In his account both robust and appreciative, Jack Zaleski has authored an exploration of a newspaper and media firm he knows well.
In “Forum Communications Company: A Narrative History 1980-2018,” Zaleski, retired after 30 years as editorial page editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, brings to life a publication that strove with success to cover key events of the region. Perhaps surprisingly, before moving on to coverage of politics, economic challenges and devastating floods, he opens with a tumultuous internal story: the unexpected “hostile takeover” attempt of The Forum by minority shareholders.
It was 1984, when perhaps the expectation around the newsroom was a lively debate about the pending endorsement of President Ronald Reagan for a second term. Not whether to endorse him — the paper was a stranger to favoring Democratic aspirants to the White House — but with what degree of enthusiasm.
But then came those, once friendly, who wanted a “restructuring” of the company. This was to begin with removal of the publisher, editor, and likely more to come. Zaleski presents this drama with ample detail, and with fairness to both sides. The controlling family, with connections at the paper going back to 1917, prevailed, with its domain now expanding over 103 years into radio, television, commercial printing and the digital age.
A connecting theme of the book is the value of independent ownership. As national chains have increasingly moved to purchase middle-market newspapers, there has been some diminution of local voice and direction in journalism practiced close to home.
As a proud independent, The Forum and Forum Communications Co. can serve its region knowledgeably, and without the distraction of a national chain’s priorities. The book suggests, directly and by implication, that the company’s independence has been a key strength.
There is coverage of the early years of what became The Forum, as the reader is carried back to the Red River Valley of Dakota Territory in 1878. With other publications aiming for success, the book suggests one key to The Forum’s longevity: getting to know the people and needs of the circulation area. The Forum appears to have mastered this.
One telling chapter centers on the unforgettable winter of 1996-97, when seven blizzards and the Great Flood of ‘97 devastated the region. Without hesitation, The Forum helped a neighboring newspaper with production and distribution services. Here is the brotherhood of journalism writ large.
Well-chosen anecdotes are a highlight of the book, as author Zaleski has found many enlightening ones from years past. One relates an unscheduled “prayer meeting” in the newsroom; another, the controversial cartoon parodying “The Nutcracker” ballet’s "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" — or was that of the sugarbeets?
The book contains many photos and reproductions of historic front pages. One captioned photo shows the publisher with two protesters, outside The Forum's downtown Fargo building, asking that the newspaper include notices of same-sex marriages along with other marriages. One may wonder how this issue may have been resolved.
The Forum has gathered honors and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the north Fargo tornado of 1957. Publishers William Marcil and his successor, son Bill Marcil Jr., are widely admired in the community and in the trade. In 2006, William Marcil was the recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, a highly prized North Dakota honor.
Above all in this volume, Zaleski presents, even celebrates, a joy in journalism that many other professions would find hard to match. The feeling permeates the author’s work, as he brings his audience a bountiful collection of related stories, musings, business challenges and, when they happen, welcome triumphs. This book is strongly recommended to your attention.
Richard Morey is an instructor of history at Kent Place School in Summit, N.J. He previously served as a college guidance director in two Wisconsin schools and is a graduate of Colby College in Maine and the University of Delaware. He and Jack Zaleski met in high school in New Britain, Ct., and have been friends for more than 50 years.