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In 1987, Woodbury gets a newspaper

Gary Spooner was one of the founders of the Woodbury Bulletin in 1987. On Monday, he poses with the first edition. (Bulletin photo by Mathias Baden)

With his long white beard, Gary Spooner might look like one of Santa Claus' helpers, but before he became a jolly elf, he was one of the founders and an impassioned owner-operator of the Woodbury Bulletin.

Spooner and Wife Judy, who frequently referred to Husband Gary in her columns, viewed from the south in Cottage Grove that Woodbury was positioned for growth and it was just a matter of time before residential and commercial booms would occur.

Spooner was selling ads by day and covering government meetings by night in the 1980s, when it became apparent that national advertisers would pay to be in the newspapers if local circulation increased.

It was time for an expansion to the north. The Woodbury Bulletin was born Nov. 5, 1987.

Roots to the south

The Woodbury Bulletin's roots are planted in the communities to the south, tied together via South Washington County Schools. District 833 provided a common bond for the two young communities of Cottage Grove and Woodbury, where Spooner's newspapers would be located.

Spooner, who has since retired, put his past experience in grocery and insurance businesses behind him to join John Herman as co-owner of the Washington County Bulletin, which primarily covered St. Paul Park, Newport and Cottage Grove. Spooner and Herman, the editor, bought the paper from John Currell in 1970.

Herman was not a salesman, and the paper was surviving on legal advertising alone. Spooner went to work selling display ads to area businesses. They hired stringers to cover city council and commission meetings, and they cornered the market on local news.

When the city wanted out of the deputy registrar business, Spooner bought farmland along 80th Street, where Kohl's Department Store is located, in Cottage Grove and opened Bulletin License Bureau. That business worked alongside Park Grove Stationary and Office Supply.

Herman and Spooner operated the newspaper and a weekend advertising shopper until 1983, when Spooner and William J. Krueger bought out Herman.

In '87, the shopper went to the wayside and the Woodbury Bulletin went to the printer. The Cottage Grove-based paper was renamed the South Washington County Bulletin.

When the first issue of the Woodbury Bulletin hit the newsstands, its staff consisted of co-publishers Spooner and Krueger (the latter also executive editor), advertising director Jill Menk, managing editor Eldon R. Anderson, staff writers John Gessner, Evelyn Hoover, Rick Peterson and Juleen Trisko, sports editor Bob Temple, display sales ad representative Tim Abbott, classifieds ad specialist Sandy Baldus, circulation manager Roger Newman, truck driver Lyle Nicklay, and cartoonist Ray Haas. At one time, Bulletin Publishing employed two dozen people.

At its open house, the Woodbury Bulletin gave away a trip to Las Vegas.

The first front page featured students taking a trip to Uruguay, Woodbury High School's production of "Carnival," the move of metals dealer and unique gift shop Grove Investments and Collector's Gallery to Valley Creek Mall, and rush-hour traffic jams on Interstate 494.

Schools and police reports were the main draws to the Woodbury Bulletin at its inception.

The Woodbury Bulletin walked the fragile line between advertising and editorial, always seeking the truth, Spooner said.

Four or five times a year someone would make an appearance in the police report and offer to "rearrange my face," Spooner said. "I'd say, 'Come in, but you'll have to wait in line.'"

Under Spooner, the newspapers were never afraid to endorse candidates for local elections. They endorsed people who had the good of the community at heart, he said.

When a reporter wrote about the best prices on groceries, 12 pages of grocery ads went down to six. "It was news," Spooner said, "but you have to think."

Once the school district threatened to sue the newspaper until Spooner called the attorney and pointed out the newspaper and the schools used the same law firm, a possible conflict of interest for the attorney.

Complaints were dealt with by Spooner, who sometimes had to say he wouldn't leave a business without a satisfied customer.

In Woodbury, there were competitors in Sun Newspapers and Lillie Suburban Newspapers, but the city's growth was undeniable.

"The demand, we figured, would be there," Spooner said.

People wanted to know what their schools and cities were doing, Spooner said, and the Woodbury Bulletin hired the right people to cover them.

The Washington County Bulletin previously contained a lot of Woodbury news, so it was an obvious next step to expand to the north.

When the shopper was dropped, the Bulletins were delivered to every home in their circulation area. Addresses were stamped locally, "on a machine that came over on the Mayflower," Spooner said with a laugh.

Growing newspaper

In Woodbury, the Bulletin played a role in the growth.

"We were able to be part of the growth, and we were able to report on the growth. It was always nice too, whenever you were around, that people weren't afraid to talk to you," Spooner said.

Good people were making key decisions about Woodbury's growth, and the newspaper people got the feeling they were there for a purpose, Spooner said.

In 1994, Spooner sold out to Red Wing Publishing.

"I loved the newspaper business, and I liked to write," Spooner said. "It was an interesting life. It's been a thrill."

Jeff Patterson, who served as general manager of the Woodbury Bulletin from 1994-2010, said Spooner did journalism the right way.

"The Spooners left a good legacy to continue on," Patterson said. "We had good editorial products and continue that tradition."

During Patterson's time, the company started the Lake Elmo Leader and Stillwater Courier. Staff ushered in the digital era.

In '94, South Washington County was a big paper and Woodbury was the little Bulletin.

"Woodbury was smaller. It was growing. It was creating its own identity," Patterson said. "It was going to be a unique community."

The Woodbury Bulletin went from containing regional news to being wholly hyperlocal, even to the point of customizing neighborhood by neighborhood as editors decided that Dancing Waters and Evergreen deserved their own news sections.

"We wanted to be the community newspaper of choice," Patterson said.

In 2001, the Forum Communications Co. bought the Woodbury Bulletin and other publications of what is now Rivertown Multimedia. The company delivers news to more than 3.5 million readers every month.

Local newspapers will survive beyond the daily newspapers, Spooner predicted. Local newspapers focus on news that affects you, he added.

"That's the type of news that people should be looking at. Locally you have to know where to go to get the news. What's happening on a local basis is going to dictate how you live," Spooner said.

The Woodbury Bulletin has always tried to serve readers' needs day in and day out, Patterson said. Big dailies haven't mastered local news yet, Patterson said, and they are envious.

Local newspapers "are not circling the drain," Patterson said. "They are still fun and worthwhile and a profitable business."

The challenge is monetizing the Internet portion of the newspaper business, delivering news properly and accurately. It might cost money to avoid fake news, Patterson said. Good local journalism costs less than a cup of coffee, he added.

In 2017, the Woodbury Bulletin's newsroom consists of news director Chad Richardson, editor Mathias Baden, staff writers William Loeffler and Youssef Rddad, sports editor Blaze Fugina, and assistant copy editor Toni Lambert.

None of them have replaced Spooner as Santa Claus.

Community involvement

Spooner is known for his volunteerism in Cottage Grove. He first helped Santa Claus 45 years ago at Grant City, a former tenant at the current site of Hy-Vee.

The Jaycees were the big nonprofit organization in the youthful Woodbury and Cottage Grove in the 1970s and '80s, and Spooner played a primary role.

Spooner served the 916 Education Foundation, the local chambers of commerce, the Lions clubs, and the Minnesota Deputy Registrar Association. He started successful golf tourney fundraisers for 916, the chamber in Cottage Grove, and the Youth Service Bureau.

He's the oldest living member of the Cottage Grove Rotary Club.

"If you're going to take from the community, you ought to give back," Spooner said. "And I think I have."