Sullivan, an enterprise reporter based in Minneapolis, had been looking for a way to write about America’s divides. He spotted an opening.
“Why would it happen at newspapers that deal mostly with city council meetings and car crashes?” Sullivan said to me. “Calling around to newspaper editors, it became clear this was a major issue for small- and mid-sized papers across the country.” But few editors, fearful of alienating their readers even more, would talk on the record.
Another colleague suggested he seek out Reed Anfinson, the publisher, editor, photographer and reporter for the Swift County Monitor-News in the tiny town of Benson (population 3,000) on the western Minnesota prairie. Anfinson was happy to talk.
So began weeks of reporting — not just repeated visits to Benson and long phone calls, but road trips to understand the political tenor in the region. Last month, the AP published Sullivan’s story, “In one small prairie town, two warring visions of America,” a 2,400-word portrait of a community caught in a neighbor-to-neighbor conflict, the tensions heightened by Anfinson’s accurate reporting about COVID and its impact on America’s heartland.
Sullivan leads with newspapers thudding on front porches of the “wind-scarred prairie town,” bearing news that coronavirus numbers were spiking in western Minnesota. “Covid-19 cases straining rural clinics, hospitals, staff,” read the front-page headline. “Vaccinate to protect yourselves, health officials urged.”
Anfinson stood by his coverage when he talked to Sullivan for the story: “There are no alternative facts. There is just the truth.”
Anfinson’s reporting, however, has enraged conservative neighbors. The foil in the story is Jason Wolter, Anfinson’s next door neighbor, a well-read Lutheran pastor who says that he has presided over funerals of residents killed by the COVID vaccine. Anfinson, he says is “lying to people.”
Sullivan’s piece, described as “deeply affecting, sharply drawn” by Sunday Long Read editors, brings to mind similar themes of internecine conflict in “Main Street,” a classic dissection of small-town culture by another Minnesotan, Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis.
Choosing a story lens
Social media seized on the story, with most commenters focusing on the sadness it evokes about the state of our nation. But more than a few slammed it for not rebutting — with no equivocation — the anti-vaccine stance of Wolter and others in Benson.
Asked about the criticism, Sullivan said he and his editors anticipated that response, then agreed to focus the story through a different lens: “This was a story about how people see the truth, despite what the media reports,” he said.
He portrays a series of encounters with the characters with respect and nuance, everyone from the newspaper publisher who “casually quotes Voltaire,” the minister who waves across to him across the street despite their deep disagreement, to the area farmer who fumes at the paper.
Sullivan spent more than 20 years as an AP foreign correspondent, covering West Africa and then Asia. His assignments ranged from the civil war in Liberia to India’s emergence as an Asian power to North Korea. He was a Nieman Fellow in 2001-2002. Before joining the AP, he was a reporter at the Public Opinion in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and “made coffee and sorted mail at The New York Times Washington bureau.”
Sullivan spoke with Nieman Storyboard about his goal for the story, how he played with different leads, and how his experience as a foreign correspondent dovetails with his new domestic assignment. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You spent a good portion of your career as a foreign correspondent. How do you approach your job now that you’re back home and working a domestic beat?
I don’t think my approach has changed much. I want to tell stories that make people care about an issue, a place, a person. My first job as a foreign correspondent was reporting across West Africa, covering countries that are often ignored by the wider world. I had to learn to tell stories that would pull in readers who may not have even heard of the country where I was reporting. I often did that by writing about people who might outwardly seem so different but who, if you look deeply enough, are very recognizable: They’re trying to support their family, or are arguing with their spouse, or just trying to do their job. It may sound strange, but in many ways the distance from a Liberian comedian to a North Korean smuggler to a small-town Minnesota newspaper publisher really isn’t that far.
What was your goal going into the story in Benson?
I wanted to understand how a little newspaper could alienate conservative readers and, on a larger level, explore how America’s divisions play out in a little town where most people know each other, or at least have some sort of connection.
How much time did you spend on it?
I’m lucky to work for the AP’s Enterprise team, which gives us the freedom to wade into complicated stories. It took me a while just to understand the situation newspapers are facing and to find a paper to focus on. Once I found Benson, which is just three hours from my home, I spent weeks going back and forth to western Minnesota, interspersed with helping out on daily stories and vacation.
You interviewed Joy Mathis Mayer of Trusting News for background on how conservatives view local news. How did she help you as you approached the story?
Joy understands, maybe more than anyone, the magnitude of the problem and what has alienated conservative readers.
What has been the response to the story that you’ve noticed?
The vast majority of responses were positive, though there was some general criticism from conservatives. Some liberal readers were angered that I described Wolter as thoughtful, and that I described Anfinson’s wife as patriotic.
There has been some chatter, however, about you repeating, without rebuttal, the statements about vaccinations and COVID, as well as your reference to the minister without mentioning the specific branch of Lutheranism. Did you consider these issues or had discussions about them with your editors?
My editors and I had decided, even before I started the reporting, that I wouldn’t spend a lot of time correcting misinformation, whether about vaccine safety or presidential election results. I’m torn about the Missouri Synod criticism. Maybe I should have added that Wolter is from the Missouri Synod, a more conservative branch of the Lutheran church. But it would have required lots of background to explain, and it was already a long story. It might have been better if I’d simply taken out the word “Lutheran.”
What impact did your editors have on the story?
I worked on this story with AP’s Jerry Schwartz, one of the best editors anywhere. Jerry is one of the people I spoke to before the reporting even started, when I was looking for a way to explore America’s divide. Later Jerry helped me structure the story, and he’s a master at line editing without stripping out the writer’s voice.
Are there writers or books that you looked to for inspiration as you worked on the story?
I read books by Sean Hannity and Mark Levin to better understand the conservative perspective. For inspiration, I often turn to Dan Barry of The New York Times, who can find the humanity in any story.
Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Sullivan’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu or the individual gray boxes throughout the text, or at the top of your mobile device. (EDITOR’S NOTE: AP member publications sometimes edit stories for length. The annotated transcript below is the full, original text.)
In a small prairie town, two warring visions of America
By TIM SULLIVAN
January 27, 2022BENSON, Minn. (AP) — The newspaper hit the front porches of the wind-scarred prairie town on a Thursday afternoon: Coronavirus numbers were spiking in the farming communities of western Minnesota.
“Covid-19 cases straining rural clinics, hospitals, staff,” read the front-page headline. Vaccinate to protect yourselves, health officials urged.
But ask around Benson, stroll its three-block business district, and some would tell a different story: The Swift County Monitor-News, the tiny newspaper that’s reported the news here since 1886, is not telling the truth. The vaccine is untested, they say, dangerous. And some will go further: People, they’ll tell you, are being killed by COVID-19 vaccinations.
One little town. Three thousand people. Two starkly different realities.
It’s another measure of how, in an America increasingly split by warring visions of itself, division doesn’t just play out on cable television, or in mayhem at the U.S. Capitol. What did you know of the political climate in Benson ahead of your arrival? I knew the county swung sharply to the right between the 2008 Obama election and the 2016 Trump election. A lot has been written about places where the vote shifted like that, but I was living overseas until the summer of 2019 and wanted to see how it looked up close.
It has seeped into the American fabric, all the way to Benson’s 12th Street, where two neighbors — each in his own well-kept, century-old home — can live in different worlds. In your opening, you concisely set the scene and the warring climate in this tiny prairie town. Only then do you shift to two characters whose political argument create the story’s human dimension and its tension. Did you consider other leads? Or using the lead as your nut section? I played with a series of different leads, including a scene at Wolter’s house, but I liked the image of newspapers hitting front porches. And I liked that it introduces the newspaper, and the issue dividing the two men, before it introduces the men themselves.
In one house is Reed Anfinson, publisher, editor, photographer and reporter for the Monitor-News. Most weeks, he writes every story on the paper’s front page. He wrote that story on clinics struggling with COVID-19.
He’s not the most popular man in the county. Lots of people disagree with his politics. He deals with the occasional veiled threat. Sometimes, he grudgingly worries about his safety. Given the ominous ending of the story, was this foreshadowing? Yes, but I didn’t want to overplay it since Anfinson hasn’t faced violence.
While his editorials lean left, he works hard to report the news straight. But in an America of competing visions, some here say he has taken sides.
Nowhere in the Monitor-News, for example, will you find reports that local people are dying because they’ve been inoculated.
“There are no alternative facts,” Anfinson says. “There is just the truth.”
His neighbor, Jason Wolter, is a thoughtful, broad-shouldered Lutheran pastor who reads widely and measures his words carefully. How did you choose which details to describe Wolter? It’s easy to see people who believe the vaccine is dangerous, or that Biden lost the election, as unhinged men in Viking helmets running through the U.S. capital. But Wolter, like many of the people I met, is smart and likable. He’s not a cliche. He’s complicated. I wanted readers to understand that right from the start. He also suspects Democrats are using the coronavirus pandemic as a political tool, doubts President Joe Biden was legitimately elected and is certain that COVID-19 vaccines kill people. How did you find Wolter and choose to use him as a foil for Anfinson’s beliefs? Did you consider other figures in Benson before settling on him? I stumbled into Wolter. I had arranged to meet a Swift County conservative who brought Wolter with him. I focused on him not just because he lives next door to Anfinson, but because they are both intelligent and likable men who see things so differently. That struck me as deeply poignant.
He hasn’t seen the death certificates and hasn’t contacted health authorities, but he’s sure the vaccine deaths occurred: “I just know that I’m doing their funerals.” Did he offer specifics? Wolter gave plenty of specifics but I didn’t use them. If I went deeply into his explanations of why the vaccine is dangerous, I’d have to include the wealth of scientific evidence that contradicts him. And that wasn’t my goal. Was it a challenge to write a story that presented a point of view about vaccines that is demonstrably false and not rebut it? It wasn’t. So many reporters have done great work on vaccines and their safety. But I wanted to write about how people see the issues. For a story like this, I expected most readers to come into it with a decent grasp of the evidence.
He’s also certain that information “will never make it into the newspaper.”
Wolter’s frustration boils over during a late breakfast in a town cafe. Seated with a reporter, he starts talking as if Anfinson is there. A great action verb choice here! How important are such choices and do they come during the reporting, writing or revision? I don’t remember when that word came into the story, but I wanted to convey that he’s a gentle-spoken guy who can get angry. Choosing words is, in many ways, the heart of what we do, and it’s a great feeling when you hit on the right one. Related: Can you describe your writing process? I wish I had one. If I’m on deadline or there’s breaking news I can crank out a story in minutes. But give me a complex story like this one, and reams of reporting, and it’s basically a wrestling match until the story takes shape.
“You’re lying to people,” he says. “You flat-out lie about things.”
“In rural Minnesota we still have a work ethic, and I’ll call them Christian values, and that’s not reflected in our local newspaper,” said Al Saunders, a farmer and friend of Wolter’s who graduated from Benson High School a couple years after Anfinson.
“I just can’t stomach it anymore,” said Saunders, whose family settled on part of his sprawling farm more than a century ago, and who speaks almost lovingly about the rich brown soil. Anfinson’s editorials on farm subsidies and politics leave him fuming. “Trash gets thrown at you so many times and eventually you just give up.” The story is studded with strong quotes that leave nothing to the imagination. How do you interview to get them? I try to treat people with respect, no matter what I think of their views, and I like to think that people can see that.
He grudgingly subscribes to the Monitor-News, which has a circulation of roughly 2,000. But just to follow local politics. Did you find anyone in town who supports Anfinson? If so, why don’t they appear in the story? It’s easy to read this as if it were Anfinson against everyone else. This was one of the toughest decisions I had in writing this piece. Anfinson has supporters, including Republicans, and I had quotes from them in early drafts. But I couldn’t find a way to get them in without slowing down the story or making it too unwieldy. I wish I could have found a way to do it.
Anfinson does cover Swift County intensely — the city council, the county commissioners, the school board and nearly every other gathering of consequence. He’s there for school concerts, community fund-raisers, elections and livestock judging at the county fair. His white Jeep is often spattered with mud from the county’s dirt roads. That’s a nice detail about his mud-splattered Jeep? How did you find out about it? I went to the Monitor-News’ offices many times and he parks out front.
He works relentlessly. You pace your story by alternating short and long sentences. Do you do that consciously? No, but there are times when I can hear myself going on too long, and I know it’s time to use a flat, short sentence. Wednesday afternoons, after he gets that week’s edition ready for printing the next morning, often count as his weekend.
Anfinson is 67 but looks at least a decade younger. A contemplative man who casually quotes Voltaire, he loves newspapers deeply, and mourns the hundreds of small-town papers that have gone under in recent years.
Still, Anfinson sometimes is surprised to find himself in Benson.
Family is a powerful force here, and this town is knitted together in ways that few Americans understand anymore. His grandfather, a poetry-loving plumber and child of Norwegian immigrants, came to Benson as a child. His father came home from World War II, became a reporter at the Monitor-News and eventually bought the newspaper with a partner.
Anfinson grew up planning on a journalism career somewhere beyond small-town Minnesota. But he found those plans upended when his father’s health began declining in the late 1970s.
“I thought I’d come back here just for a little while,” he said. “It turned into the rest of my life.”
Not that he regrets it.
He’s proud that his reporting means something here, whether it’s a high-school student getting an award or an expensive building project the community rejected after he wrote about it.
Still, there are times when it’s exhausting. And expensive. With declining circulation and ads, he estimates his three little local newspapers are worth at least $1 million less than a decade ago.
“The easy part is speaking truth to power. The hard part is speaking truth to your community. That can cost you advertisers. That can cost you subscribers,” he said. You devote much space to Anfinson. Do you consider him your main character? How much time did you spend with him? I’m not sure if I consider him the main character, but because the story centers around newspapers he naturally became very important. I spent hours with Anfinson over a string of visits, and had long phone calls with him. Then there were the relentless fact-checking emails toward the end. It can be easy, looking around Benson, to think it is a land that time forgot. What a great line! When did it come to you? Benson can feel frozen in time, and I was constantly looking for a way to express that. I had a version of this sentence in my notebook and it eventually came out this way.
Bartenders often greet customers by name. The town’s cafes feel like high school lunchrooms, with people wandering between tables to say hello. Those in search of solitude go to the Burger King, where they sit alone at plastic tables, staring out the windows. How did you learn about the Burger King? I went to the Burger King a few times because people would notice me if I went to the cafes. That’s good for reporting and meeting people, but there are times I wanted to get away and write in my notebook. I soon realized that Burger King was full of people like me, sitting by themselves.
Benson was built in the 1870s as railways reached this part of the prairies, and trains remain the town’s background music. In the cafes, people barely look up when mile-long trains roar through downtown. Few people stop talking. How did you learn the town’s history? Some was from a book about the history of settlers in western Minnesota, some from asking around, some from back issues of the Monitor-News. Did you get the note about how people behave in cafes by hanging out there? Yes. The trains are immense, and literally run through the middle of the little downtown, where the two main cafes are. I’d look up when they’d come through, but I saw that no one else did. They’ve been hearing those trains for generations.
Many farms and businesses have been owned by the same families for decades: through the droughts of the 1930s; through the thriving years around World War II; to the population decline that began in the 1950s.
But plenty has changed.
Stores closed. Little farms were bought up by more successful farmers. Families left. Swift County’s population has dropped about 30 percent since 1960, and now has about 10,000 residents. Meanwhile, a county that was 98% white in 1990 has seen a stream of new minority residents, particularly Latinos. The county is now 87% white – far whiter than much of America, but far more diverse than a generation ago. How did you collect this demographic information? I went to a wonderful Washington Post interactive that uses census data to show racial changes down to a very local level. Why didn’t you interview any of the minority newcomers? I thought about it, and maybe I should have. But my focus was on conservatives and what they thought of the paper.
Today, longtime locals can sometimes feel unmoored.
“There are a lot of people coming through that I don’t recognize,” said Terri Collins, Benson’s cheerful mayor, whose family has been in Benson for five generations. “I used to know all of my neighbors and now that’s different. And I don’t know what to blame for that.” Why did you describe the mayor as “cheerful?” She is always cheerful, even at city council meetings. I thought about “bubbly” but that felt condescending. These people seem very confused by the demographic changes. Where else do they get their news — is it Fox? If so, you don’t mention it. At one point I had a section about where people get their news, ranging from thoughtful websites to QAnon-style material. The range was so vast it seemed to complicate things, and I cut it for length.
Once, neighborliness and good manners were near-commandments here. Now anger is on the rise.
Neighborhood shouting matches are more common, a local official’s car was vandalized, and a “F— Biden” flag now flies along a school bus route. How did you learn this detail? Anfinson told me about it, and I drove past it many times. Collins and the town police chief both say they sometimes worry about Anfinson’s safety.
“Ten years ago I don’t think anything like this would happen,” she said. Evocative photos and video by David Goldman accompany the piece. Was he with you when you were reporting? David was there for only one reporting trip, but he’s a great journalist and he had invaluable insights and suggestions. Without David, for instance, I wouldn’t have gone to the printing plant. While I didn’t mention the plant in the story, just watching Anfinson there made me better understand his visceral connection to the paper.
But that was then. Travel across the plains of western Minnesota and you’ll find plenty of people who are bestirred by a new and often dark vision of America.
They are not on the fringes, at least by current standards. They are, for the most part, mainstream conservatives who see a nation that barely exists in traditional newspapers and mainstream TV news broadcasts.
People like the store manager, sitting at an American Legion bar drinking $3 cocktails, who calls the billionaire financier George Soros, a Jewish survivor of the Nazis and a powerful backer of liberal causes, “one of the most evil men I’ve ever heard of.” And the semi-retired nurse who fears teams of sex traffickers she says operate freely in countless small towns.But it would be a mistake to think they can be categorized easily.
Some desperately want Trump to run again; others pray he won’t. One farmer quietly admits he worries about the growing numbers of racial minorities; another enjoys hearing new accents at the grocery store. Many are nearly as dismissive of conservative media as they are of traditional news outlets.
While social conservatism has long run deep in Swift County — even the former, longtime Democratic congressman was anti-abortion and pro-gun rights — many say the presidency of Barack Obama marked a change. The previous seven grafs indicate that you made the trip across the western plains of western Minnesota. How much time did you devote to gathering those observations and details, apart from your visit to Benson? Is this kind of reporting a reflection of the way you reported overseas? Anfinson is the main reporter for the Monitor-News but he owns three little papers. I was originally going to write about the entire region those papers cover. So before I narrowed my focus I spent a couple reporting trips driving around the region and meeting people. While I used almost none of that reporting, it made it clear that Benson and Swift County aren’t outliers, but a reflection of the larger area. I do that kind of reporting whenever I can, trying to get a larger perspective. Gay marriage was legalized and identity politics took hold. Growing calls for transgender rights seemed like an issue from another planet. The sometimes-violent racial justice protests that followed police killings of Black men had some here stocking up on ammunition. That is stated as a fact. How did you verify it? Multiple people told me they had stocked up.
Trump’s cries that he loved America resonated in an area where new approaches to teaching U.S. history, with an increased focus on race, were confounding.
So in a county where Obama won with 55% of the vote in 2008, Trump won with 64% percent in 2020.
“We’ve seen a shift here in Swift County,” said Al Saunders. “But you won’t see that in the newspaper.”Anfinson’s weekly column, where he writes about everything from political divisions to rural housing shortages, is a local lightning rod.
He sighed: “That editorial page will have people hate me.”
Across the U.S., many smaller newspapers, already facing economic decline with the rise of the internet, have cut back or completely stopped running editorials, trying to hold onto conservative readers who increasingly see them as local arms of a fake news universe. Who gave you this information? A string of newspaper editors told me about the situation as I was calling around the country. Joy Mathis Mayer later gave me more perspective.
But Anfinson won’t consider that, even if sometimes he feels like he’s tilting at angry, small-town windmills. A nice touch! He says it’s his duty to expose people to new ideas, even unpopular ideas like stricter gun control.
The editorial page is, he says “the soul of a newspaper in a way.”
“I would be a traitor to the cause of journalism, of community newspapers,” by giving up on editorials, he said. “I would be cowardly.”
Some would call him stubborn, and his wife and business partner, Shelly, would not disagree. It can be complicated being married to Reed Anfinson.
Like the day last spring, when Anfinson was in the bar next to the office and a man loudly told a friend that Anfinson was a communist and “somebody should do something about that guy.”
Anfinson knows the man. So does Shelly. A longtime dental hygienist, she cleaned his teeth for 20 years. She still says hello when she passes the man on the street.
“I try not to create a bigger divide,” said Shelly, who, after a series of intensive classes on the newspaper business, began running another of the couple’s weekly papers two years ago.
“I’ve definitely lost sleep over some confrontations that he’s had,” she said. “But do you let that stand in the way of reporting the facts?”
Shelly is warm and gregarious and easy to like. And when it comes to politics, she’s not who you’d expect to be married to the man often tagged as Benson’s best-known liberal.
She’s a pro-life Republican who voted for Trump, at least the first time. It annoys her when news outlets talk down to conservatives. She worries that there are too few Republican journalists.
She and Reed married 20 years ago, after both had been divorced. She moved in across the street and soon he was walking her home. Why did you introduce Shelly into the narrative? In part because it’s so interesting that the Anfinsons have such different political views. But Shelly also raised some serious issues about the media, which added important context about the widespread distrust.
She is often torn between support for Reed and worries over subscriber loss.
Still, she’s been pressing him to tone down the politics.
“It is a struggle. I can tell these things to my business partner. It’s harder to tell them to my husband.”In the custom of small-town Minnesota, the Anfinson and Wolter families get along, at least outwardly. They wave when they see each other. When one family is out of town, the other will sometimes watch their home.
“We’re still personable,” Wolter says. “I just don’t trust him.”
“He’s not going to come to church and I’m not going to buy his newspaper. But we can still treat each other as neighbors.”
While he believes Anfinson is sincere in what he publishes, he does not believe his neighbor has a monopoly on truth.
Wolter also knows that plenty of people would write him off as just another conspiracy monger. But he’s far more complicated.
He worries his conservative opinions color what he believes: “There are times when I’ve thought: ‘Well, what if all my angst over this is misplaced?’” he said. “Maybe everyone else is right?”
But he worries more about America: “This is a dark time.”
He criticizes conservative politicians for trying to make it illegal to burn the American flag, but worries about far-right accusations that that U.S. soldiers are hunting down American conservatives. Why does Wolter play such a big role in your story? I wanted to show that conservatives like him can’t be reduced to simplistic cliches.
“Maybe five or 10 years ago, I would have said ‘That’s crazy!’” he said. “Now I acknowledge it might be possible. I’m not saying I think it’s happening, but at least I don’t dismiss it the way that I would have.”
Wolter, whose home library includes everything from Sophocles to “The Grapes of Wrath,” is a careful reader, in his own way. How do you know this? He and I had talked about his wide-ranging reading habits. Later, when I asked what was on his home bookshelf, he took a couple photos of the shelves and emailed them to me. He’s wary of conservative news sites like Breitbart, believing it shapes its reporting to please conservative readers. Instead, he finds his news farther off the beaten path, like on Gab, a Twitter-like social media platform that has become home to many on America’s far right.
“For better or for worse I don’t really trust anything I read,” he says. The answer, he said, is research, probing the farthest corners of the internet.
The answers are not to be found, he insists, in the Swift Country Monitor-News.
Anfinson, for his part, doesn’t want to talk about Wolter, at least not directly. He’s watched Benson’s fragile web of community fray too much.
Instead, he talks proudly about the Monitor-News: how it prints letters to the editor that are harshly critical of it; how he reports the truth even if it costs him; how his coverage of the pandemic goes to the heart of journalists’ responsibility to keep their communities safe.
He mourns how some people see him as an enemy. His newspaper should bind people together, he says. Instead, America and Benson are growing angrier. Contentious midterm elections loom.
“It’s kind of sad,” he said. “But it would be foolish of me not to be aware of (my safety) with the sentiments out there.”
Does he carry a weapon? This soft-spoken man says he does not.
“But I know where one is if I need it.”This may be the saddest moment in a tragic story about America. How and why did you decide to end your piece this way? I was thinking about how journalism has changed in America — about the Annapolis newsroom killings in 2018, and how journalists now regularly wear body armor to protests. When I was first a reporter, at the Public Opinion newspaper in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, it would have seemed ridiculous to take a gas mask and body armor on assignment. But times have changed.
Chip Scanlan is an award-winning reporter who taught at The Poynter Institute from 1994-2009.He lives and writes in St. Petersburg, Florida, and publishes Chip’s Writing Lessons, a newsletter of tips and inspiration. His new book, “Writers on Writing,” is available on Amazon.