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Open-government award-winner Anfinson: reporter, publisher, owner, president

Reed Anfinson is one of those guys who keeps journalism alive, in his small Minnesota town and in state and national organizations that keep politicians and the profession accountable.

This afternoon, Reed Anfinson received the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information’s Freedom of Information Award. Anfinson — the publisher and owner of the Swift County Monitor-News in the west-central town of Benson — is slated to be the president of the National Newspaper Association in 2011; he’s currently treasurer.

Though he’s the brother of indefatigable media lawyer Mark Anfinson, Reed Anfinson comes off less as an open-government firebrand than a “glue guy” who sustains journalism organizations, from the paper in his town of 3,300 to state and national groups that fight for open access. He’s vice-president of the Minnesota News Council, which vets complaints about news stories, and has co-chaired the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s legislative committee for a whopping 16 years.

Reed Anfinson with Minnesota News Council executive director Sarah Bauer
Reed Anfinson with Minnesota News Council executive director Sarah Bauer

He’s a guy who regularly travels 260 miles round-trip to the Twin Cities to testify, lobby and hold his industry accountable — all while writing almost all his weekly paper’s local news, from courts to county and city coverage, plus some features.

Anfinson is a guy with incredibly deep Minnesota roots: his great uncle, Al Johnson, was speaker of the Minnesota House from 1955 to 1959; his father, Ronald, purchased the Monitor-News in 1962; his brother Scott is Minnesota’s state archeologist and another brother, John, wrote a book on the history of the Mississippi River.

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Reed was one of those kids who went off to the big city (the University of Minnesota and journalism school) not necessarily intending to go back. But after a brief stint working in the Minnesota House, Anfinson returned to Benson as a writer on the government beat. After a sister was killed by a drunk driver, his dad “lost interest in many things,” he says, and in 1990, Reed and his brother Rob bought the paper. Reed has been sole owner since 1996.

These days, “The economy is hurting us; one of our better advertisers was an auto dealer in Willmar who’s cut way back,” Anfinson says, adding that while the paper is in no danger of closing, “it just gets lean for awhile.”

He grapples with the same revenue issues plaguing bigger organizations. He’s planning to pay-wall his website, giving away public notices and obituaries while charging for news, but that’s mostly a print-preservation strategy. Anfinson is really sustained by an old-school printing business his father co-founded, Quinco Press.

Quinco is a centralized operation that has thrived by surviving an industry shake-out. “There are 13 owners in the plant, and we generate a lot of that revenue among ourselves,” Anfinson explains. “We print from Sisseton [South Dakota) to Madison to Sauk Centre, a pretty wide area. We had a record net printing newspapers last year.”

Anfinson estimates there are still 340 newspapers in Minnesota, mostly small-town weeklies and dailies like his. “Every one of those communities has city councils, boards of education, and the biggest danger in covering them is technology. Members of boards and commissions can email and text each other, administrators are mailing them and keeping them informed, and none of this is presented at board meetings. The conversation is taking place off-line as far as the public is concerned. It just seems more pervasive today that you listen to meetings, they refer to an email they got, they’re all aware of the email, but you don’t see it.”

Anfinson acknowledges community papers can ask for, and in some cases sue for, the documents. However, with shrinking resources, papers have less ability to unearth discussions that increasingly happen out of sight.

“I should be on every public official’s email list, but I get it — that’s not going to happen,” he says. “You have to educate public officials about keeping people informed. “

The politicians and bureaucrats he covers are receptive to his requests, though he notes, “All the public officials know Mark’s my brother, so it’s cheating a little bit. But we’ve had good people lately. Our county auditor recently had about an hour-long discussion about the Open Meetings law.”

Beyond community relationships and official public-spiritedness, Anfinson says the Data Practices Act and Freedom of Information Act “need more teeth,” especially in requiring information be easily accessible by the public. “I don’t know how that happens easily — the resources just aren’t there. We’re stuck in a way — imagine community newspapers fold, who will sit in the public meetings, keep the public servants honest?”

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Citizen journalists? “Not a chance,” Anfinson says flatly. “In Benson, some person may say they’ll cover the city council, but three months later, they probably won’t be interested, especially in no one’s paying them.”

He’s also miffed that the Obama administration has blocked a federal shield law for reporters over national security concerns. During the campaign, Obama “talked a good game” on the shield law, but hasn’t delivered, Anfinson says. So he’s going to do what he can to get the president to deliver. A couple of weeks ago, he told me he’d miss today’s awards because needed to be in D.C. for the NNA’s Congressional lobbying day. “My parents raised me with the idea of community service, for my community and my profession,” he says. “I enjoy that work.”