Herald publisher Mike Jacobs’ years in journalism marked by love for N.D., mind for politics
Mike Jacobs’ path to his celebrated 35-year career with the Grand Forks Herald stretched from the Jacobs Journal, which he produced as an eighth-grader at the kitchen table of his family home in Stanley, N.D., to another kitchen event in 1978 in Mandan, N.D., where he and his wife, Suezette Bieri, were publishing The Onlooker, a twice-monthly newspaper covering North Dakota politics and the environment.
“One day, the door fell off the refrigerator in our house in Mandan, which was also our office, of course,” he said. “We put the door back on with a bungee cord. And within a few days, the oven quit working. Suezette looked at me and she said, ‘No more baked potatoes.’ And I said I’ll get a job.”
A short time later, he talked with Tom Schumaker, then the Herald’s managing editor.
“He and I cooked up this scheme to open up a Bismarck bureau,” he said.
Jacobs, 66, has been with the Herald ever since, working over the years as a legislative reporter, editorial writer, columnist, city editor, managing editor, editor, editor-publisher, and finally, publisher. He also was on the ground floor of the formation of Forum Communications' Forum News Service.
He is retiring Monday. He is being succeeded by Korrie Wenzel, who had been publisher of the Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D. The Herald and Daily Republic are part of Forum Communications.
Road to Grand Forks
In the years between initially arriving in Grand Forks as a UND freshman and as a Herald reporter, Jacobs worked at newspapers in Fargo, Dickinson, Jamestown and Mandan as well as spending short periods of time in St. Louis and Seattle.
After graduating from UND in December 1970 with a philosophy/religion degree, his first full-time reporting job was at the Dickinson Press.
In September 1973, Jacobs moved to Jamestown, where he was editor of the Union Farmer, a North Dakota Farmers Union publication. He also spent nearly a year as managing editor of the Morning Pioneer in Mandan. In 1975, he wrote “One-Time Harvest,” a book about coal development in western North Dakota.
Jacobs has carried a love of both North Dakota and passion for politics throughout his Herald career.
“I think he’s been the most important journalist in North Dakota in the past half-century,” said Chuck Haga, a longtime writer for the Herald and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis who retired from the Herald last year. “Nobody knows the state and its history and its traditions and challenges as well as he does.”
Former Herald Publisher Michael Maidenberg said he refers to Jacobs as the “encyclopedia of knowledge about North Dakota.
“His love for the state is immense, his passion unbounded, and both are infectious. He sees the state as a whole, west to east, south to north, its history and its prospects. He knows all its neighborhoods and most of its secrets.”
Jacobs was editor of the Herald when it won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its coverage of the Red River flood of 1997.
“The Pulitzer Prize is joyful,” Jacobs said of the career highlight. “There is a lot of satisfaction in that. But the Pulitzer was a gift of the river. We just happened to be here and did the right stuff, with a lot of help.”
Jacobs said the Grand Forks flood and downtown fire resonated nationally in a way that few natural disasters have since.
“I think there was a special poignancy of the story and the response — not just the Herald, but the Herald was certainly part of it. Pat Owens was a very attractive, embattled figure. And Grand Forks residents just put on a pretty good show on TV. There was this sense of real people battling nature in a sort of elemental way. So, it was a great story.”
Owens was Grand Forks mayor during the flood.
Hal Gershman, a local businessman and Grand Forks City Council president, credits Jacobs and Maidenberg for leading Grand Forks’ downtown recovery efforts after the Flood of 1997.
“There were people who wanted to abandon downtown and build it on 32nd Avenue,” he said. “The Mikes said no. They said the focus needed to be on rebuilding downtown.”
Jacobs and Maidenberg convinced Knight Ridder, the Herald’s owner at the time, to build a new Herald building, most of which was destroyed by the flood and fire, at the same location, where it could serve as a downtown landmark for generations to come.
“It showed a commitment and it turned the heads of others to stay,” Gershman said.
Earl Strinden, retired CEO of the UND Alumni Association who spent 22 years as a Republican leader in the North Dakota Legislature, has known Jacobs since he was a UND student and Dakota Student editor.
“We didn’t always agree, but we’ve been friends over all those years, when he was covering the Legislature and working on other projects,” he said. “He’s dedicated to the public being fully aware of what is being happening in the public sector. He’s a fine, fine man, a man with strong integrity.”
While he loves politics, Jacobs long has maintained that he has no interest in entering the political ring as a candidate.
“He’s always said politics is a spectator sport,” Bieri said. “He’s always been intrigued by the way things play out … knowing the undercurrents, mapping the field. That’s what he’s liked.”
Jacobs has witnessed and has been a part of an evolution of both politics and newspapers.
“When I started, politics was sort of the grist of the newspaper,” he said. “There’s much less emphasis on political news now than there was. What kind of political coverage there is, for lack of a better term, is kind of politicians trying to get at one another. There’s not so much about the nuts and bolts of policy-making, the way there was in the old days.”
“North Dakota — it’s always been, in some ways, an insular, individualistic kind of place. It stood out among the 50 states for the nature of its politics. I think that’s less true now than it was, although North Dakotans still have the capacity to confound the experts … the Heitkamp election being the most recent example.”
Jacobs entered the newspaper business in the late 1960s, when the industry was in the dark ages compared with today’s technology.
He describes the late 1980s as the high-water mark for the industry.
“It’s been kind of a rough ride, with the really amazing change in the business, not just the definition of news and the role of the newspaper in the community, but in the manufacturing process. It’s been a period of very great change in the newspaper business.”
The newspaper model has changed in the past 25 years, too. That has resulted in a series of layoffs over the years, as well as changes in ownership. The Herald has been part of Forum Communications since 2006.
“So, there are some scars, pretty big ones, actually, rising out of all that turmoil,” he said. “But the Herald is, without question, stronger now than it has been in some decades.”
Bieri listed a few of his career accomplishments, from the Onlooker to his dual role as editor and publisher.
“Michael always said: The most important thing about the newspaper business is not to win the Pulitzer or awards,” Bieri said. “It’s covering the community the best you can, day after day, day after day. Doing that is better than the awards.”
Jacobs said he is proud to have worked at the Herald with scores of journalists, many of whom started their careers at the Herald and have gone on to become top writers and editors at large newspapers all over the nation.
Jacobs also sees hopeful signs for the future of the Herald and the newest crop of young staff members.
“There’s a new generation of journalists growing up at the Herald with just a whole lot of talent,” he said. “There are people out in that newsroom who do just remarkable stuff. Some of them are going to go on and do other things. Some of them are going to hang around. But my guess is that some of them are going to be lifelong journalists and they’re going to have distinguishing careers, here and elsewhere. That’s exciting.”
Jacobs hasn’t made many decisions on how he and Bieri plan to spend their retirement. Bieri retired about a year ago from the UND School of Aerospace Sciences.
He likely will not be as involved in community organizations, preferring instead to choose certain projects.
He’s not planning to do much writing in retirement. The only commitment he’s made is to continue his “Always in Season” column in the Herald.
“Writing is work. Why would one retire to work? Writing is stressful. Why would one retire to stress?”
He plans to spend time in his garden, to read, and to travel.
“I want to be in a position to get up in the morning and say, ‘Man, it’s a beautiful day. The geese are on the move’ and go look at them. I want to be in a position to get up in the morning and be able to say, it’s a perfect morning for the grouse to be dancing. I know where the strutting ground is. I’m just going to go have a look.
“I want to be in a position that, if the weather is miserable and the wind is blowing and the visibility is bad, I want to be in a position to say, ‘You know, I really don’t have to go to town. I can do that tomorrow. I can stay home and read today.’”