Villager Communications St. Paul, MN

A brief, 60-year history of the Villager

Just as the news reported in the Villager has chronicled the changes in the neighborhoods it has served over the years, the Villager itself has changed--from its format to its method of production to its circulation area. But in paging through the Villagers of the past 60 years, perhaps the most striking change is in what was deemed to be newsworthy at the time. Newspaper content, to a large degree, reflects the priorities of the editors and publishers who are responsible for producing it.

The Villager was founded in 1953 by recent University of Minnesota graduates Arnold Hed and John Prichard as an answer to the marketing needs of Highland Village businesses. It was to be a freely distributed advertising medium that would provide 100 percent penetration in those businesses' primary market: the Highland Park and Macalester-Groveland neighborhoods of St. Paul and the adjacent Longfellow and Nokomis neighborhoods of Minneapolis. The Villager became the first newspaper in the Twin Cities to straddle the Mississippi River, and local businesses could now reach their primary audience without bearing the prohibitive cost of advertising in both cities' daily newspapers.

As it turned out, the birth of the Villager foreshadowed a nationwide trend in the emergence and growth of urban and suburban community newspapers. That phenomenon accelerated in the Twin Cities with the arrival in the 1960s of an East Coast group that founded what became Minnesota Sun Publications, a group of suburban weekly newspapers that were eventually acquired by Dallas-based American Community Newspapers LLC until their recent purchase by ECM Publishers of Coon Rapids, Minnesota.

It had been Hed's and Prichard's dream to launch a similar chain of newspapers in the Twin Cities before Uncle Sam intervened. Barely a month into their nascent publishing venture, both men were drafted for the Korean War.

Haas at the helm

Hed and Prichard sold their fledgling Villager in early 1953 after publishing just three editions. The new owners were Elizabeth Haas and silent partner Bessie Jones, who had been longtime colleagues at Commercial Press, a Minneapolis printing company that had printed those first three editions of the Villager. Haas was the office manager at Commercial Press, and Jones, who had been vice president, was still on the company's board of directors. A third Commercial Press colleague, Elmer Huset, was hired to manage and edit the flagship--and ultimately only--enterprise of the newly incorporated Haas-Jones Enterprises. Haas, Jones and Huset immediately set out to make changes in the Villager, first by switching to a twice-a-month rather than a weekly publication cycle to increase the product's shelf life.

The Villagers of the 1950s served primarily as neighborhood bulletin boards, chock-full of brief news items about people and events in the neighborhoods that the newspaper served. Paging through the morgue of those yellowed editions reveals a growing array of schools, churches, service clubs and other organizations that availed themselves of the free publicity the newspaper provided. However, the newspaper provided scant coverage of the bigger local stories of that era.

If the early Villagers could be said to have an editorial voice, it was lent to amplifying the promotional efforts of individual merchants and the Highland Business Association. News and views of the association, which was incorporated as a nonprofit organization the same year that Haas-Jones bought the paper, almost always rated front-page coverage. In fact, for a time in the 1950s the newspaper did not even accept advertising from outside its coverage area, a decision no doubt made in the interest of local commercial boosterism.

Bacigalupo buys in

Huset died suddenly in 1958. Haas then hired a University of Minnesota journalism student, Ron Bacigalupo, to help out.

Bacigalupo was brought on primarily to sell advertising, but he also took photos and wrote stories. "The Villager wasn't much more than a shopper in the early days," Bacigalupo once said. "It was full of short news items that fit around the ads, with a front page that lionized the local merchants. But I wasn't going to journalism school to tell the world about the local Junior Achievement award-winners. I told the boss I wanted to write a column.

"Haas' response, delivered in her inimitable German accent, was, 'You're a lousy speller!' I recall wondering how we ever won World War II."

The Villager became a true chronicler of local people and events in the 1960s. The banner on the Villager's front page also evolved, reflecting not only its changing editorial scope but its distribution area: from proclaiming the newspaper as the "Official Publication of Highland Village Merchants" to the publication for "Highland Park, South Minneapolis, Fort Snelling and Mendota Heights" to "The Good Life in Your Community." Circulation by that time had climbed from its original 12,000 to 26,100.

In 1969 Bacigalupo, who had tapped two financial backers to buy the Villager that year, set out to build what he hoped would be his own publishing empire. He and his investors also bought the Twin Citian, the region's first city magazine and predecessor of today's Mpls. St. Paul.

In retrospect, Bacigalupo admitted he had taken on a Herculean task in trying to publish both a monthly magazine and a twice-monthly newspaper. "I was ready to start a revolution," he said, "but there wasn't enough dry ammunition to sustain it."

In the spring of 1970, Maurice Mischke severed his ties with a small St. Paul publishing company called Imagination Inc. that he and three business partners had formed as a moonlighting venture in 1959. Mischke had been employed as the business manager for Arnold Niemeyer and Associates, a St. Paul advertising agency, from 1954 until 1969 when he jumped into Imagination Inc. full time. He could not have imagined that his tenure as president of the company would be so brief.

After selling his interest in Imagination Inc. the following year, Mischke started his own one-man public relations firm, Maury Mischke Associates. Bacigalupo heard of Mischke's search for office space in the Highland area and offered him free rent in the Villager's leased offices at 790 S. Cleveland Ave. in exchange for doing the Villager's books.

"Maury kept telling me I was losing money," Bacigalupo said. With other publishing opportunities on the horizon, Bacigalupo decided to jump ship. Selling the Villager to Mischke to cover the Twin Citian's substantial printing debts gave Bacigalupo what he termed "the best and most honorable way out.

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