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Alexandria newspaper dumps longtime, popular columnist ... why?

by Mike McFeely

My hometown newspaper, the newspaper that many years ago helped give me a start on the path to a lifetime in media, made a curious decision recently. And it stinks, even if the powers-that-be at the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minn., hoped that spraying a little air freshener in the form of corporate-speak cliches would make the stench go away.

The newspaper fired longtime columnist Dennis Dalman, a unique and passionate institution on the newspaper's opinion pages. Dennis wrote columns for 30 years, mixing  hard-core politically-driven pieces (Dennis was an unapologetic liberal writing in an area that is just as unapologetically conservative) with humorous columns or homespun feature columns. He's a talented and creative writer, and having worked with him for a few years a long time ago, I always thought he could have moved to larger newspapers if he'd had that desire and perhaps tried to fit more neatly into the buttoned-down office world. (When I worked with Dennis he was a major-league smoker, drinker and swearer, and would say anything to anybody at anytime, often asking awkward questions of people who weren't used to being asked awkward questions. All of which made him wonderful.)

A column logo for Dennis Dalman's column in the Sartell Newsleader
Dennis hadn't been employed full-time by the Echo Press for years, having moved to weekly publications in the St. Cloud area. But the Echo Press and editor/friend Al Edenloff kept running Dennis' column once a week because it was popular and something many readers of the newspaper looked forward to, even if they didn't agree with Dennis' often-fiery liberal rhetoric. My sense was that even people around the Alex area who didn't agree with Dennis' world view liked his column because they liked Dennis. He was a character. He was likable. He was, and I don't mean this to be disrespectful, harmless. His column was just Dennis being Dennis. 

But the Echo Press quietly discontinued Dennis' column as of July 26, neither notifying readers nor allowing Dennis the usual standard-practice farewell column to say thanks for the memories. Dennis himself didn't get much of an explanation, receiving an e-mail from Edenloff that said the decision was made by management (meaning not Edenloff, the editor) because management wants "less-political columns." 

The fact the newspaper's management (Jody Hanson is the publisher and the paper is owned by Fargo-based Forum Communications) didn't bother to inform readers and didn't allow Dennis a final column is where things begin to stink. The stench continued when readers began to notice Dennis' absence and at least one wrote a letter to ask what had happened. Audrey Hale of Alexandria, in a letter published last week, wrote: "What happened to Dennis Dalman's column? I haven' seen it for the past three or four weeks. Has he been sick or is he not writing for the Echo Press anymore?"

Hale's letter allowed the paper to print a cursory, terse "editor's note" (which a source tells me was not written by the editor) explaining Dalman's absence: 

"Dennis Dalman's column will no longer appear in the Echo Press. He's long been a regular contributor to the Opinion page and we thank him for all the effort he's put into his many columns over the years. His leaving will create a big hole to fill but newspapers are continually moving and changing their products and we're no exception. We wish Denny well. He is a gifted writer and we're sure he'll be missed by many of our readers."

In other words, a whole lot of nothing in terms of explanation. 

Dalman believes he knows why he was dumped, and it's hard to argue given the absence of a real explanation from Echo Press management. He says it is because of backlash from right-wingers, Chamber of Commerce types, Republican advertisers and the like in the Alexandria area. Dalman, admittedly, tended to get extremely excitable and has engaged in name-calling in his columns the past few years. His explanation, as shared with me in an e-mail, was that he was simply returning fire to the right-wing Tea Party types who have engaged in name-calling and worse in the years since Barack Obama was elected president.

"I will defend my name-calling, so-called, because name-calling is the stock-in-trade of addle-brained right-wingers and I reserve the right to 'name-call' them back on their vicious lies and distortions, especially those aimed at Obama (those pathetic "birthers," for example)," Dalman wrote. "To my credit, I never called anybody a 'slut,' as their ultra-right-wing radio god Limbaugh did."

Dalman believes the final straw was the column that ran in the Echo Press in the July 26 edition, in which he called for Republicans to offer their own health-care solution if they are hell-bent on destroying Obamacare. Dalman says the newspaper received more howls of protest from right-wing Tea Partiers, including a former Alex Chamber of Commerce head who is well-connected in the local business community. The July 26 column was the last Dalman piece that appeared in the Echo Press.

"'Management' caved in to the pressure from the troglodytes," Dalman wrote in an e-mail. "Al, the Echo Press editor, is my ol' buddy and long-time defender through thick-and-thin. He argued strongly on my behalf, but management wouldn't listen."

I wrote an e-mail to Hanson, the publisher and a former president of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, asking her if, indeed, Dalman was fired because of pressure from conservatives and/or advertisers. She responded promptly:

"It is correct that we are no longer running columns written by Dennis.  It is however, incorrect that the reason for no longer running Dennis' columns are your statements above. ... Mike, as you know, media markets are ever changing.  In radio as well as in newspaper. Change is hard for people to accept and understand.  We all continue to move forward and strive to meet the needs and wants of our listeners and readers.  We are here to serve our communities."

Jody Hanson, publisher of the Alexandria Echo Press

Fair enough. But if, as Hanson says, the column was not dropped because of pressure from readers/advertisers, then why the lame explanation about ever-changing markets? It could not have been a financial decision, because Dalman was not a full-time employee. It could not have been a space issue, because Edenloff indicated the paper would still be running columns but they would be less political.

If Hanson believes Dalman's columns had become too partisan and too harsh in terms of name-calling, then why didn't she speak privately with Dennis and ask him to tone it down a little bit? Dalman says she didn't do that. If management felt that since Dalman doesn't live in Alexandria and had perhaps fallen out of touch locally, then what would be the harm in saying that publicly? Management could have announced to readers that the paper wanted a more local flavor in its main columnist. But it didn't do that.

Something stinks. And if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and smells like a duck ... well, you get the idea.

"I've been getting lots and lots of e-mails from fans just now discovering WHY my column hasn't been in since July 26," Dalman said. "It's good to know that while the ultra-right-wing goons are popping champagne corks, many readers are NOT celebrating."

UPDATE: One of Dalman's harshest critics in Alexandria is the former local Chamber of Commerce head Mac Bryant, who was referenced above. Here is a letter from Mr. Bryant that appeared in today's Echo Press, which I am reproducing on my blog for no other reason than to show the group of people to whom Jody Hanson and Echo Press management apparently caved:

Disappointed that school succumbed to political correctness

To the editor:

I am disappointed to see our local MNSCU college, ATCC, succumb to political correctness and open a safe zone for homosexual and transgendered students. Are other groups receiving similar opportunities?

God's word in Romans 1:26-27 informs us that homosexuality is a sin. I don't believe that He wants to encourage it, but rather minister to those caught in its grip.

If ATCC is going to choose to single out homosexual students for special attention, I believe it would be better to help them find freedom in Christ and understand God's love and healing, perhaps through the local Allies youth group.

Mac Bryant

Alexandria, MN

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)