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SHELBY SHARES: Veteran community journalist retires with ink in her veins

Journalism evolved a lot in the 40-year career of Sue Webber, a community newspaper reporter who once toiled on a manual typewriter. But her commitment to telling people's stories never changed. Webber gave her readers decades of service – and they gave her their trust.
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Sue Webber wanted to be a reporter when she was in the fifth grade at Fernhill Elementary School. The Fernhill Press didn’t scare the dream out of her, so she went on to Just Us, the junior high paper in St. Louis Park, and graduated to the Echo in high school.

With that much time-in-grade, most kids would have had their fill of reporting the news. Not Webber. She graduated from the University of Minnesota Journalism School, met her husband, started a family and settled down as much as Sue Webber could ever settle down.

She finished journalism school and paid for the education by holding down a job at the old Minneapolis Star working in the classified advertising department, and then as secretary to publisher John Cowles, Jr. himself. It paid the bills, but it didn’t satisfy the need to delve, listen, report and write.

Then she got an opportunity that opened the door to a nearly 40-year career as one of the most trusted community newspaper reporters ever seen in these parts. Over coffee in the western suburbs, Sue told me, “I was home one evening reading the Post newspaper and there was an editor’s advertisement for a person to cover night meetings. I said, ‘I can do that.’”

She figured her husband would be home nights, so he could take care of the kids. Sue went to see the editor, and after a brief discussion, the editor said, “What are you doing tonight? There’s a school board meeting I want you to cover.”

The editor handed her the keys to the building and told her, “Have the story on the hook by 6 in the morning.” Sue had a momentary doubt. “I hadn’t actually written a news story since school.”

It was a momentary doubt. And, of course, she knew that there were copy editors who could catch any mistakes. “Oh, by the way,” said the editor, “you are the copy editor, too.”

Her beat went from the occasional school board meeting to covering the cities of New Hope, Robbinsdale, Golden Valley, Plymouth, Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park. Sue went to lots of meetings and wrote, in exacting detail, what happened at each.

In 1983, they made her the editor of the Golden Valley paper. “What you need to know, “ she said, staring across her coffee as we chatted, “is the editor is not Ed Asner. The editor is also a reporter and the photographer. I still went to all those council meetings, the police departments and school boards. I wrote all those stories, handled letters-to-the-editor and wrote a column.

“And I did all that on a manual typewriter,” she beamed. The budget was such that she never got a chance to type on an electric typewriter. By the time the business got around to upgrading, she went directly to computers, “if you want to call them that,” she said.

Editors used to stay up into the wee hours pasting up the newspapers. Literally. Lots of paste. Everything, the columns, the masthead, the photos, the cartoons,the boxes, all had to be pasted on a board and photographed so the plates could be made for printing. There were still printing presses, too.

“Now, the young people design the paper on the computer.” She takes a sip of coffee, pauses and says slowly, “Things have changed a lot.”

If the pace of Sue Webber’s news reporting life seems hectic to you, she couldn’t get enough of it. That’s what happens when you are running ink in your veins instead of blood. But it is a human kind of ink pumping through her heart. “The best thing about my career,” she says, “is having been trusted for all those years.”

Not many reporters can say that government officials smile when they see a journalist in the waiting room. They often smiled when they saw Sue Webber. “I had an editor who used to say, ‘There’s a story behind every door.’ It is absolutely true,” she said.

The toughest part? “When you had to go to a home or make a phone call to a family who had lost someone,” she said. “But, I found them welcoming. They wanted to talk to me about their family member. And, there are government officials who tell you things that you, frankly, don’t want to hear.”

Turn on the spigot of any career journalist and ask about the tough ones, and it is difficult to stem the flow. “Obituaries are always hard,” she said, staring off past the sound of a hissing espresso machine. “I did a story about a little girl who had gone through several heart surgeries. She was only five. It had been a tough time, but she was on the upswing. Sometimes it is hard to get children to talk, but this little girl sat next to me and patted my leg and went on and on. She just talked and talked. I got a great story, took a family photo and ran the story a week later. The day the story came out, the child died at her daycare. The mother called me as said, ‘She’s gone, Sue.’ I ended up having to write two stories. And, you know, they ordered stacks of the newspaper with the first story in it to be handed out at the funeral. Her mother asked me to come to the service.”

I try a long swallow of my coffee and silently try to remember how many mothers have invited me to their child’s funeral.

I try to change the mood. “Ever have any contact with Jesse Ventura?” I ask. Sue’s mood decidedly changes. “When he was mayor of Brooklyn Park, he used to come into the office and bang on the table and shout at me about some letter-to-the-editor. Once, when he was governor, he invited three community newspaper editors into his office for a 45-minute meeting. We didn’t get a chance to talk. He just went on the whole time about how he worked his butt off and that we were all a bunch of jackals. I wanted to hold up a sign at the window that said, ‘Help! We are being held hostage by Governor Ventura.’”

I ask, knowing the answer, whether the governor’s scolding worked. She said, “Of course not. We all went back and wrote stories about the meeting. Terrible. He was such a bully.”

Then, Sue remembers something else – something that makes community journalism different from mainstream journalism.

“I got a call from an elderly woman,” she begins. “She wanted me to come to her house and write her obituary. I did. She wanted all the names spelled correctly, and she wanted the proper things said about her, with no mistakes. She just wanted me to get it right, and trusted me to do that.”

I ask, “Did the woman die soon thereafter?”

“No,” said Sue Webber. “She waited about five years to die. Then, I dug the obit out of my desk and ran it just the way she wanted.”

Sue retired this summer from ECM-Sun Newspapers.The Rotary Club gave her an award for community service. It should have been a civic award for civility.

Imagine that – a reporter who could always be trusted to tell the truth. A plaque isn’t enough. That life deserves a statue.

Don Shelby is a veteran Twin Cities journalist and a radio newscaster for BringMeTheNews. He worked for 32 years as anchor, investigative reporter and environmental correspondent for WCCO-TV, and for 10 years as a radio personality for WCCO-AM. He has won numerous professional awards, including two George Foster Peabody awards.

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