to be married shortly after graduation. It was a tough decision, but my advisor in Oregon encouraged me to give the business a try and simply join the master program a year later if it did not work out. He told me that the opportunity to be a part of a start-up business did not come along very often, but academic institutions had been around for many years, so I had nothing to lose by giving it a try. By that time, Calvin had made the decision that if the business was going to survive, there was going to be a need to create other revenue streams. Computer typesetting was just becoming the norm for newspaper production, and the Twin Cities had a unique niche in that community journalism was a fast growing area of interest. Mayor George Latimer was instrumental in creating the district council form of local government within the city of St. Paul, and each of the local districts needed a communication vehicle to keep residents informed. These factors created a business opportunity for us, and we decided to offer typesetting services to fledgling community newspapers in St. Paul, as well as college publications such as the Hamline Oracle and Bethel Clarion.
The investment into typesetting equipment was very expensive and neither Calvin or I had any money at the time. Cal had gotten five local businesses and residents to help him raise some money to start the newspaper and also sold me 50% of the business to raise some capital. My parents co-signed a loan for me to come up with my investment, and we leased typesetting equipment at an astronomical interest rate. Our first office was donated space on the lower level of 1247 St. Anthony apartment building where Cal lived at the time.
The typesetting business grew extremely rapidly, but was stressful work. All of our clients were under very strict deadlines, so it was high stress and required tight scheduling with very little room for mistakes or breakdowns. In those days, typesetters had screens that showed less than a sentence at a time, so accurate typing was essential. Any typing errors had to be corrected by printing out the correction and tediously pasting it over the errors. If the client wanted a different typeface, we had to stop the computer, change the film strip, and type what was required in the new typeface. Obviously proofreading was a very time-consuming part of the process in order to correct any errors before the client picked up their typeset stories. If the client made edits to their stories, which they frequently did, whole stories would need to be redone. Another frustrating issue we had to deal with in those days was that the typesetters were extremely sensitive and would lock up for seemingly no reason, and we would lose hours of work. Someone walking by the computer would create static electricity, and the computer would simply freeze or shut down. Tempers ran hot and the language coming out of our office was often not pretty! During our early years we hired college students as typesetters and did a great deal of the work ourselves, while still trying to write, edit, layout, and sell ads for our own newspaper.
The typesetting business continued to grow quickly and eventually expanded to include graphic artists and advertising agencies needing typesetting for their brochures, ads, posters, menus and nearly anything that was eventually printed. Our network grew to include printers needing work and expanded into government work such as the communications offices for Ramsey County, city of St. Paul and eventually the state of Minnesota. We added typesetters and eventually hired employees so that we were working nearly 24 hours/day. It was not unusual for Calvin and I to have to work late into the night ourselves and many weekends. Bob Wicker, a Midway resident and one of the original five investors in the Midway Monitor, was an employee of H.B. Fuller Corporation at the time. He was instrumental in introducing us to the corporate communications department within H.B. Fuller and they became our first large corporate client, allowing us to work on magazines, brochures, and eventually their annual report.
As years passed, the development of the personal computer came into existence and Apple started to develop sophisticated layout programs, allowing clients to create their own graphic pieces. Typesetting was a dying industry and luckily Calvin, in particular, was on top of the trend and saw the end coming. Working with clients on a daily basis and dealing with their demands for perfect letter spacing and accuracy, it was hard for me to recognize that they would be satisfied with anything less than having a professional create their work. But I quickly learned that their demands became more flexible when they realized they could save time and money by doing the work themselves. We had to rethink our business quickly once we realized how fast the technology was changing, and it was at that point that we expanded our company services to include more actual layout and graphic design work in place of typesetting.
Calvin was a fine art major at Hamline, but did not focus on graphic arts. I was not a good artist but had an ability to envision what graphic pieces should look like, Working with so many graphics firms over the years, I also had a good understanding of what clients looked for in their artists. We hired an excellent staff artist, and we teamed up to eventually build the graphics division of deRuyter Nelson. Selling graphic design services turned out to be a very lucrative area of the business during the peak years. We had a number of large corporate clients we created publications for and designed and produced a quarterly four-color magazine for the State of Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development.
The graphics division of deRuyter Nelson was an important source of revenue throughout all our remaining years in business. That division was also essential to our decision in the 1990s to start creating and distributing grief resources for families who had lost young children. After my wife and I lost our second child at birth, it became clear there was a serious lack of quality resources for families who not only needed support themselves, but wanted to be able to have nicely designed mementos to remember their children. That division was called A Place To Remember and it was a way for us to combine our personal experience along with our ability to write, design, and distribute quality printed material.
When you are in business as long as we were, you see all sorts of change take place, especially when dealing with technology and the explosion of changes that occurred in those areas during the past 45-50 years. Revenue streams that once seemed like they would be forever profitable, become elephants. Ethical standards that you once took for granted become seemingly non-existent, and it’s easy to see how older people become cynical and feel like the world is crumbling around them. But I think it is important to try and remember that change is inevitable, and you have to have faith that people will once again demand better as time goes on. For me, nowhere is that more evident than in journalism. The demand for accurate and fair journalism seems to have disappeared. While there has always been the feeling that an article or story that goes against one’s belief is unfair, today it’s possible with the click of a button to find another article on the same topic that expresses what you want to hear, whether based on fact or simply opinion. When you have powerful politicians constantly telling folks that the mainstream media is out to get them and are nothing but liars, the cynicism grows exponentially.
For me, the value of local journalism is becoming more and more important, because it helps inform people in their own neighborhood as to what is going on and helps keep everyone grounded and working toward a common goal of making the community better where they live and shop and experience life firsthand. It is much more difficult to create a story where one does not exist.
Tim Nelson co-owned the Longellow Nokomis Messenger with Calvin deRuyter from 1986 to 2017 and the Midway Como Monitor from 1976 to 2017.
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