Press Publications thrive under Johnson family’s watchful eyes

Jan 5, 2017

By Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary

Carter Johnson did not start his professional career in newspapering, but in a way, he has been preparing for it his entire life.  Carter, the son of legendary Minnesota publisher Gene Johnson, bought Press Publications from his father about six years ago and has never looked back.

Carter, 40, who grew up around his dad’s newspapers in White Bear Lake, MN, graduated from Bethel University in 1998 and went straight into the world of banking and finance, landing a job in high growth lending with Norwest Financial. He later veered off into the nonprofit domain, working with the North Star Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He purchased Press Publications and the company’s eight newspapers in 2010.

“Carter encompasses the best of both worlds,” said Gene in a recent conference call that included his son. “He’s a business whiz, knows the newspaper industry inside and out, and he gets along well with people.”

Gene, who still owns and operates eight newspapers in Minnesota and Wisconsin under the Sentinel Press umbrella, got his start at the White Bear Press in 1951 as a 16-year-old high school student. He did not know it at the time, but the White Bear Press would become the flagship newspaper of Press Publications, a company he would start nearly 20 years later, when he purchased the White Bear Press in 1970.

By the time Gene was 20, he had purchased his first newspaper, the Atwater Herald, a 900-circulation weekly in Atwater, MN. A decade later, he bought his second weekly newspaper in Olivia. 

Gene is fiercely loyal to the communities he has served as a newspaper publisher over the years, and while he has cut back on his day-to-day management activities, he still writes columns, offers advice when asked, travels extensively, and is active in community service.

In an article published by the White Bear Press after his son took ownership, Gene professed his undying love for community journalism, or “refrigerator journalism,” an ode those keepsake articles attached with magnets to refrigerators across the country where they may stay on display for decades.

Over the years, Gene has been on a personal mission to keep community newspapers healthy through his service as a leader in a variety of newspaper trade associations including the Minnesota Newspaper Association, the National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspapers of America (now Local Media Association), and the American Newspaper Representatives.

Traveling the world, he has visited 36 countries, including a number of developing nations, where he has demonstrated how a free press works in the U.S. In 2008, Gene and his wife, Kathy, created the Johnson Center for Journalism and Communication at Bethel University through a family endowment, demonstrating their commitment to community journalism and their optimism that the press will continue to be powerful and relevant in years to come.

“Publishers used to be back shop people,” Gene explained. “When newspapers went to offset, they turned their focus to business management.”

It is this focus on business that makes Carter Johnson uniquely qualified to become the fifth owner of the 120-year-old White Bear Press. The Press is one of the longest continuously operating businesses in its community.

Perched in the northeast suburbs of metro Minneapolis/St. Paul, eight newspapers make up Press Publications. They are the White Bear Press, the Quad Community Press, the Citizen Press, the Shoreview Press, the Forest Lake Lowdown, the St. Croix Valley Lowdown, the Vadnais Press and North Oaks News.  

Sentinel Publications is the parent company for the family’s Wisconsin area newspapers: The (Osceola) Sun, Burnett County Sentinel and the Amery Free Press, as well as Minnesota newspapers: Isanti-Chisago County Star of Cambridge, Kanabec County Times, Pine City Pioneer, and the Country Messenger of Scandia.

The newspapers under Press Publications have a combined circulation of 44,000, and the newspapers under Sentinel Publications have a combined circulation of 38,000. Altogether, the groups employ 100 people, according to the Johnsons. 

Although each newspaper has its own identity and operates independently in the communities they serve, the groups operate centralized accounting, human resources, printing and graphic design for the sake of efficiency.

Online, the newspapers boast 2 million page views per year.

Both Johnson men are quick to dismiss any rumors of journalism’s demise. Rather, their papers are on the upswing.

“I see a greater audience today than ever before,” Carter said. “Our online news feeds through our social media channels and drives readers.”

Gene added “our mobile sites are popular, and they attract millennials looking to the internet for their news and information.” 

The recent fake news phenomenon has shaken many journalists whose careers are defined by the search for truth. For the Johnsons, fake news has only deepened their resolve to provide the highest standards of traditional journalism to their readers and to help their readers tell truth from fiction.

“People are more worried about the source of their food than the source of information they are digesting and using to shape their world view,” Carter said. “My role as a publisher is to educate readers about how to recognize fake news sources, and how to learn to recognize reliable news sources.”

Locally-owned community newspapers are responsive to their communities. Gene sees their role as a mirror to the community, responding to their communities and reporting the news of the day.

“We try to expose things in a positive light so the community can know what’s going on,” Gene said. “The area dailies don’t even begin to touch the value of local news, and as the dailies decline, community newspapers have an even greater franchise.”

Both Gene and Carter strive to get their newspapers into the hands of every resident living in the communities they serve, and as a result, the papers have a high readership and they do this using a nontraditional subscription model.

“The newspaper is basically free to anyone who wants to engage, but we do send out subscription notices twice a year and ask people to pay,” Carter said.

This is not a new phenomenon for Press Publications. The newspapers have been volunteer-paid since the 1980s, and paid subscribers make up around 30 percent of all circulation. They base this model on Minnesota’s strong public broadcasting organization. Public broadcasting networks are known for their frequent fund drives, raising most of their operating funds from volunteer subscribers. 

A team of 125 youth and adult carriers deliver papers to everyone on their routes—both paid and free. An opportunity to earn commissions gives them a strong incentive to sell subscriptions. The newspapers provide sales and customer service training for their carriers, and if they have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and serve their customers, they can do quite well, according to Carter.

“I firmly believe in getting the newspapers into the hands of every resident,” Gene said. “It helps our communities grow and thrive and keeps the readers informed.”

While great customer service and a volunteer-subscription model may get newspapers into every household in a market, the Johnsons believe this would be a hollow victory if content was lacking. In addition to a high level of receivership, Press Publications enjoys a high percentage of readership.

“Good writing and great stories are king,” Gene said. “We have excellent readership while creating a good environment for advertisers.” 

At the age of 80, Gene Johnson has slowed down, but he has no intentions of stopping. In 2010 he told the White Bear Lake Press he maintains great faith in his son’s ability to carry on the family business in the ever-evolving media landscape. 

“Carter loves the community, has high energy and a special prowess for marketing. He is more tech-savvy than I am,” Gene said. “My goal is to continue to serve my community and find resources to keep community newspapers alive and relevant.” © Teri Saylor 2017


Teri Saylor can be reached at



Describe the newspapers you currently own. My groups of newspapers are in rural Minnesota and Wisconsin communities. All of the seven tabloid newspapers are paid circulation except Cambridge, MN, which is a free distribution newspaper. They are made up of two groups, each with their own publisher. Printing, accounting and graphics are centralized.

Do you, Gene, have a day-by-day management role? No, but I meet with the publishers quarterly and occasionally with the ad directors. I review monthly statements, occasionally critique the content of the papers and approve budgets, corporate plans and major purchases.

Do you have a personal mission statement or motto? Your Best Source of Community Information.

How many people are employed throughout your group of newspapers? The total number of people employed in our group is 68 full and part-time.

How does your group operate? Are all of the papers independent—each with their own staff? What is your management structure? All of the papers are independent, along with their own staff. However, management is shared, as well as central printing and accounting and the graphics are divided between two offices.

How do you feel about having your son now as owner of Press Publications? Has he made any changes that you might not have made if you were still the owner? Kathy and I are pleased that our son and daughter-in-law are the owners. They are fully engaged in the community, from the marketplace to every possible organization. Carter has adapted the tabloid format for the newspapers and brought about the mobile websites. We are proud and encouraged.

Where are you based, and how often do you visit each of your newspapers? I have an office in my son’s building, Press Publications at White Bear Lake, and it is only 30 feet from the back door so I am getting the message.

What are your newspapers’ roles in their communities? To be local in reporting, reflect what the community is doing and encourage areas that are neglected, to report government, but also feature stories and success stories of people.  They all have locally-written columns from the editor, publisher or community leaders. We expect our employees to be involved in the community and in charitable organizations.

What is the most rewarding aspect of publishing a group of community newspapers? It is making a difference in people’s lives. Over and over the community has expressed its appreciation in so many ways. It is also rewarding to run prize-winning publications, meet budgets and serve God with truthful and ethical reporting.

What are your biggest challenges? The biggest challenge today is finding good people who are dedicated to community journalism. It is especially hard to find sales and marketing people who know how to go out and discover client needs and then build a marketing plan.

What are your top goals for 2017? Top goals for 2017 include more four-legged sales calls, interviewing and building marketing plans for small business. Also growing circulation and web sales.

What are the three biggest changes you have seen in the newspaper industry since you bought your first newspaper 60 years ago? Probably the most difficult areas for newspaper management are health insurance costs out of control, government regulations increasing, fraudulent Workers Comp claims and a post office reducing service. The biggest changes over the last 60 years started with the transition from letterpress to offset and, of course, into many aspects of the digital world. Advertising dollars have become more competitive, computer systems become outdated quickly and classified and real estate advertising have been threatened and compromised by various internet systems.

What hasn’t changed in all these years—the newspaper industry’s most enduring qualities? What hasn’t changed in all these years and is the newspaper industry’s most enduring quality is clearly good writing, local and relevant information, relationships with community leaders and with advertisers. A successful community newspaper continues to be a trusted member of the family.  The bottom line is competent people with a good work ethic and a passion for truth and ethics and serving the community with meaningful communication pieces.

Looking into your crystal ball, what is the newspaper model of the future—say 10 years from now? Probably the best we can do is three years out. I think print newspapers will become stronger as the public begins to realize so much on the internet is fake news and opinions. They have trusted their community newspaper in the past and they will for the foreseeable future. Every new form of media or communication divides the pie, but newspapers have a lasting value for the record, for quick response to community needs, and a low cost way of reaching a large amount of potential customers. We may find in the future we will have larger screens in which to read from, but the design of a newspaper in print provides an enormous amount of information at a low cost to the reader and provides a variety of advertising and enjoyment.

Phone: 651-407-1200