Two hundred years from now, when historians want to find out about the everyday life of people living in the southwest suburbs of Minneapolis, they will search through the archives of local papers like the Eden Prairie News and the Chanhassen Villager.
They will read how citizens responded to their community’s need through pancake breakfast fundraisers or 5K races. They will learn how national events, like the September 11 terrorist attacks, stunned people into a bewildered silence and disbelief. They will read how the bizarre disappearance and murder of a young woman named Mandy Matula prompted hundreds of people to search, pray and support her family.
When historians sift through these articles to learn what life was like back in the early twenty-first century, they will no doubt see the names of local reporters like Karla Wennerstrom and Unsie Zuege.
Both Wennerstrom, editor of the Eden Prairie News, and Zuege, multimedia journalist covering Victoria and Chanhassen for the Chanhassen Villager, have reported on news and happenings in the southwest suburbs for more than a decade. They’ve asked the tough questions, broken down referendum questions, and written feature stories about colorful people. Through their unique lens, they’ve developed an interesting perspective and a fondness for the communities they serve.
Wennerstrom and Zuege are usually the ones asking questions. This time, we turn the tables on them to find out about their jobs, interesting stories, and what it’s like to be on the front lines of recording history.
Why did you want to be a reporter?
Zuege: I never wanted to be a reporter! I wanted to be the yearbook editor.
Wennerstrom: Me too! I still am a yearbook editor at my kids’ school.
Most reporters start in small newsrooms where they are responsible for everything from newsgathering to production. What was your first job?
Wennerstrom: My first official job was in western North Dakota. Even though it wasn’t that long ago, we still had to do paste-up pages with glue to put the paper together. The office was so small that I had to glue, develop pictures, take the paper to the printer, then take it to the post office and talk to Hal to make sure it got delivered. It was down and dirty. A part-time office person also drew cartoons.
Zuege: I worked in Tomah, Wisconsin and I remember walking into the office at 8 in the morning and the editor told me to get my camera and get in the car because there’s been a bank robbery. I’m driving and my heart is pounding. I’m driving through a little town and there’s a little bank. I didn’t see any squad cars, no yellow tape. There was nothing to take a picture of. So, I took a dramatic picture of the tiny bank. I was really apologetic to my editor because there was nothing there, but he told me what I did was the right thing to do.
What has been one of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry?
Wennerstrom: The biggest change has been changing to more digital media. We have to try to be faster and put more things online instead of concentrating on putting out the paper just once a week.
Zuege: The photography has definitely changed. I learned how to do photography in a darkroom. At my first job in Tomah, the darkroom was in an old, old building in a dark, scary basement. If I had an event on the weekend and had to process on Monday, I had to go to the scary basement. Before, it was such a process. You’d go out, shoot four rolls of film and come back and sometimes experience the horror of seeing it all black or clear. Now, you can snap away and see what you are shooting right away.
Why do you think local papers, like yours, are important to the community?
Wennerstrom: I think storytelling is important and it allows people to tell their stories, even if it’s not considered big news. My favorite stories are when I’ve written about a charity and they get a big donation. That’s when it feels like I’ve made a difference.
Zuege: Community newspapers really tell and record the history of the community. We’re the only ones that give a picture of real life and people who make a difference in the community. It’s not saving the world, but for an individual and a local cause, we have a huge impact.
Have you ever covered what you felt was a historic event, or recorded something that you felt was important local history?
Zuege: 9/11 was a stunning day. It was also deadline day. Not only did we have to get that week’s paper out, we had to get what was going on in there. I was running over to the American Legion in Chanhassen talking to people. I was talking to people who knew people in New York. Another reporter did a story on a man from Chanhassen who was in New York. It was all very eerie. Even though we are in Chanhassen, Minnesota, there are lots of connections and ties to what happened.
Wennerstrom: The disappearance of Mandy Matula was very sad and a difficult story to cover. I think it was a major moment for our community. The way people come together in tragedies and share their stories is very touching.
What’s the strangest story you’ve covered?
Wennerstrom: The weird smell coming from the pickle factory! People will call 911 because there’s a strange smell and you have to call the police department and ask about it. You think, “Am I on the weird smell beat today?”
Zuege: The weirdest story I was on when I was with Skyway News and there was this man who had an invention of hair rollers made out of chicken bones. He came up with the idea while eating wings. I spent an hour with him and let him cut my hair and I came back and thought, “what just happened?”
Reporters attend more city council meetings than the average citizen. They often call city staff and elected officials daily. What do you wish people understood about civic engagement?
Wennerstrom: I wish people knew that people in government listen. If they write a letter, it makes a difference. If they express an opinion at a public meeting, it makes a difference. If you want your opinion heard, you should express it. We often sit in meetings and look at an audience of empty chairs.
Zuege: People can make far more difference than they imagine. I’ve sat at city council meetings and no one is there. People should show up or if it’s broadcast on TV, they should pay attention. Maybe consider running for office instead of saying mean things.
You see the best and sometimes the worst of the communities you cover. In a way, you have your finger on the pulse of the community. What’s your perspective?
Wennerstrom: Eden Prairie has a reputation of being homogenous and wealthy. There are parts that are that, but it’s a lot more diverse than people think. It’s also amazing how generous and giving people are. I see examples of that constantly.
Zuege: Victoria is an up and coming community. It’s gone through a lot of changes since being a blip on Highway 5. It really reminds me of Eden Prairie in years past. It’s affluent, fresh and new and has a lot of old historic character. It wasn’t so long ago that it was a farm community. Chanhassen has really arrived. It’s really come into it’s own and I think that’s deserved.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
Wennerstrom: I’m really thankful to people for sharing their stories. There are many stories we still want to tell….and it’s exceedingly bizarre to be interviewed!
Zuege: It’s weird to have the shoe on the other foot!
About Karla Wennerstrom
Karla Wennerstrom learned life lessons growing up in a small North Dakota town named Hope. She was one of only 16 students in her graduating class. “I look at every town like a small town,” says Wennerstrom. “I like to talk to the people who’ve been in town a long time. They have great stories.”
She enjoyed writing and working on the yearbook in high school, so she decided to pursue journalism. She worked for the Montrail County Record in North Dakota and for Sun Newspapers for about 10 years and has been editor of the Eden Prairie News since 2005.
She is married with two children and lives in Chanhassen. “The hours are random, but the good thing is they are flexible,” says Wennerstrom. “So, it allows me the opportunity to go to my kids’ events.”
About Unsie Zuege
Unsie Zuege knows a career in journalism is the right fit for her. She got her first camera at age 7 and just kept taking photos. From small town newspapers to international assignments for the Korean Quarterly, Zuege enjoys the diversity of subjects she gets to cover. She had a 10-year stint in marketing and advertising, but she came back to community journalism. “I had a teacher in college that instilled into us you get into journalism not because it’s going to be a big moneymaker, but it’s something you’ve been called to do,” Zuege says. “It’s a vocation.”
She’s covered news for Eden Prairie and Chaska, but now focuses on Chanhassen and Victoria. “People say I have the most interesting job, and I have to say it’s true,” Zuege says. “Where else can you sit down and ask all sorts of questions and have an excuse for doing so?”