North Iowa Times celebrates 160 years of news coverage

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North Iowa Times Editor Audrey Posten and Publisher Gary Howe

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

1856: James Buchanan was elected 15th president of the United States, the Republican Party held its first national meeting, the Crimean War ended in Europe and the tin-type camera and accordion were both patented. On Friday, Oct. 10, the North Iowa Times was established in McGregor.

The newspaper was founded by Col. A.P. Richardson and F.W.D. Merrill, the brother of Iowa Governor Samuel Merrill, although Merrill’s name appeared on the masthead for just two weeks. 

In the first issue, Richardson stated, “The commercial interest of McGregor to say nothing of the demands of a country west of us unsurpassed in fertility required the establishment of a newspaper.” 

The paper supported James Buchanan for president and was known as the first Democratic paper in Northeast Iowa. 

According to McGregor historian Lena D. Myers, “The slogan for the eight-page, eight-column paper was ‘We march with the flag and keep step to the music of the union,’ which they chose during the Civil War period.” 

A subscription was $2 per annum and it was published each Friday.

These days, the North Iowa Times is regarded as Northeast Iowa’s oldest newspaper and Iowa’s third oldest weekly newspaper, although there’s an argument that it is the second oldest behind the Winterset Madisonian (established in June 1856), as some once-weekly papers became dailies over the years. 

Of those weeklies, it’s the only newspaper still published under its original name. The “North Iowa” portion of the name harkens back to McGregor’s early days, when it was a major port for most of northern Iowa.

Over the years, several prominent McGregor families have published the newspaper, most notably the Huebsches, who combined for over 60 years of ownership. Dr. Don and Joanne Strutt were also at the helm for 15 years. In 1989, the North Iowa Times’ current publisher, Gary Howe, purchased the paper.

The North Iowa Times has seen ups and downs since its inception. In fact, Richardson threatened to close the newspaper just months into printing due to delinquent subscribers and advertisers.

“There are $2,000 now due this office,” he wrote at the start of 1857. “Our expenses are nearly $50 per week; our receipts are comparatively nothing. We cannot do business this way. The printing business is an experiment with us, and we confess we do not like ‘the way the money goes.’ If a press is of any value to those who employ it, there should be a readiness shown to support it.”

Richardson said the North Iowa Times currently had six months’ stock of materials. If the majority of subscriptions, job debts and advertising were settled up in the next two to three weeks, they would go ahead, or else “stop the press” and put the office up for sale.

“We do not write this ‘for fun.’ It is earnest,” he told readers. “There may be men who can run a newspaper for nothing, but we prefer to starve at some business that will not require so much perplexity. We always had a fancy for ‘an easy death!’”

The paper must have received its funds, as it continued to operate.

The Strutts took over in 1958, when the North Iowa Times was again in danger of closing.

“We thought it was too important to McGregor to let it close,” said Don, who admitted he and Jo never imagined owning a newspaper.

“It’s really something to print a paper,” he added. “It was a lot of work.”

During the Strutts’ tenure, which lasted until 1973, they went from using hot lead to typeset text when printing the newspaper to instead utilizing offset printing.

Hot lead printing referred to injecting molten lead into a mold to cast metal type. Offset printing, on the other hand, means an inked image is transferred from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface.

With the move to offset printing, the North Iowa Times started being printed at Guttenberg along with several other local newspapers. (Today, it’s printed in Prairie du Chien, at the Courier Press office.)

It was also during that time that the North Iowa Times went from being a broad sheet newspaper to tabloid-sized, like it is today.

The most notable event the Strutts covered during their time with the paper was the record-breaking 1965 flood. The whole family, including their kids, worked 20 hours per day to put out a special flood book, Jo recalled.

“It was a really good experience for our kids,” said Jo, who served as editor and did the advertising. Once their son Chuck was old enough to drive, he did the advertising, she noted.

Chuck enjoyed the experience with the North Iowa Times so much, said Don and Jo, that he went to college for journalism, then became a lawyer.

Jo said her “Family of the Week” feature, along with the historical pieces by Lena D. Myers, were some popular items in the paper at that time.

“I remember having to think, ‘What am I going to put in this week?’” she said.

“Some weeks there were too many things and some weeks not enough,” Don added.

Editors have dealt with that constant struggle throughout the years, but have yet to miss a paper. The North Iowa Times remains the community’s oldest business institution. In fact, the paper pre-dates the incorporation of McGregor, which occurred in 1857.

“We’ve kept it going because of the strong sense of community toward the newspaper. The community loved and wanted the North Iowa Times,” said Howe. “Its longevity is due to the fact that the community feels a sense of ownership. Their continued support helps maintain its existence.”

In recent years, the North Iowa Times has been buoyed by its relationship with the other Howe newspapers—the Courier Press in Prairie du Chien, The Clayton County Register in Elkader and The Guttenberg Press.

“Our family joined forces and developed The Trader,” Howe said, noting that it gave each paper the opportunity to expand circulation and increase advertising revenues.

The North Iowa Times has also been an award-winning newspaper the last two years. In 2015, editor Audrey Posten earned a first-place award in the weekly one category for best breaking news story in the Iowa Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Contest, recognizing her coverage of the Marquette Hardware fire in 2014. This year, both the North Iowa Times and Courier Press staff were recognized with first-place honors for best special section-editorial, for the 1965 Flood Book they compiled together.

In a changing world, where more and more people receive their news digitally, the North Iowa Times has also kept pace, establishing a website and Facebook page. The website, which also features the paper’s sister publications, racks up over 170,000 views each week and over 550,000 each month.

“As we evolve, they become more important,” Howe stated. “People can get local news immediately. It also becomes a valuable tool for our advertisers.”

While that aspect of the industry has changed over 160 years, the commitment to providing people with local news has not. Howe said the North Iowa Times has a sense of the communities it covers.

“Our focus on local gives us strength,” he said, “because that local news is not reported by dailies or TV stations.”

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