Black Hills Pioneer Celebrates 140th Anniversary
The Black Hills Pioneer is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year. Founded in 1876, the northern Black Hills publication is the oldest newspaper and business in Western South Dakota. We visited with publisher Letitia Lister at the Pioneer’s Spearfish offices to discuss the paper’s early days and history as well as what role it plays in the community today.
On a warm Spring day in June 1876, amid the stampede of miners who’d come to the newly established town of Deadwood to dig for gold, find their fortunes and live their dreams, W.A. McLaughlin and A.W. Merrick founded The Black Hills Weekly Pioneer.
The area’s first newspaper reported that “Bustle and confusion was prevalent everywhere. Each day and almost each hour witnessed the arrival of greater or less parties of gold seekers who, finding some eligible location to corral their wagons or pitch their tents, immediately mixed with the throng and became one of us.”
Becoming “one of us” or one with the community, was the goal of the Black Hills Pioneer 140 years ago. And it remains the publication’s focus in the 21st century, says publisher Letti Lister.
“I feel like it’s a critical part of the community,” she observes. “We take our obligations to inform and educate and play watchdog very…very seriously. And also to celebrate the positive things that happen.”
Lister is the first female publisher in the Black Hills Pioneer’s history. It’s a position she doesn’t take lightly, but also doesn’t stress over.
“It’s an honor,” she explains. “I feel privileged to be able to do that. I don’t really think about it other than I’m glad I’ve been able to help break that barrier, if you want to call it a barrier.”
Her biggest concern, says Lister, is making sure the Pioneer serves the community – whether that means highlighting the positive work a teacher is doing in one of the local schools or going head-to-head with a serious issue and those involved in it.
“Right down to made enemies of government figures because of things their family have done,” recalls Lister. “And we’ve called to ask them if they’d like to comment on it and… we’ve had readers call and tell us that wasn’t fair and we had no right to do that. And we always listen to the complaints. We always listen to them. Explain our side to it…to a point. Some people don’t want to have their views changed…and that’s fine. And then we’re done. But I don’t apologize for doing our job and doing it right.”
Handling difficult stories is nothing new for the Black Hills Pioneer. From the tragedy of the Wounded Knee Massacre, to the Kieffer brothers cattle rustling incident and the Belle Fourche bank robbery, to the destruction of the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn, this “small town” newspaper has a long history of tackling serious issues.
Carolyn Weber is Exec Director of Deadwood History Incorporated.
“One of the most important acts in the federal government was the Major Crimes Act and that was established as a result of the Spotted Tail Murder,” explains Weber. “He was murdered by Crow Dog and that led to the Major Crimes Act…the case of his murder did. So what happened right here in our local community had an effect on the entire nation and how law is now interpreted for the Native American people on reservations.”
As one who sees newspapers as having an immediate connection and role in their community, Weber adds that this is even more evident in a small town area.
“Newspapers are really kind of a time capsule of what was happening at a certain time in a certain place,” comments Weber. “And everything from editorials to the social events…to politics and government and advertising and pop culture are contained in our newspapers. It reveals so much about our society.”
And, Weber believes, newspapers are still relevant in today’s world.
Touring the Black Hills Pioneer’s printing room. Letti Lister says she does as well.
“You can think small or you can be big,” she remarks. “I have the good fortune of working with a crew that doesn’t think small. So…we’re all trying to figure out how we can improve and do better and…”
And in spite of the 2008 economic debacle and the trend of newspapers turning off their presses the Black Hills Pioneer not only continues to print but has grown its circulation totals over the last 6 years.
Asked what her secret is, Letti Lister points to everything from diversification to focusing on local stories first to keeping typos to a minimum. But a major part of the Black Hills Pioneer’s success, she feels, is the people who work here.
The majority of the Pioneer’s staff was born and raised in the area and takes ownership in their work. In return, notes Lister, the Pioneer takes care of its workers as it also takes care of the community by doing its job right every day.
Note - As part of the Pioneer’s celebration, publisher Letti Lister says the paper plans to publish one historic story each week…counting down from 1900 to 1876. And the Black Hills Pioneer has made all its issues available on Newspapers.com