Advocate for community journalism, longtime Otter Tail County newspaperman dies at 74
Michael Parta ran newspapers in New York Mills and Perham, including the only Finnish language newspaper in the United States.
NEW YORK MILLS, Minn. — The night before Michael Parta died from complications related to a 9-year-long battle with cancer, he was still optimistic and making plans to promote community journalism.
“He told me on Friday, the last time I spoke with him the day before he passed away, ... he was starting to write thoughts down for a project about the history and development of community newspapers,” said Chris Parta, his son.
For three generations, the Parta family ran the New York Mills Herald, now called The Dispatch. The company combined with the Perham Enterprise Bulletin, now the Perham Focus.
Parta and his wife also published the only Finnish language newspaper in the United States, the Amerikan Uutiset.
Michael Parta focused on bringing the community together instead of selling headlines, his family said. From local essay contests to lobbying against unfair taxes before Congress in Washington, D.C., Michael Parta lived and breathed community newspapers, and he was also a father and loving husband, they said.
“He thought community newspapers were the heart and soul of any community,” said his daughter, Abby Parta, adding that he always kept pace with ever-changing technology. She remembered when he purchased a computer for the newspaper that was the size of a refrigerator.
Community, family, and the job of a newspaperman came naturally to him, said another daughter, Jennifer Parta.
"Deep in his soul, he was a community builder," said Chuck Johnson, a longtime friend and previous editor of the Perham Enterprise Bulletin.
“He was a small-town guy, but he took the platform he was given to not only grow his town but do things for community journalism in his state, even to the national level,” Jennifer Parta said.
She met three presidents and sat in White House chairs because of her father’s passion for promoting community newspapers, she said.
“He had that kind of moxy,” she said.
“His glass was always half full, always half full no matter what just happened to him,” Johnson said.
He saw the importance of newspapers even as he went through cancer treatments, and he hoped to share a message on the journalistic and financial challenges facing newspapers at the Minnesota Newspaper Association convention. He passed away Jan. 29, the day after the 2022 convention, at age 74.
“He wanted to address the MNA and talk about what he thought newspapers need to do today to survive,” Johnson said. “He’s down at Mayo, he’s going through chemotherapy and he’s not even in newspapering anymore, but he wants to deliver to the MNA at their convention.”
As a boy, Michael Parta worked with his father at the New York Mills Herald. Later, he ran the newspaper for more than 30 years with his wife, Jan. His children also helped, Abby Parta said.
He believed in what he called “refrigerator journalism."
“He said that a small-town paper was about giving people things to clip out and hang on their refrigerators,” wrote Melissa Swenson, Detroit Lakes Tribune, Perham Focus and Wadena Pioneer Journal publisher, in an email. “I respected Mike and learned a lot from him. He loved being from New York Mills, his family, living on the lake, and newspapers.”
As a community journalist, he served and led the community, said former reporter and editor Kevin Cederstrom.
Michael Parta also promoted his beliefs and fought for them at the state and national levels. He served as president of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, National Newspaper Association, and National Newspaper Association Foundation. He also served on the board of directors for the Newspaper Association of America as the only non-daily member.
“Mike was one of a disappearing breed of small-town newspaper publishers. He was totally vested in the idea that communities needed an involved newspaper, and he and his wife Jan proved that for over 50 years. He not only reported the news of the community, they were often deeply involved in making that news,” said Dennis Winskowski, longtime friend and former publisher, in a message. “Mike will be missed by all who knew him.”
“Mike was one of those people … that did those things, got his hands dirty, got his wallet out and stuck in front of parades,” Johnson said.
Tonda Rush, general counsel for the National Newspaper Association, worked with Michael Parta and recalled when large magazine companies were lobbying Congress for additional taxes on postal shipping for distributing newspapers.
“He was incensed and went to Washington, D.C. He was asked if the New York Mills Herald was more important than Better Homes & Gardens. And he said, ‘Of course I do. In New York Mills, it is far more important,’” Rush said. “And then he delivered a 30-minute speech on the importance of community newspapers in small towns, and we ended up winning the case."
Lisa Hills, executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said Michael Parta served as the organization's president from 1985 to 1986 and later served on the board of directors for the National Newspaper Association.
“Community newspapers played an important role in the community; they are the heart and soul of communities,” Hills said. “He was a pillar in the industry.”
Michael Parta's passion for journalism stretched beyond the United States. "He worked in Estonia and Latvia after the fall of communism to create a free community press in these former Soviet nations," according to his obituary .
“Many people do good things, but truly great people are those who do small things that impact many,” Abby Parta said, adding that the quote was part of her valedictorian speech from New York Mills High School.
Jennifer Parta said her father was always positive, which helped his family’s spirits during his long illness.
“He wanted us to bring out positivity to the world and showed us how we make it better for everyone else. He felt that way about newspapers, too,” she said.