The more things change…
Changes in storytelling techniques, technology and much more have shaped and defined the Detroit Lakes Tribune for the past 150 years, but the paper’s mission and values have largely stayed the same.
Just like the communities this newspaper has always served, the paper itself has grown and evolved in many different ways over the years. The kinds of news coverage provided, the style of writing used to tell stories, the look and design of the pages, the technology that brings it all together – it’s all changed in some way, shape or form.
And yet the things that have always been at the heart of this newspaper – like its dedication and service “to the betterment and general upbuilding of the community,” as one of Detroit Lakes’ first great newspapermen, George D. Hamilton, once said – have never changed.
From the global stage to the back yard: News coverage has evolved from worldly to hyper-local
Dating back to the late 1800s, when the Detroit Lakes Tribune was named the Detroit Record, the front pages were dominated by non-local news. Unlike the front pages of today’s papers – which feature a select few hyper-local stories about the community’s people, places, events and issues, the fronts of those pioneer-era papers were packed with many short stories about news from around the world.
The look and design of the front pages was quite different from today’s papers, too, with all those little short stories piled one on top of another in vertical columns that ran the length of the page – usually with advertisements mixed in, too. Papers then were black-and-white, and there were few artistic or visual elements (photographs weren’t commonly used in rural newspapers until decades later). The front pages of today’s papers, by contrast, are far more tailored to the eye, with large, colorful photos and other visual design elements like subheadlines, pull quotes, and the use of “white space” to break up text blocks and create separation between articles.
In a November 1898 edition of The Record, the front page was dominated with stories about the Spanish-American War, with headlines like “Have Faith” and articles that talked about how the Spaniards were poised to accept the terms of the U.S. government. Other front page stories addressed the gold rush in Washington, fighting in Korea, and plans for the future of Cuba. The sparse local news on the front page mostly centered on meeting times for community groups, such as the Masons and Odd Fellows.
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On average in those early days, the newspapers were 8 pages long. Local news was minimal on the inside pages, just as it was on the fronts. Among the few local news bits contained inside that November 1898 edition was an editor-written recap of who had recently visited town, who had traveled out of town, and what events had occurred or were about to occur – one of which was “swearing-off day.”
“Tomorrow evening many a man will take his last drink and smoke his last smoke – until Sunday, earlier or later. Tomorrow will be wholesale swearing-off day,” editor G. D. Hamilton wrote in that recap.
The happenings of local residents continued to be reported in this sort of casual, ‘kitchen table’ manner until at least the mid-1900s; by that era, the newspaper was published under the moniker of Detroit Herald.
For decades, the paper’s front pages remained focused on national or worldly news. Early newspapers were often done entirely by one person, which left little time for local reporting. But that focus began to slowly shift over time. A June 1921 edition, for example, included within its mix of global headlines a front-page article about local Memorial Day observations, and a story about the first livestock meeting of a newly-formed local breeders association. There was also a rundown of local athletic competitions between Detroit and Perham, even featuring an artist’s drawing of the teams in battle.
As the years progressed, local news stories continued to increase in frequency, and eventually they overtook world news as the dominant coverage. That evolution was seen at newspapers all over the country, as the industry strove to meet changing needs and demands: a growing number of unique communities were being established within states and counties, and thus the demand grew for news relative to those specific communities.
There was also a growing interest in the field of journalism, as newspapers largely proved to be successful business ventures and the work proved rewarding, with local newspaper owners, editors and reporters holding positions of influence in their communities. Newspapers were a growing industry that wanted – and could afford – to bring more trained journalists on staff, and the pool of trained journalists to hire from was growing larger. The more journalists on staff, the more unique news coverage a paper could provide; better coverage attracted more readers, which in turn attracted more advertisers, who paid good money to share their messages with the captive audience of the local newspaper.
Today, with national and world news easily accessible 24/7 via the internet as well as an abundance of radio and TV news programs, news magazines, and big daily newspapers, smaller community newspapers continue to find success within their unique niche as a source of in-depth, hyper-local news coverage that cannot be found anywhere else.
From wood engravings to instant pics: Changing camera tech and its impact on photojournalism
It’s commonplace now to include at least one good photograph with every story – if not for print, then definitely for the story’s online version.
Such was not the case in the early days of the Detroit Record.
The use of photographs was costly and time-consuming in the early 1900s, often requiring the creation of a wood engraving to print the image. Thus, photographs were not often included. Occasionally, newspapers would employ an artist to create a drawing or other visual, but that also entailed a cost.
It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the golden age of photojournalism arrived, thanks to advancements in technology that made the process speedier and more affordable – such as a compact camera that featured flash bulbs and the ability to take several pictures with minimal time in-between.
Photographs were always a hit with readers, and so when it became possible to include more of them in the newspaper, it became commonplace for cameras, film rolls, and darkrooms to grace newsrooms. Eventually, photojournalists were brought on staff, to capture candid moments and portraits to enhance written stories and tell visual stories of their own.
When I started, we were using film and had dark rooms.
The Detroit Lakes Tribune brought photojournalist Brian Basham on board in 1998. Growing up, he said, he often found himself with a camera in his hands, so his career choice was a natural fit. He applied for the position because the Tribune was utilizing color photographs, as well as black and white, and that was a draw for him.
“When I started, we were using film and had dark rooms,” he recalled of those pre-digital days.
“The paper had Photoshop the day I got there, so I would take the negative and scan that to bring it into Photoshop,” Basham said, noting that the process was the same for both black and white and color photos.
In an average week, Basham would shoot five to 10 rolls of color film, plus a few rolls of black and white.
Those numbers increased exponentially when cameras went digital.
“It was December of 2003 when we got our first digital camera there,” Basham recalled. “I still remember the first assignment I shot: I went to a Christmas choir concert – not that exciting for pictures, but I had a new digital camera and I wanted to go use it.”
Within a year, the newsroom in Detroit Lakes shifted almost entirely to digital cameras. Without the need to process and scan film in a dark room, Basham said he was saved about 10 hours of work a week. With that extra time, he took on other duties, such as page layout and writing.
Technologies continued to advance, and by the time 2010 rolled around, Basham saw the specialized role of photojournalist begin to shift into a more wide-ranging role – that of a multimedia journalist who takes and edits photographs, creates video, and writes stories.
“I’d say by 2012 it became clear that the (photojournalists at) smaller papers needed to know more than just one speciality, and have more than one role,” he said.
Basham concluded his career with the Detroit Lakes newspaper in 2016 and moved to the Twin Cities.
No matter whether a photo is black and white or in color, was taken yesterday or 100 years ago, Basham said, the most important element of a good photo has been and always will be the same: emotion. If a picture can bring out emotions or make a person feel a certain way, he said, that is key.
From simple print ads to targeted digital campaigns: The revenue-generating side of newspapers has gotten more sophisticated
No newspaper would be possible without paid ads, legals, and subscriptions. Profits from ads and legals, especially, keep the business going, as those revenues help keep the cost of subscriptions down, allowing more people, of all income levels, to subscribe.
Ads have been key to the funding of newsprint since the 1700s.
The idea of legal notices being printed in newspapers began with the Acts of the First Session of the Congress of 1789, which required all bills, orders, resolutions and congressional votes to be published in at least three publicly available newspapers. The early leaders of the country made that decision for several reasons, including: Newspapers were not affiliated with the government; as a neutral party, the newspaper’s concern was with ensuring those who wished to be educated, would be, and; printing a public notice made it archivable, verifiable and accessible to all segments of society.
When the Detroit Lakes newspaper began in 1872, ads were created through the strategic manual placement of words into a box that was outlined on the newspaper page. Sometimes, a drawing was included, with the assistance of an artist, or, less commonly, a photograph via wood engraving.
Today’s print ads, of course, are more sleek and sophisticated than those of the early days, as advancements in print and design technology have made much more possible in the way of style, shapes, colors and sizes. But print isn’t the only form of advertising that newspapers specialize in these days. The Detroit Lakes Tribune launched its website, dl-online.com, in 1997, and has been offering digital advertising ever since.
While printed ads in the newspaper are still a common way to reach a broad audience within the community, online ads can be more targeted to specific demographics..
Publisher Melissa Swenson, who began her career in advertising in 1999, as Forum Communication Company’s regional director, said Forum was ahead of the curve in terms of the shift from print to digital, and was quick to establish an online presence. Forum hired digital specialists who dove into analytics and data-harvested online readership trends to open doors in the advertising world. Now, digitally speaking, newspaper clients can be told, prior to paying for an ad, exactly how many potential customers will engage, or click on, that ad.
What’s more, Swenson said, “advertisers can now target gender, age, etc., and get specific ads sent to who their target market is.” It’s even possible to deliver advertisements directly to every person who enters a particular business and owns a smartphone. “That is how specific the advertisements we offer are now.”
From hand-pressed to laser-cut: Advancements in newspaper printing equipment
When George D. Hamilton took over The Record in 1878, the main piece of equipment in the office was “an old Hoe hand press,” as he wrote about it later – presumably referring to an iron hand press made by R. Hoe & Co. Printing with hand presses was a slow and painstaking process, though nice-looking results could be produced. There were also “a few cases of well-worn type,” Hamilton recalled, along with a single-page-sized imposing stone and “no paper-cutter,” so a jack-knife and straight edge were used, instead.
The main method of newspaper printing that is still used today, called offset printing, was developed in the late 1800s, around the time when The Record began, and is a much less time-consuming process than prior printing methods were.
Randy Freed, plant manager at Forum Communication Printing in Detroit Lakes, began his career 47 years ago as a worker on the press line. He explained, in the most basic terms, that offset printing works by transferring an image onto a piece of rubber, which then rolls that image onto a sheet of paper. It's called “offset” because the ink is not transferred directly onto the paper.
It is more accurate and much faster.
Up until the 1990s, he said, a film negative was used to create the desired image. That process limited the use of color, as adding the color was labor-intensive and expensive. In the mid-’90s, computers entered the printing press industry, and negatives were replaced by aluminum plates. Images are cut onto the plates using laser technology.
“It is more accurate and much faster,” Freed said of the plate method, adding that it also makes the use of color more affordable, and therefore color pages have become commonplace – a feature that page designers, advertisers and readers all appreciate.
A far cry from that one small hand press of the newspaper’s early days, today’s printing equipment in Detroit Lakes fills an entire facility in the city’s industrial park. The Detroit Lakes printing plant has sheetfed presses, web presses, digital presses, and more. The plant prints a number of newspapers – many more than just the Detroit Lakes paper – plus a wide range of magazines, flyers, pamphlets, inserts and other publications.
Freed said the plant processes between 95 and 100 print jobs per week, on average.
THE TRIBUNE’S MISSION STATEMENT TODAY
With a focus on quality storytelling in print and online, we at the Detroit Lakes Tribune strive to produce and deliver local journalism that truly matters to the people of Detroit Lakes, Becker County and the surrounding areas. Our highest priorities are truth, accuracy and public service – shining light on issues that affect our readers’ lives, and holding local governments and institutions accountable. We also endeavor to show the brighter side of the news, sharing stories about the people and organizations that make a positive difference in our communities.
WHO OWNS THE TRIBUNE TODAY
Forum Communications Company, a family-owned network of community-driven newsrooms, award-winning broadcast stations and new media products, has been owned and operated by the Black/Marcil family since 1917. Headquartered in Fargo, North Dakota, the company has owned the Detroit Lakes Tribune since 1985. Forum Communications owns media outlets across Minnesota as well as in parts of Wisconsin and North and South Dakota. All editorial decisions are made locally by local editors. The company’s vision is to create connected and informed communities. For more information, visit forumcomm.com .
Editor's Note: This story is part of our special Tribune Sesquicentennial coverage, in honor of the Detroit Lakes Tribune's 150th anniversary on May 18, 2022.