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"New Kid in Town" Shakes Up Local Daily Newspaper

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In this day when newspapers, including the mighty New York Times, are on a readership decline, it seems insane for anyone to start a new newspaper, especially in a town where one newspaper has been dominant for more than 100 years.

But Steward Huntington, publisher of Seaton Publishing Company of Spearfish, South Dakota, believed that Rapid City was ripe for a rival publication. Huntington has worked for six newspapers across the country and has lived in the Black Hills for the past seven years.

Huntington said of his new venture, "After many years of study we saw that the Rapid City community was being underserved by the daily paper (Rapid City Journal) in town. The daily paper has become more and more of a regional paper during it 17-plus years since it went under corporate ownership. We felt there was an opening to provide a paper with a distinct Rapid City focus."

After more than one year in business the new Rapid City Weekly appears to be thriving. "The response from the readership has been unbelievable. In our most optimistic projections we never dreamed we would have the kind of feedback we've received. Our people can't go anywhere in town without being stopped by folks telling us how much they appreciate our paper," Huntington said.

Perhaps coincidentally, or maybe in response to the new competition, the Rapid City Journal brought in a new publisher and after the loss to cancer of their longtime editor Peggy Sagen, a new editor. The new management almost immediately set about changing the format and content of the newspaper. The change was most noticeable on the editorial pages. National columnists were dropped except for random selection in the Sunday edition and local writers replaced them.

But in an effort to be more local the daily has instead has become quite yokel. Its editorial columns are now written by writers with small axes to grind. In an effort to add an Indian opinion writer the paper resorted to using a writer who is more of a misogynist and religious fanatic than one who would express the political and spiritual views of Native Americans. In other words, mudslinging gossipers now dominate its opinion pages.

But this sudden transition by the daily newspaper seems to fuel the aspirations of its new competitor. If the letters to the editor in the daily are to be taken seriously more people than not are unhappy with the drastic changes. They relied upon it for national columnists and national news for so many years. In fact, the results of a local basketball game are more likely to make its front page than dramatic developments in the war in Iraq.

Although I am local, an American Indian born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, my weekly columns are banned from the Rapid City Journal because I have been one of its the most vocal critics. I must add here that the new Rapid City Weekly does carry my nationally syndicated column.

Tom Lawrence, a native of Brookings, SD, spent many of his newspaper years working for newspapers in Montana. He was offered the job of editor of the new weekly and since he really missed living in South Dakota, he jumped at the opportunity.

"The company had been looking at Rapid City for years. It has owned the Black Hills Pioneer and other publications in the area since 1947 and wanted to grow and serve the Rapid City community," Lawrence said.

"We cover Rapid City closely and the people and events that make this community happen. We like profiles, longer features, quick cop briefs; community briefs, art news and we offer local columns and edits. We try to offer a well-rounded look at our community and we encourage input from them," he concluded.

Lawrence admits that the paper needs to do more to cover the very large Indian community. "We need to do more and covering the Native American community is one of them," he said. Of course, so did the Rapid City Journal need to do more for the Native American community and over the years it lost most of its Indian readership to the newspaper I owned and founded, Indian Country Today. When my newspaper reached a weekly circulation of 24,000 it was just a little more than half the size of the Rapid City Journal. In fact, the weekly ICT was still growing in circulation when I sold it in 1998 and it had become a fierce competitor to the local daily for advertising dollars.

I started a newspaper because the local media was not covering issues important to the Indian people and I proved that a weekly could not only survive, but also thrive in an atmosphere where the local coverage of Indian issues was at best mediocre and at most unreliable.

Indian Country Today moved to New York State after I sold it and that left the door wide open for other weeklies to replace it. I hope Tom Lawrence and his weekly can fill that gap because a little honest competition usually helps to improve the quality of the dominant newspaper. Understanding that the Indian people are more than 13,000 strong in this community of 60,000 raises the bar in selecting news stories for any media outlet hoping to succeed in this community. Just as a newspaper in a city with a large black or Hispanic population understands that it must cater to its large minority, not only as readers, but as consumers, any newspaper in Rapid City must understand that its largest minority population is Indian and behave accordingly.

The "New Kid in Town" is headed into its second year and has caused the local daily to do a drastic about face. I suppose you could call that good news.

(McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago's weekly column. He can be reached at P.O. Box 9244, Rapid City, SD 57709 or at najournalists@rushmore.com. Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990 - 1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM (harmon@clearlightbooks.com) published his latest book, "Children Left Behind")

(C) 2007 Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.

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