MN publisher battles blizzard to cover major fire

Feb 25, 2016

By Stanley Schwartz

Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary

MADELIA, MN—Early on Feb. 3, Michelle Van Hee, publisher and co-owner of the Madelia Times-Messenger, received a phone call from her ad designer, April Peterson, asking her why she wasn’t in town covering the huge fire.

“I’m not sure what my response was,” she said in a phone interview, “but my husband and son came running. All I knew was I needed to get into the office.”

That week’s Times-Messenger was already done and ready to go to the printer, except for only a few minor tweaks. Her other paper, the Hanska Herald, was also ready for printing. But making things more complicated was the blizzard pounding through the region. Ten inches of snow were already on the ground with the wind pushing drifts waist deep.

“You could see the smoke from my house,” Van Hee said, when she trudged down her driveway to meet her salesperson, Shari Kilmer. by the road, while her husband, Jeff, and son, Derrick, were trying to shovel the drive.

The two got as close to the center of town as they could get in the car. They had to cross a few police lines and work their way to the back of the newspaper’s office on foot. Firefighters had been on the scene since 2:30 a.m. One side of Main Street—five buildings containing eight businesses—was on fire.

“These were eight thriving businesses,” Van Hee said. She grabbed her camera and started shooting. “I must have shot thousands of photos,” she added. She also had to think about getting her papers out.

Van Hee is a fairly new newspaper owner. She and her husband, Jeff, bought the Times-Messenger two years ago from Prairie Publishing, owned by Michael Koob. She and Jeff bought a second paper from him, the Hanska Herald, a year ago. She sought expert advice on design and production from design consultant Ed Henninger and news guru Kevin Slimp. Faced with a looming print deadline and arguably the biggest story to hit her community in years, Van Hee sought advice from former owner Koob, and later that day from Henninger. They told her that no matter what, she had to get this story in that week’s paper. Knowing she would have to do some major redesign of the front page, Van Hee then called her printer and asked if she could have more time. Complicating this effort was the fact her server had been knocked offline and the paper’s accounting computer was dead.

The Ogden-owned printing facility, House of Print, is located in Madelia just a few blocks from the Times-Messenger.

“The plant manager told me to take all the time I needed,” she said. Every 20 minutes she would go back out into the street to get more photos and do updates on the firefighter’s efforts. The printer does its print runs by paper size, so by holding the press for Van Hee, other publications were being held up, too. In a town as small as Madelia, the old adage is true: Everyone knows everyone. This fire affected everyone—those who owned the businesses, those who worked there and the people who frequented those businesses.

Van Hee learned that an explosion had rocked the buildings, starting the fire sometime during the early morning. The cause of that explosion wasn’t known. Days later, the fire marshal said the cause was still under investigation.

“He said the investigation was complicated by the devastation,” she said. “It’s just chaos over there. It is a miracle no one was hurt or killed.”

The important thing to understand, Van Hee added, was what the fire had done to the businesses and the people who owned and worked there. The fire was just one story. The stories on how it affected those touched by it were myriad. She explained that in addition to the owners, at least 35 people had been employed at those businesses. That’s a lot of people in a town of 2,300. At a popular family-owned Mexican restaurant, everyone was out of work.

“They send money to their relatives who were injured in an auto accident in Mexico,” she added. “Without that money, they don’t eat.”

“I feel I need to write all those stories,” Van Hee said. “People need to know what this means to those touched by this tragedy.”

At some point during her frequent trips out into the snow, Van Hee got a call from her local pastor, Debbie King Quale.

“She told me she had a good view from her church’s bell tower,” she said.

Van Hee made her way to the United Methodist Church through the heavy snow and climbed up an old spiral staircase where she faced another steep climb, this time up an old ladder.

“It looked like it was from the early 1900s,” she said. The hole at the top was so narrow Van Hee had to hand her camera through first. “There were no sides to the tower, and everything was covered in snow.” But she got the shot, which she eventually used on her front page.

“I worked hard for that photo,” she added. “And no one else had it.”

By noon, Van Hee realized she had enough information and photos to finish out the issue. The server was working again, so she could send the papers when she was ready.

“I wanted to tell this story through pictures,” she said. “But which ones?” She sorted through them, and by 1 p.m., the printer had the 600-circulation paper with its newly redone front page. She was also able to get some of the fire coverage in the 400-circulation Hanska paper. The printer would have let her hold until 5 p.m. if necessary, but Van Hee also had a post office deadline to meet. The papers had to be there for processing in order to get out to subscribers.

With a fire of this magnitude, larger news outlets were interested, too. Heavy snow made it difficult to get in-person coverage. But that didn’t stop them from calling.

And the phone kept ringing, Van Hee said. “They even contacted my daughter in Sioux Falls to find out how to reach me or Jeff. After the big news organizations leave, we have to deal with what’s here. These may not be the most important stories to the world, but they are the most important stories to those of us who live here. I want to tell them the best I can—to preserve them for history. It’s my responsibility. We have to keep those stories alive one month from now, one year from now.”

Jeff, who helps with the paper’s books, had gone out to shoot video to post on the paper’s Facebook page.

“We don’t have our own website,” Van Hee said. The papers post to the site created by Prairie Publishing when it was still owned by Koob. That’s why most of the breaking news was posted to the Facebook page.

The father and son who owned most of the buildings where the eight businesses were housed, lived above them in separate apartments, Van Hee said. The son runs the lumberyard and does plowing on the side to help the community. He organized the plows to clear the streets to make it easier for firefighters to reach the fire, even while his home was being reduced to ashes. She noted that the blizzard helped and hindered firefighters. It was difficult for the nine other fire companies to reach Madelia, but the snow prevented burning embers from spreading the fire to the rest of the small town.

The Times-Messenger’s office is just across the street.

Van Hee noted that a reporter from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune stopped by her office to pick up a copy of the Times-Messenger.

“He didn’t have $1 to pay for it,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it, but he said he would send me the money and make a donation to the town’s rebuilding effort.” It turns out the two knew each other, having graduated from high school together.

Response from subscribers about the fire coverage has been overwhelming, Van Hee said. “This town is full of wonderful people. It makes me feel good about the work I do.” ©