At the age of 10, Tesha Christensen launched her journalistic career when her letter to the editor was published in her hometown paper. Now, more than 40 years later, Christensen has parlayed a life-long interest in community journalism into a successful business venture.
The publisher of two community papers, Minneapolis’s Messenger and St. Paul’s Monitor, Christensen recently started a third paper, the Southwest Connector, to cover the South Minneapolis neighborhoods that had been served by the now defunct Southwest Journal.
“I knew a potential market was waiting for me there, now that the Journal had stopped publishing. People in those neighborhoods were reaching out to me, telling me that they wanted to see a new publication in their area,” Christensen said.
A former journalism instructor and a long-time newspaper freelancer, Christensen purchased her first two papers in 2019 at a time when community papers all across the country were struggling. “Tesha took ownership of the Messenger and the Monitor during a challenging time for print journalism,” noted Denis Woulfe, Christensen’s advertising manager, who served in a similar position for the papers’ previous owners. “COVID-19 added to the challenges, and then our two communities had to deal with the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd.” Woulfe said. “But in times like these, community papers are more important than ever. Residents crave local news, not only to be informed, but also to center themselves and their connection to their communities.”
“We learned how to be nimble and adapt,” Christensen explained. “On the business side, we realized that we needed to be strategic in how we approached advertisers—particularly during a time when Covid was causing so much economic dislocation.”
Christensen and her sales team recognized that restaurants and entertainment venues were suffering, but they knew that other sectors like the home improvement industry were thriving now that people were spending more time at home.
“We determined that landscaping, decorating and home repairs were popular do-it-yourself activities during the pandemic so we reached out to business in those sectors and offered our services. We also worked with potential advertisers to determine whether they were primarily interested in new business, or whether they were more interested in business retention- so we gave them a way to thank their long-time customers.
“Advertising isn’t just about taking your logo and putting it out in front of people. We encourage our advertisers to tell their story and offer useful advice to our readers. Telling their story means showing how their products or services can be useful and relevant.
“On the editorial side of the papers, I need to keep in mind the issues that our readers and my neighbors are engaged with. We try to be local, and that means writing about the issues that a local hardware store might face. It means writing about the great things that the person living down the block is doing for the community. And it also means covering the broader matters that people care about.”
Christensen hasn’t shied away from dealing with issues that some community papers may consider too controversial. For the past year., the Monitor and Messenger have used their news space to examine the causes and the aftermath of the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd. “For our readers, these are very local issues. These issues deal with events that occurred in their own neighborhood.” Christensen said.
“We are here in Minneapolis in a place that the rest of the world has been looking at. And we are wrestling with issues of racism and who we are as a community. Our papers can’t remain relevant if we ignore those issues that our readers care about. I don’t think that we are pushing a particular point of view. What we really are doing is providing a space where conversations about these issues can take place.”
The Southwest Connector’s publisher said that the paper’s name reflects its purpose. “We are all about making connections at the community level. What we try to do with our publications is to make the stories, the photographs and the ads all work together in a way that makes connections between people in the community. The wonderful feature about neighborhood newspapers is that they connect people who have a service or a product to offer in the community with people who live in the same place and are looking for what that local business has to offer. It is a wonderful symbiotic relationship.”
Christensen will continue to oversee the publications of her three papers and will rely on her stable of freelancers to cover Southwest Minneapolis news — at least initially. In preparing for the Connector’s launch, she has brought on sales staff for the Connector and will be hiring an editor with ties to the neighborhoods in the new paper’s circulation area. That area extends from France Avenue on the West to I-35W on the East, and from the 62nd Street Crosstown on the South to I-394 and the Bryn Mawr neighborhood on the North. The Southwest Connector will be home delivered, once in December and again in January on the first Monday of the month. Starting in February, the paper will be delivered twice per month on the first and third Thursdays to 32,000 households. In addition, the paper will be available at 70 bulk delivery locations.
For Christensen, community journalism is a passion as well as a business venture. “I love newspapers . I always have. I have never looked at newspapers as a place where someone could make a fortune. For me, neighborhood journalism is a way to pay the bills and provide a real sense of accomplishment. I believe that more and more people recognize the importance of neighborhood journalism these days. If you put together a good product people will read it.
“We keep hearing that newspapers are dying, but that is not a new story. People said that about newspapers when the radio came in. They said it about radio and newspapers when television came in. And when the internet came, they said that about radio, television and newspapers. And we still have all of those things. I am confident that we will continue to have them. We will have to change and adapt. We can’t just stay the same. But there is a future for us. We have to continue to talk to people and ask them what they need and want. We can learn from that.”