The Duluth Reader faced comically long odds when it launched 22 years ago.
First, there was the alt-weekly’s founder and publisher, Robert Boone, an idealist with $1,000 and zero journalism experience.
“Nobody can save the world, but I thought if I was good at this, I could make a difference in this region,” says Boone, a lifelong Twin Ports resident whose past jobs included selling insurance, driving race cars, and managing movie theaters. “You could see crooked government officials get caught, polluting companies spanked, and I could support the arts.”
That idea was sparked on July 4, 1997. Twenty days later, the first 8,000 copies of the Reader rolled off the presses.
It wasn’t easy. Nothing was during the paper’s infancy. Five days before that inaugural issue, Boone’s managing editor quit. The “incredibly hip” paper was well-received, Boone remembers… except by the bible-thumping mayor, who led boycott efforts against it.
Mercifully, things chugged along as the Reader found its footing. “I’d hoped to make the paper a sideline, but it became too important to see that it took off,” Boone says.
Then, in the fall of 1999, Boone experienced “a really bad day.” He broke up with his girlfriend. He snapped his leg in two while walking through the woods, which led to the discovery of undiagnosed diabetes and $25,000 in medical debt. Ad sales tanked because he couldn’t make client visits. His electricity was turned off for weeks, forcing him to lug firewood and water while on crutches.
“Everything went to hell in a handbasket,” says Boone, now 62.
Around that time, things got really, really bad. A competing alt-weekly called the Ripsaw emerged. Backed by hipsters, it immediately made Boone “the stodgy old guy.” One-third of his writers and one-third of his advertisers jumped ship.
“A weird miracle” saved the Reader. Tobacco companies had offered Boone $100,000 in ad buys, but he’d rebuffed them on principled grounds, knowing full well the Ripsaw would crush him if it received that cash. It never happened. The Ripsaw was too new for Big Tobacco to even know about, Boone reasons.
Eventually, the Reader outslugged the Ripsaw and became a regional institution, with a 90-mile distribution radius, 15,000 weekly copies, and an eye-popping page count in the hundreds. Its founder/publisher does it all with just two to three full-time staffers, plus freelancers and syndicated content.
“It became so important to the community, and it’s never boring,” Boone says, checking off an impressive list of past scoops and impactful stories. “The paper has either stayed stable or grown every year. I’ve got the most fun job in the world.”
Make that two jobs. In 2016, Boone acquired the 250-seat West Theater, a shuttered art-deco movie house in West Duluth from 1937. He also purchased the neighboring building on spec, and learned that he’d “accidentally” lucked into another venue, this one a vaudeville theater from 1913. “I’m gonna be my own arts district by the time I’m through,” Boone says with a laugh.
He’s painstakingly rehabbing both historic properties, which are set to host movie screenings and concerts beginning June 1.
“I thought, by the time I died, this might be a slightly better-educated, more artistic community,” Boone says. “With a little luck, this chunk of the world could be a better place.”
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