By: Nu Yang
Most college students spend their spring break in exotic locations. Michael Happ spent his vacation this year buying a newspaper in rural Nebraska. In March, Happ, 21, learned the Elm Creek (Neb.) Beacon-Observer was for sale. He contacted owners Bob and Penni Jensen and 12 hours later, he made them an offer. The Jensens continued to publish the paper until Happ graduated from Creighton University (Omaha, Neb.) in May. That same month, Happ put out his first edition as owner. The Beacon-Observer is published every Thursday with a circulation of 600.
Even though Happ studied political science and theology in school, he said he has always been “fascinated” with the newspaper world. “Newspapers are still a big thing from where I come from,” he said, referring to his hometown of Palmer, Neb., where the population is under 500. “It’s still a mom-and-pop thing.”
Although Happ doesn’t have much journalism experience, he did work as a communications assistant for the mayor’s office in Omaha while he was in school. But Happ doesn’t see his age and lack of experience as hindrances. “It’s more of a catalyst to success,” he said. “Newspapers have also turned the digital corner in the last 10 years and I think that helps me.”
Happ added, “When I went to school in Omaha, I really embraced urban living. Moving back to rural America was a shock to everyone, but I still have my hometown values.” By purchasing the local newspaper, Happ said he was “reinvesting in the community.” Happ even converted the back room of the Beacon-Observer building where the printing press used to be into his apartment.
As the paper’s only staff member, Happ said some of his challenges include trying to fill eight pages with content and ads. According to Happ, the paper serves 10 towns, three counties and six schools. Still, he would like to expand coverage to surrounding area communities, and he prefers “quality over quantity,” which is why he chooses not to publish any syndicates. He also plans to redesign the paper in the future.
With a few issues under his belt, Happ said he is aware of the obstacles the industry is facing, but he feels “newspapers have been tested, but they have survived so much. You just have to find the niche of where it belongs and tell the stories that no one else wants to tell,” he said.
When asked if he had a five-year plan, Happ said he actually had a six-year plan. “I want to expand the business and buy more papers, remain fiscally stable, and get a dog and raise a family.