Brandt named Colorado Newspaper Person of the Year

Jun 12, 2017



“Splendid” was a word echoed between two sisters and two brothers Saturday evening, April 22, as they gathered together in Denver. It was a word their father always used to say, and it was a fitting remark for this occasion.

Before a crowd of the industry’s finest people from across the state, Brenda Brandt was named the 2016 Newspaper Person of the Year at the Colorado Press Association’s 139th annual convention.

“I was humbled beyond belief,” said Brandt of the honor that took her completely by surprise.

“Any newspaper award you win is based on having a community to cover,” she said, “and I have good people to make it happen.”

When Merle Baranczyk, editor and publisher of Arkansas Valley Publishing, took the stage to present the award, Brandt knew his description of meeting a pair of mentors four decades ago could only be about two people: her parents, Elna and the late Loral Johnson.

At that moment, Brenda was shocked to find Elna squeezing her shoulder, with brothers Randy and Kurt Johnson and sister Lori Pankonin close behind.

The family’s newspaper legacy started several decades ago when Loral got his first taste of it at age 9. By the 1950s, he was working at The Imperial Republican in Imperial, Nebraska.

Brandt, the first of the four children, was helping at the newspaper with her siblings since before they can remember. That was in the days of hot type when the newspaper was laid out in lead, and the kids didn’t go barefoot without leaving with black feet.

“There’s a rare breed of people who were born for this. They have newspaper ink in their blood,” said Holyoke Enterprise managing editor Darci Tomky in her nominating letter.

By growing up in a newspaper family, Brandt said, the value of community and the importance of supporting one’s community was ingrained in her from an early age.

With Loral founding the family newspaper legacy, Brandt said she always thinks of her dad when she’s at a newspaper convention and the fierce loyalty he had for his community.

Brandt found out on her own that she loved journalism, eventually adding it on to a math major at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. While taking a couple years to teach journalism and geometry at Aurora (Nebraska) High School in the late 1970s, Brandt worked at The Holyoke Enterprise in the summers, and by 1979, she accepted the role as Enterprise news editor.

Brandt never left that first full-time newspaper job. Now almost 40 years later, she is the Enterprise publisher.

In 1999, Brandt, along with sister Lori and her husband Russ Pankonin, bought Johnson Publications Inc. when their parents retired. The model of a small family corporation, it includes The Holyoke Enterprise and three Nebraska newspapers: The Imperial Republican, The Grant Tribune-Sentinel and The Wauneta Breeze.

Last year, Brandt took on additional duties as sales director for Johnson Publications Inc.

“You could feel Brenda’s passion for the newspaper industry while reading the nomination letter. She clearly was born with ink in her blood,” said one of the Newspaper Person of the Year judges.

The nomination letter noted Brandt has covered everything from corn fields to football fields, she commits to visiting her advertisers regularly, and she is a genuine cheerleader for the town and its activities.

“The basic principles of newspapers are still here,” said Brandt, a publisher who is proud to be an honest, reputable source of information.

Brandt is fair and just, yet years of experience have given her an eloquence and a sincerity in the way she interacts with the community.

“She has embraced change and is working to share her knowledge and skills with the next generation of news media professionals,” said another of the judges.

Brandt has put down a newspaper foundation while also making the shift toward new technologies.

Not only does Brandt push her young staff to the next level, she also challenges and mentors others in the state and beyond.

“There are so many deserving people in the newspaper industry,” she said of the Newspaper Person of the Year award, recognizing the many people who she herself has looked up to and has been mentored by over the years.

From 2007 to 2014, Brandt served on the Colorado Press Association board of directors, including the role of president from 2012 to 2013.

On the national level, from 2004- to present, Brandt has served as the Colorado state ambassador for the National Newspaper Association.

“Brenda’s leadership has made lasting contributions to her community, newspaper employees, newspapers across Colorado and beyond,” said one of the judges.

The nomination letter concluded, “This newspaper, this town and this state would not be the same without the lifeblood Brenda pumps through it. She has been the driving force in the growth and health of a small, rural town on Colorado’s northeast plains. There would not be enough space on the wall to hang up every award that Brenda has received or the notations on how she has influenced her newspaper staff members over the past four decades.”

After the amazement of receiving the award, Brandt was surprised by the family and staff members who joined her at the Colorado Press Association awards banquet that evening in Denver.

That support group included her husband, Bob Brandt of Holyoke; daughter, Molly Brandt of Denver; Elna Johnson of Imperial, publisher emeritus of the Enterprise; Randy Johnson of Kansas City, MO; Russ and Lori Pankonin of Imperial, NE, co-owners of Johnson Publications Inc.; Kurt and Paula Johnson of Aurora, NE, co-publishers of the Aurora News-Register; Darci Tomky of Holyoke, Enterprise managing editor; and Ashley Sullivan of Holyoke, Enterprise office manager.

Five hundred miles away, Brandt’s niece, Brooke Pankonin, was representing the family as The Grant Tribune-Sentinel managing editor at the Nebraska Press Association in Lincoln, NE. She got emotional as she presented the Loral Johnson Sweepstakes Award in memory of her grandfather and was surprised to see the honor for most points accumulated at the newspaper contest was given to her uncle and aunt, Kurt and Paula Johnson, for the work their newspaper had accomplished.

There’s no doubt this family has left its mark on the newspaper industry in this region, and the newspaper ink in their blood continues to pump life into their communities.