Small Papers Scramble To Cover Mailbox Bombs

By: Joe Strupp

The lead story planned for Wednesday’s Republican Eagle in Red Wing, Minn., concerned a dispute over a farmer’s plans to expand his feed lot. But that was before the arrest of suspected mailbox bomber Lucas John Helder, who happens to hail from nearby Pine Island, Minn.

When word of Helder’s arrest reached the 7,364-circulation paper late Tuesday, the feed-lot controversy took a backseat and Editor Jim Pumarlo put half his reporting staff — of four — on the story.

The Republican Eagle was one of dozens of small daily and weekly papers across the Midwest that suddenly confronted a national story simply by virtue of their location. The 18 mailbox bombs Helder is accused of planting across five states were placed in mostly rural, small-town areas, and the closest newspapers were often little ones with a handful of staff each. “We pretty much had all hands on deck,” said Thomas Stevens, editor of The Journal-Standard, a 14,640-circulation daily in Freeport, Ill., about 30 miles from two bomb sites. “We had to bump the local high-school prom king and queen out of the paper and run them Sunday.”

Articles about a local high-school principal’s firing got bumped off Page One of the weekly Anamosa (Iowa) Journal-Eureka, circulation 2,549, to make way for a bomb story. News Editor Joan Marlin said the paper’s biggest disadvantage was not having a relationship with the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms officials who were heading the investigation. “It’s not our local sheriff,” she said.

In Cairo, Neb., Jodi Schultz, 26, the owner, editor, and sole reporter at the weekly Cairo Record, circulation 673, called it “the biggest story I’ve ever done.”

For many of the papers with younger reporters, the bombing coverage was a chance to get experience, as well as to feel the rush of a big, breaking story. Publisher John Edgecombe Jr. of the Nebraska Signal in Geneva, a 2,931-circulation weekly near Ohiowa (where a bomb was found May 4), also had to contend with the concerns of fearful readers who did not leave their mailboxes open to receive the paper when it came out. “If people don’t get the paper,” Edgecombe said, “we hear about it.”

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