Hartsburg man revives the Truth, for the sake of his town

Sunday, December 12, 2010 | 4:05 p.m. CST; updated 4:28 p.m. CST, Sunday, December 12, 2010
Jim Nilges works on designing and editing the next edition of The Hartsburg Truth. It's a monthly newspaper for the town of Hartsburg.

HARTSBURG — In July, at a time when newspapers across the nation were scrambling to survive the Internet age, Jim Nilges started a print-only newspaper in Hartsburg.

He said he would never let the Hartsburg Truth go online or even have a Facebook page.


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"I want to keep it Norman Rockwell style," said Nilges, 40. "I want to keep it as old school as possible."

Since its first edition, The Hartsburg Truth has established a circulation of 100 — and that's in a city of 108 residents, according to the 2000 census. Nilges said he thinks the town population hasn't grown much since then.

Located south of Columbia, Hartsburg has two bars, two churches and no police. The city's financial establishments dwindled from two banks to one ATM. It used to have a jail called "Calaboose" that had one cell and was never used, said resident Bill Molendorp.

Before Nilges started the Truth, someone from the Boone County Journal approached him, willing to devote one page to Hartsburg news. People in Hartsburg were not happy with the suggestion, Nilges recalled.

"It was a unanimous 'no,'" Nilges said. "Everyone said, 'We want our own paper.'"

Like many small community newspapers, the Truth has only one staffer — Nilges himself. He write, edits, photographs for the newspaper. When the monthly paper comes out, he delivers the paper on his bike.

He charges $1 per copy. He delivers the paper to his neighbors and local businesses, such as Dotty’s, a cafe on Hartburg's Main Street that opens three days a week in the colder months.

Owner Dotty Manns greets him with a grin.

“I think we sold a few more,” she says, shaking the tin can and giving out a laugh. 

A section of the Truth is devoted to excerpts from articles in the original Hartsburg Truth, which was published either in 1899 or 1902 and folded in 1939. Molendorp, who operates Katy Rest Caboose — a one-room motel, helps Nilges collect the excerpts from MU's Ellis Library.

"S.E. Hackman, road overseer in the Arnold District, has a force of men at work on the Hart Hill this week," reads a blurb in a September 1908 issue. Ninety-two years later, the Hackman family is still in town.

Everyone praised the newspaper, Nilges said, until he stopped running the excerpts. "People love seeing names from back in the day," he said. "They say, 'Hey, that was my dad's best friend.'

"People live here forever," he continued. "It's their history."

He put the excerpts back.

Even those who are new to Hartsburg have found the newspaper helpful. Denise Grundstrom said that she learned about Hartsburg’s annual Christmas tree lighting in the Truth’s December issue. She and her husband, Richard, moved to Hartsburg from Ashland in April.

Grundstrom said it warms her heart when she sees the monthly newspaper delivered to their doorstep in an envelope addressed to them in Nilge’s handwriting.

“It’s very personal,” Grundstrom said.

Ann Mericle, a former Hartsburg mayor, said it was about time that someone reported on the City Council meetings, which attract one or two attendees on average. She hopes that as time goes on, Nilges will write about issues that are on people’s minds, such as the city's sales tax and water pressure.

“I think it’ll be an eight pager in a year,” Mericle said of the Truth, which currently has four pages.

Still, the Truth experiences a challenge that all monthly publications face: time constraints. For example, Nilges said that he would like to tell his readers the water level of the Missouri River, a topic that gets people’s attention since a flood in 1993 sunk the town. But what is news now will no longer be news a month later, he said.

For now, he will stick with printing council news, his wife’s recipes and a guest column titled “Wonderings from the Heart.”

The only complaint Nilges has is that people don't contribute enough to the paper. “It’s Hartsburg’s newspaper," he said. "It’s our newspaper. It’s not my paper."

A former Marine, Nilges has traveled to Spain and Somalia, but he said there was no place like Hartsburg, where he was born and raised. When he was stationed in California, he met his wife, Cindy. He persuaded her, a native of California's Orange County, to go to Hartsburg with him. Six months into their stay, she suffered from what Nilges identified as “cultural shock.”

“She couldn’t cope here, being a long way away from the ocean,” he said. They moved back to California.

A few years later, Cindy Nilges agreed to give Hartsburg another try. Now the couple is rooted in this city with one daughter and two sons.

“She still has her fixes,” Jim Nilges said. “She has to go to St. Louis, but she loves here.”

Jim Nilges doesn't have any experience in journalism, nor does he have much time to run a paper. He plays drums in a band, writes manuals for a technology company and is about to open a restaurant, where his wife will be the chef.

But he said he gets a kick out of running a paper.

"We are doers. We want this town to flourish," Jim Nilges said. "Hartsburg is known for being a friendly, charming town. You can go to all the houses in town, and you’re likely to be invited in for a cup of coffee.  I'm hoping to draw people, and they will see what we have to offer."

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eddie vedder December 12, 2010 | 8:06 p.m.
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