Rival small-town publishers battle over revived Minnesota paper
At a time when small-town newspapers are dying across the nation, two rival Minnesota publishers are fighting over one that came back to life.
The Chatfield News, which served about 800 subscribers in Olmsted and Fillmore counties, closed in March after 164 years when its longtime owner sold it, along with five other small southeastern Minnesota newspapers, to a rival publisher.
The new owner promptly shut down all six papers while pledging that his own newspaper, the Fillmore County Journal, would continue to provide news of their communities.
But a longtime employee of the Chatfield News recently brought the paper back to life. Now the two publishers are battling over the future of the revived paper, which resumed publication on June 3.
"She has something she doesn't own that she is using for her own benefit. It's just blatant," said Jason Sethre, owner of the Fillmore County Journal, based in Preston, Minn.
"I don't think I'm doing anything wrong," countered Pam Bluhm, owner and publisher of the Chatfield News. "I think he's just mad because he's not the only paper in the county."
The story begins in March, when Sethre bought the assets of Phillips Publishing, owner of the Chatfield News along with papers in Preston, Rushford, Spring Grove and Spring Valley. Sethre closed the papers, making a business decision that one larger newspaper — his — could more efficiently serve readers and advertisers in the area.
The Fillmore County Journal distributes more than 17,000 free copies a week and covers news in 16 area cities, Sethre said. His company hired a dozen reporters, photographers and graphic designers from the Phillips organization after the sale.
But he didn't hire Bluhm. At age 60, she was suddenly out of a job after working 40 years as an office manager for the Chatfield News. With no other job prospects, she decided to get the paper going again.
And she was able to — because the previous owner, in a goodwill gesture, had given her the ancient desktop computer in the newspaper office. Trouble was, he didn't delete the software. So Bluhm was suddenly in possession of all the programs and files that were needed to put out the paper.
That made restarting the paper a lot easier. And made Sethre angry.
"We purchased (the files)," Sethre said. "We own all the intellectual property. She just walked in and took over something that wasn't hers."
Sethre has owned the Fillmore County Journal since 2008, when he cashed in tens of thousands of dollars from his retirement accounts to buy it. He took a big risk, he said, and it's not fair for Bluhm to compete against him using assets that are rightfully his.
"It's not that easy to go ahead and buy a business," Sethre said. "What bothers me here is, we made an investment and then it was stolen." In addition to the production software, Bluhm's computer also had the subscription lists.
But what really chaps his hide, Sethre said, is her use of the name Chatfield News, which he owns.
"If she had launched ... under a completely different name, we wouldn't even be having this conversation," he said. Sethre has filed a lawsuit against Bluhm in Fillmore County Conciliation Court. He alleges that she is illegally using the Chatfield News name and costing him money because advertisers are confused about the publication's ownership. He said Bluhm was sent a cease and desist letter in June, but ignored it.
Bluhm said she's done nothing illegal or unethical. She incorporated a new company, the Chatfield News Co., with the Minnesota Secretary of State, and she's changed the name of the newspaper to match. The newspaper nameplate now reads "Chatfield News Co."
Asked why she didn't just pick a different name to start with, Bluhm said she considered other names but didn't like them. And it was impossible to ignore her history with the paper.
"All these people know me. I've been here 40 years. They associate me with the Chatfield News," she said.
Bluhm said it's not her fault that the former owner gave her the fully loaded computer. In fact, Sethre's court complaint doesn't mention the computer and its files. In his court filing, he seeks only to establish his right to the name "Chatfield News."
The two sides are scheduled to have a settlement conference on Oct. 2. Jeremy Stevens, a Rochester attorney, is helping Bluhm with her response to Sethre's claims.
"I think she's getting pushed around a little bit by somebody with a little more sophistication, both legally and business-wise," Stevens said. "At the end of the day, all she was trying to do was salvage a small-town newspaper, which are dropping like flies."
Sethre said he's simply fighting for what's right.
"I have no problem with someone starting a business if they're doing it on their own," he said. "It's not as simple as she made it look. If it's that easy, then everyone should be able to do it. No, it's not that easy.
"The first step," Sethre added, "is getting the courts to say that she's in the wrong. And then we go from there."
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