This Q&A visits with Julie K. Tonsing, publisher at Prairie Mountain Media’s Sterling Journal-Advocate, South Platte Sentinel and the Akron News-Reporter. She is also the former regional financial officer for the Eastern Colorado Publishing Company (ECPC) for many years and most recently was the publisher of the Fort Morgan Times, too. Once honored as Colorado Press Association’s Newspaper Person of the Year, Tonsing is well-known for her work in northeastern Colorado grassroots community newspapers.
Today she works out of the Sterling office and lives in Merino with husband, Mark, and their very spoiled part-dog, part-human, Abigail Rose – better known as Abbie except when she's in double trouble. Julie credits Mark with much of her newspaper success saying, “I would not have the career I do without the support and love of Mark. He is so incredibly helpful.” Here’s more on how her career began, progressed and succeeded:
You’re a native of Holyoke and went to Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, and Colorado State University. What degrees did you pursue and why?
I received my bachelor’s degree in Consumer and Family Sciences from Colorado State University in Fort Collins because I have a strong background in 4-H and FHA back then – today FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America). I always thought I would be a teacher and an extension agent so that I could teach people of all ages lifelong-needed skills to make their homes and our country a better place. Then one day, Mark came along and the rest is history. So thankful for that day for so many reasons, including a profession that I truly love.
What were your first jobs and how did they contribute to your future?
I grew up on our family farm southeast of Holyoke and my first job was working for my father, his father and his four brothers. Dad and mom instilled in me my work ethic and the importance of loyalty to your job. Following graduation and marriage midterm, we sold Tupperware with Mark and me rising to Colorado's second-highest sales associates. I loved sales then and still love it now.
You began working in finance at Sterling and became regional financial officer for ECPC (a group of eight newspapers on the eastern plains and Estes Park), a post you held 1989-2009. Then you were named publisher at Fort Morgan, then Sterling as well, and of the South Platte Sentinel after your company purchased that weekly in the summer of 2016, and then the Akron News Reporter in 2017. What it was like to go from concentrating on finances to overseeing the big picture as publisher of these various pubs?
I'm very thankful for my years of experience in finance as that has really helped me understand our financials and to use them as a tool to better manage our properties. Finance is a key helper for a good publisher. They look to you for guidance on current numbers and trends that help form the future of the paper. I learned so much about the different aspects of the newspaper then and that knowledge has been invaluable to me since becoming a publisher.
Since returning to Sterling and no longer commuting to Fort Morgan, what is your title, who and what do you oversee, and what new directions have you implemented?
I am publisher of the Sterling Journal-Advocate, the South Platte Sentinel and the Akron News-Reporter. I oversee the staffs of those newspapers and am very fortunate to have the great staffs that I do. They care about their paper and want to do the best job that they can for it.
Our newspapers being a real part of the community and encouraging our employees to get involved in at least one outside organization is important to me, and we are almost 100 percent there. I want our papers to really partner with different community organizations in helping them reach their goals and I want these papers to produce highly local, relevant and therefore profitable newspapers each and every day.
Your newspapers have had great success with special sections and projects, from one to several pages, or full-blown magazines. What tips can you offer on finding fresh section ideas, and do you find these special projects rev up your ad and editorial staffs?
I'm not sure that “rev up” the ad and editorial staffs is really the most appropriate phrase. Most often they shudder when we develop a new project, before getting “into” it. They are most often a lot of work, especially when created from the ground up. But they have certainly become a revenue stream that has helped our papers weather the storm better during this time of downward spiraling revenue.
There is no doubt, and all of them know this, that our special projects have definitely saved people's jobs, sometimes even their own. But I do caution that you can get too many. Be careful not to erode your bread and butter – your daily and/or weekly product – for these. We are always on the verge of that and have to be very cognizant of that. Every time you add one, analyze one of your older and not as profitable ones to see if it is time to retire it.
We find new, fresh ideas by looking around our community and thinking of what kind of activities or issues are important to the community and which people in our community deserve to be recognized. Most of my ideas come from there. Your staff is also an excellent source, as is the calendar. Our calendar is full of National ... Days – literally several each and every day. You name it, there is probably a national day set up for it, so think outside the box and how those days can be used locally to, again, recognize local people and faces.
Not every idea will be a barnburner success, but some of them can develop into big, big bucks and great editorial opportunities – like our Salute to Agriculture. That came about from a morning coffee with one of my retiring advertisers. Her retirement was a great time to make an ad rep change so I treated the two of them to coffee and a pastry and asked Judy if she had any suggestions for our paper. That question has resulted in thousands of dollars of revenue from our twice-annual publication and featured a multitude of deserving Logan and Morgan county people working in agriculture. Sometimes, you just get lucky!
Your newspapers are in rural, conservative communities and counties. How does that affect their interest, and your coverage, regarding state and national politics?
Anyone can get their state, national and international news anywhere. No one can get their local news from anywhere better than they can from our newspapers – period. That's exciting to me!
Do your advertisers manifest rural or urban attitudes (or a mix) regarding how they do business, and how do your salespeople work with them to foster success?
We are a rural newspaper with strong rural values, just like our customers. Our advertisers are very intelligent and “with it.” They are well aware of the demographics of their customers and cater their businesses to what they know will be of interest and help to them.
Our salespeople do the same. While they offer all of our products and special sections, etc. to their entire customer list, they have a personal relationship with most. They go out of their way to encourage their customers to be a part of our products that will most benefit their business, knowing that not every product fits every business.
You were honored by Colorado Press Association as the Newspaper Person of the Year in 1995 while at the Journal-Advocate. What were you accomplishing professionally at the time, and how did that award encourage you in future years?
I began my newspaper career as a bookkeeper at the Journal-Advocate and then progressed to business manager when my supervisor retired. It was during that time that I was honored. My publisher at the time, Bill Muldoon, nominated me for the award. He was away from the office on a Rotary exchange trip for several weeks and put me in charge.
During that month or so, and at his urging, I developed a desire to someday be a publisher, and I have had wonderful mentors during my career – Bill Muldoon, David McClain, Keith Haugland and Al Manzi. That experience and being honored with that award definitely guided my career in its current path.
At one time you wrote an advertorial “money-making” column called “Julie’s Jauntings.” Where and what did that cover and when will we see you writing something like that again?
This was a project that I sold and wrote nearly two decades ago. I featured products, new employees and bargains in businesses, plus menu and special items from restaurants all over northeastern Colorado, though the majority were in Logan County.
It developed when our publisher asked all of us to dig deep and come up with ideas that would bring money in to the paper and help save someone's job. It’s proof that everyone from the paper, not just those in sales, can help with ideas to make the paper better and more financially secure.
Every employee has something to offer when challenged and if just asked. Some of the J-A employees had found some of my JJ's when looking through bound volumes recently and would like me to start it up again. Looking back, it was really fun and a new way to get dollars from nontraditional advertisers. You never know when it may crop up again!
Do you keep a neat desk or office, or not, and what would we notice there?
During the day, it’s anything but neat, but before I leave for the day, I do try very hard to clean it up as that starts my day off much better the next morning when everything is in its place or at least pile! When you look around, you’ll notice lots of red, hearts and flowers – three of my favorite things.