Novice publisher finds her way in preserving Nebraska legacy newspaper

Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers' Auxiliary

Dec 1, 2021

Amy Johnson and co-worker Kelsi McGee in front of the Springview Herald office in Springview, Nebraska.

Although Amy Johnson had no background in journalism or publishing, she didn’t let that stop her from buying the Springview (Nebraska) Herald and breathing new life into the 135-year-old newspaper.

Johnson is a hometown girl, born and raised in the tiny north central Nebraska town with 236 residents, nestled up against the South Dakota state line. Learning the newspaper business has been a labor of love in the heart of the sparsely populated Keya Paha County.

“We have around 700 or 800 people in the whole county,” Johnson said in a recent Zoom call. Just a few other unincorporated towns surround Springview, where farms and ranches are abundant, and wide-open spaces stretch as far as the eye can see.

Local newspapers are important to communities like this.

After graduating from high school, Johnson left for college, where she earned an associate degree in business administration and management at Lincoln School of Commerce at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska. She met and married her husband, and the two entered the construction industry, eventually moving to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where they worked for 10 years. Then they took advantage of an opportunity to join Johnson’s family farm back in Springview and moved home. Johnson had been gone for 17 years.

“Your hometown looks a lot different at 18 than it does at 35,” she admitted. And after a decade back home, she has decided she doesn’t want to be anywhere else. Becoming the owner and editor of her hometown newspaper is the icing on the cake.

After moving back to Springview, Johnson’s husband embraced being a farmer, while she took some time to figure out her own career path.

“I've always worked one or two jobs. I've always been busy,” she said. “And when I didn't have a job after moving back home, I was struggling to find something to do with my time.”

Springview is home to a nine-hole golf course. One day, Johnson happened to be golfing with the local newspaper editor when she announced she wanted to return to school. She asked Johnson if she would be interested in working for the paper and taking over her job.

Without a background in journalism and writing experience that was limited to a stint on the high school yearbook staff, Johnson felt limited in what she could do for the newspaper. But her friend sold her on the idea and brought her on board.

“About six days before I became editor, the publisher asked if I would just buy the paper,” she said. “Luckily my husband and I were able to get a loan, and we purchased the business.”

She received a few days of training, and just like that, with no background in newspapers, Johnson became a publisher. What she lacked in editorial training, she more than made up for with her business degree, experience and natural abilities. She and her husband had the loan for the newspaper paid off in seven years.

Johnson is a true believer in the power of mentoring and good will among neighbors.

“Our newspaper has always been a part of the Nebraska Press Association, and I have to give the association a ton of credit for their conferences and seminars on topics like writing, how to cover sports, do photography, sell advertising and do marketing,” she said.

She also credits a local publisher who prints her newspaper for mentoring her and teaching her how to design the pages.

When Johnson bought the Springview Herald in September 2011, the previous owners were still using PageMaker along with hot wax. Johnson bought new computers and purchased InDesign and tried to learn how to use it. But by then, it was the holiday season, and with no experience, Johnson had no idea how busy newspapers are at Christmas.

“The publisher of the Ainsworth (Nebraska) Star-Journal, the newspaper that prints us, came over and spent a day walking us through InDesign,” she said. “He took us under his wing and showed us how to do it out of the goodness of his heart, wanting to see this newspaper and this community survive.”

The result, Johnson said, is a newspaper that looks uniform and professional.

For the Springview Herald, with a circulation of around 800, collaboration is key. Springview and Ainsworth are just 25 miles apart, and in addition to sharing ads and commissions, the two newspapers also share shoppers and readers. She also has a cooperative agreement with other local papers for sharing articles — mostly high school sports.

Some might ask how it is possible to generate enough readership and commerce to keep a newspaper going in such an isolated area, but for Johnson, the Springview Herald’s unique positioning is the recipe for success with advertisers across the entire region.

“We don’t have any hospitals or professional services in Keya Paha County, so we have to rely on those services in other counties,” she said. “That is an advertising tool for us because businesses in our neighboring counties rely on our local residents to help make their bottom line, so we are able to pull in advertisers from all directions.”

She also points out that when Springview locals go out of town to shop or see a doctor, they fit as much as they can into one trip, and that makes a good sales pitch.

“If you go to the eye doctor, you might stop at the Dollar Store. Maybe you run by the grocery store, and you might find a shop where you buy a birthday gift for someone,” she said. “You are probably going to eat lunch while you are there, and you might fill up your tank, wash your car and run other errands.”

The Springview Herald is a way for those businesses to reach a significant customer base, and Johnson is on a mission to educate her advertisers on how they can get the most out of the advertising investment by doing a ZIP Code analysis to see where their customers are coming from.

“It blows me away that they don’t think they are getting customers from outside their local community,” she said. “They’re not doing good service to their business by not knowing who their customers are, and therefore not knowing how to market to them.”

Earlier this year, Springview almost lost its grocery store. So, Johnson mounted a campaign to demonstrate the importance of having a local store.

“We created a survey, sent it every household in the county, and we had a 60% return, which showed support for having a local grocery store,” she said. “A young couple found investors and were able to keep it going. It’s so important to a small community, not just to have a place to buy food, but to keep the tax base stable, which keeps the local school going. Everything is connected, and people have to understand that.”

The Springview Herald is published on Wednesdays. It is housed in a historic building, which she and her husband recently painted bright white with red trim.

Johnson’s staff consists of one employee and a 90-year-old part time proofreader whose husband was an editor.

Johnson distributes the newspaper through the Postal Service and from racks in Springview and neighboring communities.

Through trial and error, with “error” being her most valuable learning tool, Johnson says, the newspaper has pumped ink into her veins.

Growing up in Springview, she always read the newspaper, and her mother paid for her subscription when she left for college, but she didn’t realize how important newspapers are to a community until she returned home.

“Looking back, it was a huge investment to buy this newspaper and get an LLC for publishing and not have a clue what I was doing. Usually, before you do something like that, you kind of know the business you're going into, and I didn't,” she said. “And now that I understand the importance of a community newspaper, the ink definitely has gotten into my veins.”

After conquering the nuts and bolts of publishing, Johnson says her biggest challenge is convincing the next generation of readers to read newspapers. She has heard that editors must write stories that grab a reader’s attention in 500 characters or less or they’ll refuse to read.

“The next generation of readers are slated to be the next school board members. They're going to be the next city council members, and if we aren't explaining to them the importance of the community newspaper today, they may not get involved in the future,” she said.

When Johnson bought the Springview Herald, it was an eight-page paper. Over the years, she was able to double the page count, with a goal to never fall below 12 pages.

Then COVID-19 hit. With no school sports or community events to cover, the newspaper switched to covering local businesses and features.

“We did business spotlights,” she said. “And it was during the pandemic that our grocery store was looking like it was going to close, and we covered that. We did stories on the school’s free lunch program and how students are learning remotely. And we never went below a 12-page paper.”

Despite the pandemic and the struggles newspaper industry is experiencing, Johnson remains hopeful and committed to constant improvement. Six years ago, she called on Kevin Slimp to help her redesign the newspaper to celebrate its 130th anniversary.

“I don't think we're doing our readers and our advertisers justice if we don’t seek continuous improvement, because if you're not happy with the outcome of your product, then nobody else is happy with it either, they're not going to advertise on it or read it,” she said. “We take great pride in making sure that our advertisements are top-notch.”

The Springview Herald has been a success for 135 years because the people came before me who have loved this job as much as I do. I didn’t realize that I was just learning the business and trying to get a paper published and the sense of responsibility grew on me. Then I realized that this newspaper is part of history and all our community’s history is written in our newspaper.

“It is our mission to provide thorough, credible and up-to-date information that local and area residents want to know,” she said. “The Springview Herald has proudly been publishing the news since 1886, providing us years of committed readers and followers.”

After learning so much from other publishers and Nebraska Press Association conferences, Johnson is giving back. She is currently serving a term as NPA president. And she’s optimistic about the future of newspapers like the Springview Herald.

“I think the future is trending in a good direction because now more than ever, readers trust their local community newspaper,” she said, “and I think this is a real opportunity for local newspapers to use this trust to propel us to that next level.”

For Johnson, taking responsibility for keeping a legacy going in her community was a daunting task at first. But today, it has become a rewarding job. She gets confirmations on that all the time in many ways. She has a fat folder stuffed with comments readers have penned on their subscription renewals and on their advertising invoices. She has created a page in the Herald for their testimonials.

“I could add a dozen testimonials every month because we've just gotten so many of them, and I never take for granted that we should keep up the good work,” she said. “I think we always need to be making sure we're doing our best work and then improving on it.”

Teri Saylor is a writer in Raleigh, North Carolina. She can be reached at