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 Barry 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.

Mischke makes it his

Mischke bought the Villager in December of 1970. He soon learned that getting the Villager back on its financial feet would be a daunting task. The first issue under Mischke's ownership actually lost money.

"He told me it might be rough at first--the first five years or so," said Mischke's wife, Jeanette, and mother of their eight children, then ages 6 to 18. "But running his own newspaper was something he always wanted to do. We both knew it was unlikely he'd get another chance."

"What motivated him to buy the Villager was his love for the newspaper business in general," said Michael Mischke, 60, Maurice's son and successor as Villager publisher. "He liked the idea of being a big fish in a small pond, he liked the neighborhood, and he liked being in a position to make a difference in the lives of his readers and advertisers."

Jeanette Mischke joined the Villager staff as classified ad manager in March of 1975. Michael was named editor in May of 1976, having served as editor of the St. John's University student newspaper during his senior year, just as his father had done 29 years before.

The ensuing years brought many changes. Increasing advertising revenue resulted in bigger papers, more employees and dramatic improvements in both the editorial product and the newspaper's design. That growth, in turn, prompted a search for larger quarters to house a larger staff and, for the first time, the paper's own pre-press production facilities.

The building at 757 S. Snelling Ave. that now houses the business came on the market in 1981 at a time when the prime lending rate was 21 percent. With the assistance of Highland Bank, the Villager was approved for the first and only lower-interest Minnesota Small Business Finance Agency loan the state would ever make.

Even as circulation of the Villager continued to grow, first to 36,000, then to 45,000, another opportunity presented itself with the purchase of an adjacent neighborhood newspaper, the Grand Gazette, in August 1984. Michael Mischke was named publisher of that paper, even as he continued to serve as executive editor of the Villager.

In November 1985, the Villager and Gazette were incorporated as businesses of Villager Communications Inc., with Maurice as chairman and treasurer, Michael as president and Jeanette as secretary.

Jeanette Mischke retired from the family business in January 1989. Health problems told Maurice he should do likewise, "but he never got around to it," Michael said. Maurice died from congestive heart failure on August 19, 1991.

A son's ascension

As the publisher and sole stockholder of Villager Communications Inc. since that time, Michael, with the assistance of right-hand man and chief executive officer John Rauch, has seen the company through three recessions, several key staff changes, the purchase of greatly enhanced production equipment, and the folding of the company's graphics arts division.

"The graphics division was created primarily to produce the papers," Mischke said. "With the efficiencies we realized from constantly updated hardware and software, and with the talents of all of those who helped produce our newspapers, we no longer needed a graphics division. Besides, that part of the business was losing money."

The Grand Gazette was not losing money in August 2003 when it was reborn as Avenues, St. Paul's News & Arts Monthly. However, the Gazette was having a hard time competing with the older, larger and twice as frequently published Villager. By that time the Gazette had grown from 12,000 to 22,000 in circulation.

Rather than fold the Gazette into the Villager, Mischke opted to relaunch the newspaper as Avenues, a publication more suited to complement the Villager, both in its news and advertising content.

According to Mischke, the ensuing four years were the best revenue-producing years the business had ever seen. However, by 2007 a changing media landscape dictated a new approach to local newspapering. With a series of ownership changes and staff layoffs and buyouts at the Twin Cities' two daily newspapers, Mischke decided it was an opportune time to do what his father had contemplated doing back in 1982 when he bought the Gazette. He folded Avenues into a redesigned Villager, expanding the circulation of what was already the largest neighborhood newspaper in the Twin Cities to 60,000 copies.

According to Mischke, the larger Villager created a better value for advertisers, simplified sales and marketing, expanded the door-to-door and newsstand distribution, and combined the best design and editorial content of both newspapers, including the use of full color on almost every page.

The future of neighborhood news

Even with increasing competition in all facets of the media business, the Villager is now in a better position to thrive in the niche it occupies in the local marketplace, according to Mischke.

"The reason the Villager was born is the same reason it exists today," he said. "There's a strong and growing demand for news and advertising of a distinctly local nature, and though we know we can always improve, the staff here and the stable of freelance talent we've attracted are capable of meeting that demand as well or better than anyone."

According to Mischke, the future of neighborhood newspapers hinges largely on the future of the neighborhoods they serve. "What makes the Villager successful," he said, "is our ability to produce a quality newspaper with a depth and breadth of local news coverage that the daily newspapers can't hope to match, to deliver that newspaper to an attractive, loyal, well-educated readership, and to deliver that readership to a solid base of largely locally owned businesses that depend on those readers as loyal customers.

"We continue to do that and, though you won't see me sitting here 60 years from now, you will still see the Villager, in one form or another."

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