'Our own city, our own paper'
On March 15, 1967, Don and Betty Witham created West Fargo's only long-lasting community newspaper and published the first edition of the West Fargo Pioneer from their Minnesota home.
Now, 50 years later, the couple's dream of a community newspaper for and about West Fargo continues each week as part of Forum Communications Co., which bought the paper in 2005, when the Withams chose to retire.
In 2014, the newspaper became a free publication mailed to all households in West Fargo and, reflecting the city's growth, the newspaper's grown into one of the largest circulated in the state.
And while the Pioneer is turning 50 years old, it's still considered one of the youngest newspapers in North Dakota.
"Most newspapers have been around for decades, centuries in many cases," said Steve Andrist, president of the North Dakota Newspaper Association.
Andrist said weekly newspapers have long been central figures of the communities they serve.
"I think weekly newspapers play a really critical role in communities," Andrist said. "It's the hub of the community for both information and commerce. It's interesting to me: Communities that don't have a newspaper always want one. We go on through the course of time, and sometimes people might be a little upset with their newspaper, or dislike something it does, but, boy, they certainly would not want to be without it."
Andrist said the close relationship and sharing of resources of the Pioneer and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead is the only one of its kind in the state.
"It gives some resource advantage to (the Pioneer) it wouldn't have if it wasn't affiliated with the daily. It helps preserve the community identity and that is a big thing, the community identity. Otherwise, West Fargo kind of gets swallowed up by The Forum," he said.
Cartoonist Steve Stark, who first drew cartoons for the Pioneer in the late 1990s and currently submits bi-monthly cartoons, agrees the weekly newspaper is a cornerstone of the community.
"The weekly newspaper to me is so vitally important," Stark said. "Historically, weekly publishers and weekly editors and the very few staff they have, they really stay engaged with the community."
The Withams were both in their late 40s when they started the Pioneer and were looking to start a new chapter in their lives while living in Windom, Minn. Don Witham had spent 20 years setting up a pre-subscribed classical concert series in large and small cities throughout the country, and Betty Witham accompanied him.
The pair moved to West Fargo in June 1967, where they operated the newspaper out of a 300-square-foot office on Main Avenue.
Before the Pioneer was first published, three other papers had tried and failed to establish themselves in West Fargo. In its first decade, the Pioneer grew to a circulation of about 3,000 at a time when the city of West Fargo's population was still less than 10,000.
Jayne Rieth, a saleswoman at the Pioneer from 1977 to 2007, said the family atmosphere created by the Withams was unmatched.
"Don thought of us as his own family and that is how he treated us all the time," Rieth said.
Longtime photojournalist and West Fargo native David Samson, who continues to take pictures for The Forum and the Pioneer, was first hired as a photographer with the Pioneer in 1981, while still attending Minnesota State University Moorhead.
"I kept bugging them for a job," Samson said.
Samson, who grew up reading the Pioneer, agreed that working for the newspaper was always fun with the Withams at the helm.
"It was a total mom-and-pop shop, a really fun family atmosphere," Samson said. "We were kind of like a gang that were pretty well-known at that time. We used to give each other a lot of good-natured ribbing, so that was always fun."
Rieth said the Pioneer helped give West Fargo its identity.
"There was always Fargo next door and, of course, The Forum was right next door, but we still had our own identity with the Pioneer," she said. "It was our own city and our own paper, and that was very important."
'A symbiotic relationship'
To keep revenue up, the Withams eventually also established a weekly shopper in 1970, the Midweek Eagle, with its twin, the Midweek Plus, following a few years later.
"If I would have had to rely solely on that (advertising revenue from the newspaper), I would have lasted about a week," Witham once said in an interview with The Forum.
The Midweek Eagle was at one time the largest-circulated free paper in North Dakota, according to Forum archives. In 1992, the Withams also acquired the old Binford's Guide, also known as the FM Greeter, continuing to publish it monthly. They also operated Davon Press in West Fargo.
The Pioneer was first published in black and white on broadsheet newsprint, similar to its current size. In 1980, the Pioneer shrank its size, printing as a tabular with spot color until 1995 when the Pioneer became a full-color tabular publication.
In 2004, the couple retired; they sold their company to Forum Communications Co. the following year.
William Marcil Sr., chairman of Forum Communications Co., said Witham wanted to sell the Pioneer to Forum Communications so the newspaper would remain locally owned.
"Don and I had been meeting for years prior to the purchase of the paper," Marcil said in a 2014 Pioneer interview. "I would always suggest to him that when he and Betty were ready to sell, The Forum was interested."
In May 2008, Forum subscribers in West Fargo started to receive a newly designed Pioneer inside their Forum once a week. The insertion increased the Pioneer's distribution to more than 5,000 newspapers weekly compared to about 2,000 before that.
In June 2014, after the retirement of longtime general manager and editor Karen Huber in late 2013, the Pioneer underwent another redesign. The newspaper reverted from a tabular size to a full broadsheet once again. To adjust for the community's growth of more than 30,000 in population with two high schools—West Fargo and Sheyenne—the Pioneer created a new logo using a new, neutral color scheme of red, rather than the green and white commonly used by West Fargo High School and the city.
In September 2014, the Pioneer circulation jumped to its current size of 15,500 when it became a free-distribution newspaper, mailed to all residents in the 58078 ZIP code.
The newspaper strives to balance news of West Fargo schools, sports and local government with spotlights on the people of West Fargo.
"A newspaper has a symbiotic relationship with its community. We need each other to survive and thrive," said Forum Editor Matthew Von Pinnon, who has also been editor of the Pioneer since 2014 and a West Fargo resident since 2008. "The Pioneer's future depends on support from the advertisers that showcase their products and services and the large audience we reach that in turn supports them."