‘My biggest fear is I don’t know what they will have to come back to’

Oct 16, 2017

After five generations of family ownership, Dalton sees the future through a fuzzy lens

By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
Mike Dalton’s crystal ball is foggy these days. He represents the Dalton family’s fifth generation to own and publish the weekly Cannon Falls (MN) Beacon, the small-town newspaper that has been in his family since 1880. As far as Dalton knows, the Beacon is the oldest continuously operating business in Cannon Falls. But the future looks cloudy, and he’s worried the newspaper won’t see a sixth generation of Daltons at its helm.
“My kids are 22 and 17, and so far, they have shown no interest in coming back to the newspaper,” he said in a recent phone interview. “My biggest fear is I don’t know what they will have to come back to.”
Dalton worries about the future of newspapers as he knows them, not because he believes journalism is dying, but because the medium is in peril.
“It’s scary to be a small-town newspaper,” he said. “There’s still plenty of news out there, but there may not be enough revenue to keep the business going in the future.”
Dalton, whose Beacon memories go all the way back to his pre-school days, can recall growing up at the newspaper since he was 4 years old, but he did not dream of spending the rest of his life there. He attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN, and graduated from Minnesota State University in Mankato with a degree in English education. He worked at the MSU newspaper, the Reporter, for three years, and that’s where he thought his adult newspaper career might end.
He returned to Cannon Falls after graduating, but instead of going to work at the Beacon where his father, Dick Dalton, was owner and publisher, he set out to teach. Perhaps this is where fate dealt its hand. He couldn’t find a teaching job anywhere within commuting distance and he wasn’t willing to leave his hometown.
“My wife is a nurse and has a great job in Cannon Falls, but teaching jobs there were sparse when I graduated, and we didn’t want to relocate, so I told my dad I’d come back to the newspaper,” he said.
The year was 1991, and Dalton joined the family business as editor.
Dalton recognizes the talents his ancestors brought to the Beacon during nearly a century and a half of ownership. When his father celebrated 50 years in the newspaper business and was inducted into the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s Half Century Club in 2013, the Beacon profiled his career and the newspaper’s history. From that day in 1880, when Mike Dalton’s great-great-grandfather, Silas S. Lewis, walked through the front door as the new owner, until Lewis’ daughter Lucretia Lewis and her nephew George Dalton took over in 1929 until they handed Dick Dalton the reins in 1969, the family members combined passion with their own special talents and kept the Beacon steady as the world moved from the 19th Century to the 20th Century and then into the 21st Century and a new millennium.
“My great grandfather was a poet,” Dalton said. “And my grandfather was a printer by trade. He owned the paper but running it was not his passion. His passion was for printing it. My dad came in and made the Beacon what it is today.”
Cannon Falls is a small community of about 4,000 residents, located in Goodhue County, less than 50 miles south of Minneapolis. The county seat is Red Wing, home of the Republican Eagle, a twice-a-week community newspaper.
The two papers don’t compete, and hardly overlap in their coverage, Dalton says. And even though Minneapolis is less than an hour’s drive away, the metro papers don’t venture into the Beacon’s territory either, unless there is big, breaking news there. Rochester is a larger town about 50 miles south of Cannon Falls, and the town’s daily, the Post Bulletin, does not often come calling either.
“Most of the time we cover our community without competition from the outside,” Dalton said. “After all, where do you go to find out about an upcoming bake sale?”
The Beacon’s circulation is 3,000, distributed in retail outlets and through the U.S. Postal Service. The online edition comes in handy for the snowbirds who fly south for the winter and want to keep up with the news back home. A bare-bones version of the newspaper is free online, but the full edition is subscriber-based and comes as a value-added benefit with a paid subscription to the print edition.
After working as the Beacon’s editor for two decades, Dalton was preparing to step into a managerial role and take over the operations from his dad, who had planned to support his son’s work by handling all of the newspaper’s finances, including payroll.
Then one spring day in 2012, Dick Dalton was out enjoying his hobby of mushroom hunting, traipsing through the woods in search of elusive – and prized—morels. As he crossed a roadway, a motorcycle hit him full force. He suffered two broken legs, broken ribs, and numerous internal injuries. The accident nearly killed him. He was airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, where he was successfully put back together, and over time, mended.
Mike Dalton reports that while the accident did lead to his father’s retirement from day-to-day newspaper work, Dick Dalton has made a full recovery and has even resumed mushroom hunting.
At one time in the newspaper’s history, the Beacon was part of a printing co-operative. The Daltons owned 1/12 of a printing press with other publishers. The press was eventually sold to a single printer and now Dalton contracts with that company for printing.
A traditional general interest newspaper, the Beacon covers everything, Dalton says. “The good, the bad, and the ugly.
“We don’t participate in muckraking, and we know some newspapers concentrate on that, while some newspapers don’t print any bad news,” he added. “We record whatever goes on in Cannon Falls, and we like to think we strike a balance.”
Last August, the Beacon was one of 200 newspapers to publish no news at all on their front pages. The Minnesota Newspaper Association’s Newspaper Week, Aug. 13-19, featured a front page “Whiteout” to both celebrate the association’s 150th anniversary and to make a stark statement.
 “Considering the way the last election played out amidst accusations of fake news, and the fact that journalism was getting a black eye, we demonstrated what our communities would get if newspapers went away,” Dalton said.
Some newspapers ran paragraphs explaining why their front pages were blank. Dalton simply published the Beacon’s nameplate at the top and the normal footer and barcode at the bottom.
“The rest of the front page was blank,” he said. “No photos. No headlines. Nothing above the fold or below it, for that matter. Just vast white space.”
The news that would have run on the front page was published on Page 2 and the usual editorials and columns were pushed to Page 3. There had been no warning and no publicity about the Whiteout. Well, more than 250 Beacon readers called the newspaper to report there was nothing on the front pages of their newspapers.
“Our staff was reticent at first, and our ad director was worried, but we only got one negative comment,” he said. “One subscriber returned his issue and asked for a corrected copy.”
The following week, the Beacon published a story about the Whiteout and Dalton wrote a column. The MNA had supplied its participating members with other editorial content, including an article by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar about the importance of newspapers, which Dalton published.
Next year, Dalton will step up as MNA president after serving on the association’s board of directors for years, and working his way through the leadership chairs.
“I love serving on the MNA board. It feels great to give back to the business that put me where I am today, and I’m excited to preside over the association,” he said. “I want to work to keep public notice in the forefront. We can’t lose transparency. Some of us are in survival mode, and I want to help maintain the health of our association and our newspapers.”
He also plans to work on strategies to address changing readership habits and shopping habits, acknowledging that online shopping is continuing to threaten local brick-and-mortar stores that have long been the newspaper industry’s bread and butter.
 “I know there is a need for newspapers like mine and others,” Dalton said. “I just don’t know where we go from here.”
If the recent newspaper Whiteout provides any clues about the future of newspapers, the Cannon Falls Beacon and others like it won’t go quietly, and their readers likely won’t let them. © Teri Saylor 2017


Publisher: Mike Dalton.
Newspaper name: Cannon Falls Beacon, Cannon Falls, MN.
How long as the Cannon Falls Beacon been in business? Since 1876; But in my family since 1880.
What is its circulation? Circulation is 3,100.
What is its publication schedule? Weekly, distributed on Thursday.
What is the average page count? Eighteen.
How is the newspaper distributed? Mail and store counter.
How many people are employed at the Beacon? Nine are full time, five are part time.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in your community? We chronicle the goings-on of the Cannon Falls community, first and foremost: births, deaths, marriages. Secondary to that is telling the stories of our local readers.
Describe your readers’ attitudes about the Beacon? I think we’re a respected institution in the community. They don’t always like what we write, but they know it will be fair.
What are the most rewarding aspects of publishing a community newspaper? Storytelling – we believe everybody has a story, it’s up to us to find it.
What are your biggest challenges? Circulation; we’ve stayed steady but it’s difficult attracting new subscribers. And like most small towns, we’re having trouble recruiting and retaining retail stores in our downtown.
What are your top goals for the coming year? Increase circulation and recruit new advertisers. We’ve also got two 40-year employees were going to have to replace, and that will be a challenge.
Phone: 507-263-3991
Email: beacon@cannonfalls.com
Website: cannonfalls.com