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Ink in the veins. It’s a common expression for passion in the newspaper business.
For Brenda Brandt, who was born into the business and has been at the same Colorado paper for almost 40 years, ink may be her life’s blood, but the heart that pumps it beats for her community.
In April, Brandt was named the 2016 Newspaper Person of the Year by the Colorado Press Association, and her list of lifetime achievements is extensive. However, Brandt doesn’t talk about awards and accolades. She prefers conversation about her town and the people and businesses that call it home.
Brandt has worked at the Holyoke Enterprise in eastern Colorado since 1979 and is now that newspaper’s publisher. In 1999, with her sister and brother-in-law, Brandt purchased Johnson Publications Inc. from her parents. Brandt is now co-owner of four newspapers, three of which are in western Nebraska, across the Colorado border from Holyoke.
Newspapers have always been a family affair for Brandt. Her father worked at The Imperial Republican in Imperial, Neb., when she was born, and her early memories are filled with helping her father at the newspaper office.
When Brandt was in eighth grade, her parents, Loral and Elna Johnson, purchased The Republican, and from them she learned a key lesson.
“We grew up with the philosophy of community,” Brandt said. “It isn’t just running the newspaper. It’s being a part of the community. That sense of community for me is very strong and important. It takes a village to raise a child, and I see that support in our community in a big way.”
One way that Brandt connects with the community is her weekly walk through the town, visiting in person with Holyoke’s businesses — and not just the ones that regularly advertise in her paper.
“There are some smaller businesses I know who are not going to advertise every week, but they know I am going to come around,” she said. “The Internet has made it a lot easier to email and say, ‘Do you want to run an ad?’ but it’s also made it easier to say ‘no.’ … Going into the stores also helps me see something new in their store that might make for good advertisements, which you can’t see if you’re shooting them an email. I prefer that personal contact.”
A community project that Brandt spearheads is the Enterprise’s Emerald Awards, which honor excellence in education in the Holyoke School District. The awards ceremony is a beloved town tradition, and just this past month, the project netted first place for special sections in the National Newspaper Association 2016 Better Newspaper Contest.
The town’s businesses and schools are a big part of Brandt’s sense of community, and so is her staff at the Enterprise.
“I didn’t receive the (Newspaper Person of the Year) award alone,” Brandt said. “It takes a community for a newspaper to cover, and it takes a staff behind you to win awards. To win Newspaper Person of the Year, you have to have a community that believes in the newspaper, and a staff that supports that community, as well.”
Her staff returns that loyalty. Editor Darci Tomky has worked with Brandt at The Enterprise for nearly nine years, Office Manager Ashley Sullivan for going on eight, Reporter Karen Ortner for two years, and the newest addition to the staff, Reporter Jes-c French, is a local resident who recently returned to Holyoke.
“If you’re covering a baseball game, she’s like, ‘Here’s some sunscreen,” said Tomky, who wrote the application for Brandt’s Newspaper Person of the Year award. “She’s so concerned for us and our lives outside of work.”
“If it’s your birthday, Brenda will bake you whatever cake you want,” French said. “She’s such a mom. She’s so great, but she does hold you to a high standard and expects you to perform to it.”
“She’s probably the friendliest boss you could ask for,” added Ortner. “I’m pretty sure she could make friends with a rock, but she holds you to a high standard and makes sure you do it right. After all, it’s her family name on the paper. She takes her work very personally and seriously, and she calls for you to see it as your family name, too.”
Brandt’s heart is in Holyoke, but her experience and knowledge transcends that farming-ranching community of 2,500. From 2007-2014, Brandt served on the Colorado Press Association board of directors, including the rare honor of serving as president for two terms, from 2012-2013. Since 2004, Brandt’s also been the Colorado ambassador to the National Newspaper Association. All that knowledge provides some interesting business insights.
“Newspapers are alive. They are not dying,” Brandt said of her industry. “Holyoke has an extensive retired community and scrapbookers who want the print edition, but like other newspapers, we are changing the ways we reach people. We are doing what we can to reach Millennials through our website, e-edition, Facebook. … We will soon start doing digital advertising for our clients.
“We are not giving up the print edition, just expanding our platforms to reach a wider audience.”
And those efforts are working, as The Enterprise runs at a healthy profit.
Tomky, Brandt’s editor at the Enterprise, was born and raised in Holyoke. She said she would rather live and work in that community than anywhere else.
“This newspaper, this town and this state would not be the same without the lifeblood Brenda pumps through it,” Tomky said. "She has been the driving force in the growth and health of a small, rural town on Colorado’s northeast plains.”