By Peter Wagner
Peter W. Wagner is founder and publisher of the award-winning N’West Iowa REVIEW and 13 additional publications. He often is called Newspaper’s Idea Man. You may contact him regarding his programs “100 Ideas for Fun and Profit” and “Seven Steps to Selling Success” by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling his cell 712-348-3550.
One of the best bits of advice I received before starting The N’West Iowa REVIEW came from the editor of the newspaper where we would be printing the new paper.
“You need to write a weekly column,” he told me. “You need to let your readers know who you are and what you believe.”
That was easy for him to say. He was a college-educated, experienced wordsmith. I was just an advertising salesman with a dream.
For the first months we published the paper I would carefully count each word as I wrote, much like a student required to write a 300-word essay. I hardly ever produced more than 10 inches of printed copy.
But those columns grew longer — too long, my wife and editor often tell me — as I recognized the value of sharing reflections regarding local readers and community events.
I strongly believe community newspapers, and locally written columns, are the first recorders of local history. I also believe that we have an obligation to be the watchdogs of government and public trusts. But most of all, I believe hometown newspapers, especially with personal columns, need to provide strong, personal positions regarding challenges to personal and corporate freedom and opportunity.
I wrote my first columns attempting to appear wise and knowledgeable. But I was inexperienced in the processes of local government and clueless regarding the worthiness of local and state politicians. Absent of great ideas to expound upon, I wrote about the one thing I knew: my day-to-day experiences.
I wrote about picking strawberries with my wife and two young sons, the boys participating in Cub Scouts, attending our first Orange City Tulip Festival and all the stages of our sons’ growing-up years including their weddings and the births of our four grandchildren.
By rough count, I’ve probably written more than 2,200 original columns for The REVIEW and our community newspapers.
But one of the most satisfying group of columns, 52 in all, were produced over a 12-month period just a few years ago while passing a major milestone in life.
It began with my realizing how little I know regarding my grandparents and even my parents. All of them were deceased and there is nobody to share their stories with me or especially my grandchildren. The result was writing one year of columns titled “Letters to My Grandchildren.”
To keep the weekly efforts interesting to my readers as well as family I jumped between generations and different members of my wife and my families. I thought it especially important that I shared stories about my sons, Jeff and Jay, growing up.
The columns were very personal and were meant to be since I eventually planned to put them together in a book for my four grandchildren. The subjects moved from fun times and sad times, stories of both Connie and my parents, moments that changed our lives and vacationing at our lake place to exceptional times with each of those grandchildren, now all college age.
One column shared the story of how their great-grandfather, Hans Herman Wagner, burned the family barn to the ground.
His mother and father had driven into town and my dad, along with his brother Bill and two sisters Anne and Hertha were playing firemen.
One by one they’d take turns lighting the hay against the barn on fire and shout fire as loud as they could. That would be the signal for the other three to come running with buckets of water to put out the fire. But when it was Dad’s turn to shout fire, all his siblings were in the house eating pie.
Someday soon I plan to publish the columns into book form with appropriate photos. Along with the four grandchildren I plan to give copies to my deceased older brother’s grandchildren since many of the stories are their history, too.
And what about my subscribers who were asked to read this obviously self-serving material? One lady at church mentioned that many of the columns reminded her of her own lifetime experiences as well as made her feel like she was one of our family.