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Jack Zaleski, Published March 29 2014

Zaleski: One of the best leaves the newsroom

I’ve known Mike Jacobs since my first days in North Dakota. That was 1969, the year Mike graduated from the University of North Dakota. I’d come out to the state to stay, following my higher education in Connecticut.

We started in the business at about the same time. I was a young reporter at the Devils Lake Daily Journal. I would wrap up nearly 20 years there as editor and general manager. Mike had interned at The Forum, and was on his way to becoming one of the state’s most influential newspaper men.

We’ve watched each other’s career take off and mature. We grew wise with age. Really, we are wiser. It happens. Sneaks up on you.

He and I have been trudging toward retirement at about the same pace. He got there first. Mike ends a stellar run at the Grand Forks Herald this week. It’s been a helluva trip for him and for those of us who have been privileged to be colleagues and friends.

He closes his years at the Herald as publisher, but his lasting legacy will be his work as editor because Mike is a journalist. No matter how he spins it, his first love is the craft of the written word – that intangible something that keeps us coming back to the rigors of a newsroom day after day, year after year.

It’s been an interesting road for Mike and his wife, Suezette Bieri. Early on, about 1975, they founded “The Onlooker,” a monthly tab focused on political news and commentary. I was one of the three paying subscribers. Mike and Suezette were the other two.

So many stories, so many laughs, so many newspaper association meetings where we delighted in jabbing each other as awards were handed out.

We got to know each other better during the run of the public television program “North Dakota This Week,” which was produced by former newspaper reporter Nancy Edmunds Hanson and hosted by the late Boyd Christenson in the 1970s and ’80s. We’d fly to Fargo every Thursday to tape the show. Mike and I were regulars. The cast was a who’s who of editors and broadcasters. It’s all archived at the Heritage Center in Bismarck.

Mike’s time at the Herald will always be remembered for his extraordinary leadership of the newspaper and his role in the community during the great flood of 1997. The Herald was inundated, as was Mike’s home. But with the help of the Herald’s parent company and neighboring newspapers, Mike and his team never missed a deadline. They reported, printed and distributed the newspaper in extremely difficult circumstances. The Herald was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

The flood saga was the big one, but the story that told me about Mike’s commitment to journalism came earlier.

During the hotly contested 1984 governor’s race, the Herald learned the governor had not paid property taxes on time for land he owned in northern North Dakota. Election Day was close, so if the Herald published the bombshell story, the governor would not have opportunity to respond. This was a time before social media and the 24/7 news cycle.

I was at Devils Lake. Mike called to get my take. What to do? Run it now? Wait until after the election? I said he could not sit on it; but I believed he’d already made a difficult, but right decision. The Herald broke the story. The governor lost a close election. Some political analysts say to this day that the tax story tipped the vote. The fallout from that one is still falling.

The Herald has always been a good newspaper, but under Mike’s tutelage, it got better. It evolved into a must-read that not only reported the news but also became a vital force in the community’s renewal, particularly after the flood. Mike’s encyclopedic knowledge of North Dakota (he’s a Mountrail County boy) helped the newspaper’s editorial voice grow into one of the most influential in the state.

The best tribute to Mike: He’s a great journalist. For those of us who love this work, it doesn’t get any better than that.

He and I will have one more opportunity to mix it up a little. We will be on Prairie Public’s “Main Street” radio broadcast Monday at 3 p.m. (rebroadcast at 7 p.m.). We’ll be joined by news director Dave Thompson and host Doug Hamilton. We’ll talk about Mike’s career. Tune in, and forgive us if we indulge in a nostalgia trip.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.