AAN’S Smallest Paper Publishes in Rock ‘n’ Roll Time

The history of Ripsaw News is anything but traditional

What would happen to your paper if the editor and publisher left for three weeks? For Duluth, Minnesota’s tiny AAN member, Ripsaw News, it’s just a side effect of the rocker lifestyle.

Their founder, editor and publisher, 33-year-old Brad Nelson, moonlights as the drummer for the blues/rock/ punk-ish band The Black-Eyed Snakes. From late September to mid-October, Nelson left his staff alone so he could tour the East Coast with his band.

It’s not a traditional editor/staff relationship, but Ripsaw’s history is anything but traditional.

Nelson, who launched the paper in January of 1999 with his former business partner, graphic designer Cord Carbert, is an unlikely candidate for a newspaperman: he moved to Duluth from northern Michigan to cross-country ski professionally in 1993. After three unsuccessful tryouts for the Olympics, he quit skiing altogether and launched Ripsaw.

The idea for the paper was born in civic frustration: Duluth’s city fathers planned to tear down some of downtown’s historic landmarks to make room for a Silicon Valley-like office space. Nelson saw the destruction as a “travesty,” he says. Incensed that the city’s daily paper, Knight-Ridder’s Duluth News Tribune, and its non-AAN alt weekly, Reader Weekly, weren’t covering that story — and many others — Nelson decided to launch his own paper. (The city government prevailed; the building was ultimately erected.)

“I said to a couple of people, ‘Oh, I should start my own paper,’” says Nelson, who also felt that the Reader Weekly wasn’t supporting the local arts and culture scene as an alt weekly should. “More half- kidding, but every time I did that someone would say, ‘Yeah, you should!’”

With no background in journalism, Nelson didn’t really know how to start a new paper. Nevertheless, he found an investor and launched as a monthly in January 1999. The acerbic Ripsaw — named after a Duluth paper published in the roaring 20’s by a man whose goal was “to rip them [politicians] open and see whether they are sound or rotten” — quickly made its mark as pro-Duluth but anti-establishment. “It was like this power that we had, that all of a sudden — instead of ranting in our kitchens or from our bar stools — we could actually do something about it,” Nelson says.

Nelson credits the paper with helping revitalize the city’s small indie scene and raising its political awareness. “[Ripsaw] has really helped changed the political landscape of Duluth,” he says. “It’s galvanized a community that was here, but didn’t have a voice, and didn’t have any common connection or way to communicate.”

Ripsaw began with a two-person staff and a lot of volunteers, but has since gone weekly and hired a handful of staffers. Nelson still relies heavily on freelancers, and, for the time being, his mother serves as the paper’s bookkeeper. “There’s a downside because you can’t just hire the best,” he says. “But there’s a certain level of passion when people are doing things for intrinsic reasons.”

The passion was evident to members of AAN’s Admissions Committee, which in 2001 called Ripsaw, “Witty, eloquent, and full of spark!” The committee also noted that the paper was “(n)ot without its faults, but clearly (in terms of bang for limited buck) this year’s single best applicant. Great sense of news and, as important, place. The staff is clearly madly in love with northern Minnesota, and willing to kick and pummel it to make it better.”

Based on that recommendation, Ripsaw was admitted to AAN that year on its first try.

Nelson joined the Black-Eyed Snakes as the drummer in 2000, after playing in a few local bands. The band is a side project of Alan Sparhawk, guitarist /singer for Duluth hometown indie heroes Low, who recently toured with Radiohead. The Snakes’ just-completed tour marks the third time they’ve traveled the East Coast; they’ve hit both Europe and the West Coast once.

Touring doesn’t interfere with the day-to-day operations of Ripsaw, Nelson says: he calls in every day and checks his email as much as possible. Since there’s another editor and ad salesperson in the office, he can rely on his staff to get the paper out. They’re supportive of his touring, he says. “There’s no question that when I leave, it puts a lot of strain on the other people who work here. But everyone’s like, ‘Go!’”

In fact, on this most recent tour, it seems the staff had the routine down pretty well. “My bandmates commented on it,” he says. “They said, ‘Man, remember the first tour we went on? Brad was on the phone the whole time!’ Now days go by when I don’t even get a call from the office.”

Leaving his staff for weeks at a time to tour might not be the best thing for the paper, but Nelson’s willing to take the risk. “I know the best thing to do would be to stay here and always keep my nose to the grindstone, “ he says. ”But I’ve made a decision that I really feel passionate about playing music, and it’s something in my life that makes it a lot richer for me.”

Whitney Joiner is a freelance reporter based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, Teen People, Time Out New York and Inside.com.