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Published August 03, 2010, 10:15 AM

Agweek @25: An ag news source roots in the Upper Great Plains

FARGO, N.D. — Celebrate a milestone with us — 25 years of Agweek. The magazine you are holding in your hands (or reading online) commemorates a quarter-century as a service to farmers and agribusinesses in the Northern Plains. For those with calculators, that’s 1,300 issues.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Celebrate a milestone with us — 25 years of Agweek.

The magazine you are holding in your hands (or reading online) commemorates a quarter-century as a service to farmers and agribusinesses in the Northern Plains. For those with calculators, that’s 1,300 issues.

After its first 25 years, this publication strives for many of the same goals that are part of its heritage, to provide value and information to farmers and their communities in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Montana. We work to turn over some of the rocks that come with the farm, and hold up a mirror to reveal an unfolding history for those grappling with the issues of today.

Agweek remains a part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Grand Forks Herald newspaper but their parent company has changed from Knight Ridder Corp., then the third-largest newspaper chain in America, to Forum Communications Co. of Fargo, N.D., a regional power in journalism.

So much has happened in agriculture, and in communications technology since then, but it’s important to remember how visionary individuals gave Agweek its start.

Mike Maidenberg was the first publisher of Agweek, along with the Grand Forks Herald, and Mike Jacobs was then editor of the award-winning daily newspaper. The Herald often was innovating with specialty publications.

Maidenberg came to the Grand Forks Herald as publisher in June 1982. Born in 1942, he’d grown up in Marion, Ind., in a town that was totally surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans. His father owned a restaurant equipment business, and his uncle was a longtime newspaperman.

“Ag was not part of my life,” he says, adding “I was strictly a consumer.”

He went to the University of Michigan for a history major and on to the Peace Corps in India from 1964 to 1966. The Green Revolution under University of Minnesota scientist Norman Borlaug was under way, but he wasn’t fully aware.

“I do remember that the expectation was that India would suffer as it had suffered from a series of famines, if the monsoons weren’t favorable, and if the population could not be kept under control,” Maidenberg says. “The idea that in a decade India would be able to feed itself was not something anybody dreamt of as being possible.”

After the Peace Corps, Maidenberg went back to school at Columbia School of Journalism. He went to the Detroit Free Press as a reporter/editor, to the Philadelphia Inquirer as an editor and to Knight Ridder’s Miami headquarters on the business side. Grand Forks would be his first publisher role.

Coming to North Dakota was in some ways like coming into a small town similar to what he’d grown up in. As with Marion, he initially didn’t know what made Grand Forks’ economy tick.

“People would talk about the air base and about the University of North Dakota, but they’d also talk about how agriculture drives the whole state,” Maidenberg says. “I didn’t know much about it, but at least I knew that I didn’t know.”

Maidenberg remembers people being generous to educate a new publisher from the outside. He often found himself on farms or talking to county agricultural agents and implement dealers.

“After awhile, it really began to dawn on me — especially as someone with a hazy image of a farmer in bib overalls and not knowing much beyond that — that these were some very solid, sophisticated business people,” he says.

But some of these farmers told him they were frustrated by being somewhat isolated from information.

“There was no Internet at the time,” he says. “It struck me that here is this audience of medium-, small- and some large-sized operations and they were hungry for news and information,” he says. “They wanted to know what was going on in the world and in Washington. Newspapers didn’t really address those subjects very well and the standard farm magazines were monthly or even every other month, and they were heavily oriented toward production — how to grow more.”

Maidenberg and Jacobs saw an opportunity and went looking for an agriculture and business editor for the paper.

Home-grown talent

They found Jim Durkin.

Durkin was a former Herald staffer who was working at the Greenville, S.C., newspaper.

He grew up in Inkster, N.D., The oldest son in a family with eight children, he’d helped his family raise a full range of crops, including potatoes and some sugar beets — “everything but livestock,” Durkin says.

At age 10, Durkin already was spending long hours on a tractor but decided his aspirations were off the farm.

“By the time I was old enough to know better,” he jokes.

He’d been in sports in high school and started at Mayville State University, thinking he’d teach and coach. An instructor there suggested he take a course in journalism and write for the college paper.

“It was kind of fun and I thought I could stay close to sports, so I transferred to the University of North Dakota and became a journalist,” he says.

As a student, he approached Grand Forks Herald sports editor Virg Foss about working at the paper part time. Durkin started at the Herald full time in 1976. From late 1981 to 1983, he went to South Carolina, but was happy to come back to North Dakota when given the opportunity.

The Herald had a “green section” called “Farm and Home.” It was largely an advertising-driven publication.

“We were improving that,” Durkin recalls. “Basically, there was me and Gail Hand and Andre Stephenson, the layout and design guy. And Juan Miguel Pedraza was a part-time clerk. He’d been working for Bev Kees, making elevator calls. I kind of inherited the other half of his time.”

When Maidenberg started getting big ideas, Durkin was at his side.

Among other things, Maidenberg and Durkin noticed that while there were a number of regional publications and tabloids in the area, there was an opportunity for “a lot of good, hard-edged information” rather than depending heavily on county agent reports and wire stories.

“We thought we’d actually go out and report on important stories — compile statistics. There’d be a niche for us,” Durkin says. “Our goal was to figure out what kind of information we wanted in there, how we could go about getting it, adjusting and making it useful to people and putting it in a display that is easy to follow and read.”

Where do we fit?

Durkin doesn’t remember exactly how they came up with the name, but there’s the logic of it being an ag publication that came out weekly — Agweek.

One thing that Durkin remembers was thinking they would put out 48 pages a week, and he realized one thing: “We’re going to need more people.”

It was early in 1985. They decided to start publication in the summer, and the first issue was Aug. 5, 1985.

Agweek started hiring more reporters with the vision to fill the publication with stories on feedgrains, wheat, soybeans, corn and specialty crops.

“It was just a situation that the more we looked at the task, the more we realized we had to add people,” Durkin says.

From the get-go, Maidenberg started investing in what would become a big reputation in ag news.

“I remember they sent me to the Soviet Union,” Durkin remembers. “It was truly the Soviet Union back then — still Communist, still one big country.”

He went on an ag tour for a couple of weeks, checking out farms and how things were done over there. Durkin says there was a lot of curiosity about the Soviet Union at the time. A decade earlier, the Soviets had shaken up agriculture in the U.S. and around the world by buying grain, boosting prices to then-historic levels.

“I was in a potato field with a bunch of Russians and a few Americans, and I saw a beetle on one of the plants,” Durkin says. “A guy came up and saw me looking at the plant — pointed to it, and he says ‘Colorado.’ It was the same beetle — the Colorado potato beetle — we had in the Red River Valley. It hit me that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, these guys (farmers) are up against the same thing. It was an epiphany, I guess.”

Durkin says the hiring buildup was impressive and the paper attracted impressive staff members.

“We put some ads in ‘Editor & Publisher’ magazine, and I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. Turns out, there was a lot of interest.

Durkin remembers going to Washington with Agweek staffer Burbach. The two successfully recruited Sonja Hillgren as Washington-based correspondent.

“I find it amazing we were able to hire her,” Durkin recalls. “She had great contacts on Capitol Hill and really knew her stuff.”

(Hillgren, a Sioux Falls, S.D., native, went on to be editor of Farm Journal magazine. She died of cancer in 2007.) Other early reporters had master’s degrees and MBAs.

Beyond the farm crisis

Deliberately, the Herald/Agweek executives decided that the farm crisis that spawned foreclosures, tractorcades, farm protests and Farm Aid would not be Agweek’s main focus.

“It was part of the story, but certainly was one we didn’t want to focus on,” Durkin says. “Every newspaper was writing about ‘woe are we,’ and we were writing for the people who were farming, trying to survive — trying to HELP them survive.”

Marketing and national policy were the two biggest focus areas.

“From a news person’s point of view, it made a lot of sense,” Maidenberg says. “Farmers were interested in news and information and weren’t getting as much as I thought they were seeking.”

Among the farmers encouraging Agweek were Willard Pederson and Keith Bjerke, both of Northwood, N.D., and Bob Bergland, who had been U.S. agriculture secretary under President Jimmy Carter and still was in national leadership positions in cooperatives.

Most competing publications of the day were regional or were focusing on crop production — how to grow more grain or livestock. Few talked about the marketing and trade side of things. Some farmers were getting information online, but it wasn’t as simple as today.

“At the time, if there was a big commodity sale to a foreign country, we’d report on it, or who was thinking about buying,” Durkin says.

Agweek hired North Dakota native Ed Maixner, a veteran of The Forum in Fargo, to cover ag finance, covering the strength of the U.S. dollar and key interest rates. Jon Knutson, who recently returned to Agweek as a reporter after nearly 20 years, succeeded Maixner.

“It got to the point where it was ridiculous; you’d get tired of hearing about the strength of the dollar, but it was a really big deal, once you realized the influence of those kinds of things,” Durkin recalls.

These were heady times.

Durkin “wore a path” to Maidenberg’s office. The activist ag publisher became well-known for seeing news items and passing piles of clippings along, marking them up with his green, felt-tipped pen — demanding immediate attention.

“Whether I was having a good day or a bad day depended on how much green ink I’d see,” Durkin says with a smile.

Pushing the envelope

By the peak in 1987, Agweek had bulked up to about 15 people on the editorial side alone.

The tabloid newsprint Agweek “magazine” had an increasingly impressive staff. At one point, it had its own graphic artist and its own photographer. It had bureaus in Washington, as well as Billings, Mont., and Fargo. That didn’t count the advertising and circulation personnel.

“We kind of outgrew the Herald newsroom,” Durkin recalls, so Agweek moved into a nearby building downtown.

“We were writing for people who understood things — like ‘PIK-and-roll,’” Durkin says, referring to a government program that was famous in the Reagan years. Farmers used “Payment-in-Kind” certificates to redeem stored bushels in government storage programs. Farmers sometimes would fly in light airplanes to remote counties in North Dakota and elsewhere to redeem “certs” for more bushels.

“We’d do most of our stories during the week, but then, once the markets closed Friday, that’s when we really cranked. We’d start doing market wraps for all of the commodities. Fridays were long days for us because we wanted to be as fresh as we could, and we didn’t start writing those stories until the numbers were out.”

Agweek was looking like a bulked-up regional publication, but behind-the-scenes, Maidenberg had ambitions to take the publication national.

“We weren’t afraid to go after things,” Durkin says. “We thought about (a national scope), but we had to test it on a regional basis — seeing how it worked, fine-tuning content and presentation,” Durkin says. “Maidenberg came up with the phrase that he ‘wanted to be the ‘Barron’s’ of agriculture,’” referring to the Dow Jones & Co. weekly that is national in scope, focused on finance and markets.

Maidenberg and Durkin came up with a plan that included a main headquarters in Minneapolis. There would be satellite offices in Grand Forks and elsewhere, and the publication would be sent to points around the country on Sundays and distributed on Mondays.

“Distribution was a big deal,” Durkin says of the challenges. “We looked at the USA Today model. We looked at the advertising potential, took numbers and crunched them down. We said, ‘OK, here’s what it would take and what your returns would be.’”

Maidenberg says the situation may have been different had the Internet been more developed as a means of transmitting information. But at the time, the costs of transmission and the need to have regional editions and printing were overwhelming.

“I’d still like to try it, national, but I don’t think ink-on-paper is in the cards because the printing and distribution hurdles are still huge,” he says. “But who knows? Maybe electronic readers will solve that issue.”

Right-sizing to reality

In those buildup years, Agweek, was not instantly expected to be profitable.

“When we were starting up, we had lots of expenses and didn’t have the revenue yet to meet them,” Maidenberg recalls. “On a stand-alone basis, we weren’t profitable in the first few years. I have to hand it to the folks at Knight Ridder because they gave us sufficient time to establish Agweek as a publication with advertising and circulation to go into the black and be profitable.”

Long-term, Maidenberg and Durkin could project the national concept could be profitable, but only at about 10 percent return-on-investment per year. Then, the newspaper business was more profitable than today, and the then-Miami-based chain was making an ROI in the neighborhood of 20 percent on its papers.

“At that time, we decided to pull in our horns — do what we were doing, but not national,” Durkin says.

Agweek started scaling back to “right-size” itself for the regional market. Some of its larger personalities went on to other jobs — Hillgren to Farm Journal; reporter Randall Mik-kelsen to the wire service powerhouse Reuters, where he became a White House correspondent, and other duties internationally and domestically.

“We tried to do the best we could with fewer people, knowing that if we were going to keep it going we couldn’t do it on the hope of getting bigger,” Durkin remembers.

In 1992, Durkin left his post as Agweek editor and returned to the Herald as executive sports editor.

“They were going to cut back to ‘X’ number of jobs,” Durkin says. “At that point, I decided if we’re at the end of the road in terms of building Agweek and others wanted to stay, I’d just as soon go back into daily journalism and it’d save a spot (at Agweek) for somebody else.”

Juan Miguel Pedraza served next as Agweek editor, followed by Duane Mattson, Julie Copeland, Rona Johnson, Kevin Bonham and Kim Deats, who moved to Agweek from the Grand Forks Herald in November 1996.

Durkin continued with the Herald through the flood of 1997. He was offered a job by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in December 1997.

He still gets to the home area six or eight times a year. Fishing is a passion and he hunts deer up near Inkster every fall. Now 58, Durkin is a St. Paul editor for the Star Tribune.

While not a national publication today, Agweek is still a national award-winner and holds true to its journalistic ideals.

Armed with new technologies, fewer reporters and editors continue to serve Agweek readers and regularly cover stories throughout North Dakota South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and Canada’s prairie provinces.

Since 2000, reporters have gone assignment to Cuba, China, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, France and Germany. Agweek columns still are filled with news of agricultural markets, national political maneuvering, as well as technological trends and farm policy issues. It has award-winning columnists Jerry Hagstrom in Washington and Ryan Taylor in Towner, N.D. Many Agweek staffers or contributors have become leaders, with four former staffers elected as presidents of the North American Agricultural Journalists organization.

On July 1, 2006, Agweek became part of the Forum Communications Co., when the Grand Forks Herald was sold to the Fargo-based company.

Mike Jacobs became editor and publisher of the Herald in 2006 and so took on the role as Agweek publisher.

“I think Agweek has established itself as an important element in journalism about agriculture in the Northern Plains,” Jacobs says. “Its focus has always been on the business side of agriculture — the way markets and public policy affect agriculture. Frankly, Agweek does that better than other publications do.”

Maidenberg retired from the Herald in 2003. He became vice president for programs at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami and remained associated with the foundation through March 2009. In June 2009, he took a consulting post with the Collins Center for Public Policy, a think tank that has a project dealing with the future of communities affected by the Everglades restoration.

“Those communities are heavily dependent on agriculture — particularly sugar cane, and to some extent winter vegetables, including sweet corn and peppers,” he says. “So you see, I’ve gotten back into agriculture, indirectly.”

Maidenberg says that while the scale of Agweek has returned to a regionalist vision, it still is true to its editorial core.

“There’s always that news and analysis. I think we’ve held true to that. And I still get the magazine, by the way.”

He says that while there are uncertainties for all print publications because of the Internet, there also are greater opportunities for specialized publications like Agweek,because of its focus on ag.

“Agweek is kind of a general magazine — it’s not covering a single crop or completely a single region. Its editorial approach and timeliness remain great strengths,” he says. “But like every publication that came up out of print, it’s going to have to experiment as it makes its way forward.”

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