Dale Blegen, longtime publisher and owner of The De Smet News and Lake Preston Times, has retired after 43 years publishing the News and 36 years publishing the Times. Blegen purchased The De Smet News in 1977 and the Lake Preston Times in 1984.
Blegen, who turns 76 in June, has had his eye on retirement for the past decade. While Blegen had been trying to sell the newspapers for about 10 years, a sale never came to fruition despite occasional inquiries, and he had stepped back from the daily workings of the paper without fully retiring.
The businesses had not been turning a profit in recent years, but the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought an even bigger decrease in advertising revenue, was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Blegen made the difficult decision to close both newspapers, with his final publication date April 1.
(Following the closures, the development corporations in De Smet and Lake Preston purchased the two newspapers to form this combined publication which will be managed with a volunteer staff.)
David Bordewyk, executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association (SDNA), was the first editor of the Times under Blegen’s ownership, and he credits Blegen with much of his success. Bordewyk was a recent graduate of South Dakota State University in Brookings in 1984 when Blegen hired him.
“I had just graduated, but he took a chance on me. I’m obviously forever grateful,” Bordewyk said. “I learned so much from him about community journalism.”
Journalism was not Blegen’s first career. He grew up on a farm near the tiny town of Arco, Minn. He worked at the grocery store and meat locker in Arco while attending high school in Ivanhoe. Following high school graduation, Blegen attended the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis where he took one semester of Wildlife and Fisheries Management.
After realizing that was not the path he wanted to take, Blegen returned to work at the grocery store in Arco for a time, then as a lineman for Northwestern Bell Telephone Company before enrolling in barber college.
Blegen was working at the OK Barber Shop in Brookings when he decided to take a few journalism classes at SDSU. He earned his degree in four years while continuing to work at the barber shop, graduating in 1972 from SDSU.
“I was a non-traditional student,” he said. He was 28 with a wife and young daughter when he earned his bachelor's degree in journalism.
He also worked as a reporter at The Brookings Register and for KSOO Radio before landing a position as a general reporter for The Owensboro Messenger & Inquirer in Owensboro, Ky., where he was assigned to cover stories in two counties in Kentucky and one in Indiana.
“I covered city council meetings that were held in places like gas stations,” he said. Blegen explained that his employers thought that he would be good at covering agriculture stories since he was from an agricultural area.
“But,” he added, “agriculture in Kentucky was a lot different than agriculture in Minnesota or South Dakota.” Blegen was not impressed with life in Kentucky during the summer they lived there. “It was hot and humid. It didn’t cool off when it rained. The steam would rise from the ground, and it made it hotter.”
After he had been working in Kentucky for four months, Blegen got a call from a friend at The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls regarding a job opening as a markets editor. He applied and was offered the job. Along with the markets page, he took on other assignments, including writing features for the Sunday edition. Blegen noted that The Argus Leader was still using hot metal press at the time.
“It was a different process in 1972,” he said.
He later worked as the news coordinator for KESD FM, a radio station in Brookings, where he had a half-hour daily broadcast.
Blegen taught a journalism class while attending graduate school at SDSU. He then purchased The De Smet News from Aubrey Sherwood in March of 1977, and the Blegen family, which now also included two young sons, moved to De Smet.
Blegen completed his master’s degree in journalism in 1979, writing his thesis on Sherwood. He was the lone writer for the News until the late 1980s, when he began hiring part time writers.
“And it eventually evolved into hiring full time writers,” he said.
Blegen was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2011, having won numerous awards for news writing and feature writing. He served as president of the SDNA in 1990-91 and for many years was on SDNA’s First Amendment Committee.
With retirement, Blegen said he and his life partner, Catherine Tritle, had planned to do more traveling, but COVID-19 may have put those plans on hold for the time being. He said they would like to visit the Pacific Northwest when they are able to.
After the sale of the two businesses, which included a brick office building in each town, Blegen commented it’s the first time in more than 50 years that he has not owned a building other than his house.
“I’m glad I don’t have that worry and am going to stick with that for a while,” he said.
Blegen’s decades of work has had a significant and long-lasting impact on the newspaper community, not just in De Smet and Lake Preston but in the surrounding area, as well.
“Dale is an extraordinary community journalist and newspaper man. I think a lot of him,” Bordewyk said.