The country’s last Norwegian-American newspaper may put out its last issue this month. Norwegian American Weekly began publishing 125 years ago under its initial name, the Washington Posten, and was later known as the Western Viking until 2006.
Beside Emily Skaftun, as she designed what may be one of the last issues of the last Norwegian-American newspaper from a small Seattle office Monday afternoon, sat the new office mascot: Nils Anders Wik.
The small red-capped, white-bearded gnome — which Norwegians call a “nisse” — had just recently been named by Skaftun, Norwegian American Weekly’s editor-in-chief, and her four part-time staffers as part of a planned social-media campaign to give their 125-year-old newspaper a wider audience.
Posting photos on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook with the hashtag “#NAWnisse,” Wik would carry himself to Norwegian events all over the world, and maybe carry the publication itself into a brighter digital era.
But those hopes were dashed when their publisher, Bill Krippaehne, recently told them the newspaper could be putting out its last issue this month. The staff was initially told this past Wednesday that they were working on the last issue, but then were told Tuesday they could assemble two more issues while its owner, the Norwegian American Foundation, tries to sell the weekly.
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The publisher, Krippaehne, who is also interim CEO of Issaquah-based dairy company Darigold, did not return calls for comment.
In a post announcing the potential closure on the weekly’s Facebook page, readers said it would be a “terrible loss” and the “end of an era” if the weekly’s “one-of-a-kind voice” ceased to print more issues.
The weekly began in Seattle as the Washington Posten more than a century ago, a time when Norwegian culture was especially pervasive in the Pacific Northwest. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were at least 26 Norwegian-American newspapers in Washington alone, according to the Norwegian-American Historical Association. Census data show about 24,000 people of Norwegian descent live in Seattle, but other ethnicities have quickly outpaced that population locally.
Over the years, other Norwegian-American newspapers gradually merged with their paper to become the Western Viking until 2006, when a New York-based paper merged with the Viking and was renamed Norwegian-American Weekly.
The publisher cited financial problems for the potential closure, but did not tell the staff specifically why it may have to close so soon, according to Skaftun, who could be out of a full-time job by the end of the month.
Skaftun said she’s preparing to mourn more for the paper’s approximately 10,000 readers across the country than herself, though. After her cousin and colleague, Drew Gardner, urged her to join the paper at the beginning of last year, she realized that, for many of its elderly readers, the paper is their only fresh connection to their heritage and, in some cases, their homeland.
Vintage comics written in a conversational Norwegian-American dialect, recipes, cultural features, articles written in Norwegian, news about Norway and Norwegian-American issues offer nostalgia and reaffirm identity.
“I realized very quickly how important this paper was when I got here,” Skaftun said. “This was not a job I took lightly.”
That reality had also dawned on her Norwegian-speaking editorial assistant, Molly Jones, especially right before last week’s publisher meeting when she fielded a warm phone call from a thankful 84-year-old reader.
“She told me that she always looks forward to our newspaper because she’s been reading it since she was a teenager — she grew up reading this,” said Jones, who started working at the paper after graduating from the University of Washington last year. “It was hard to hear that, and then go into that meeting.”
Considering the increasing hardships of print media in the digital age, Skaftun said it won’t necessarily be a shock if financial woes ultimately kill the paper this month. But the announcement still blindsided her somewhat because ad sales and website traffic had been increasing.
Instead of regurgitating many news items from newspapers in Norway, Skaftun had been steadily increasing homegrown stories about Norwegian culture in America written by contributors from all over the country, some of whom had spent decades writing for the weekly.
She’d come prepared to their meeting with the publisher last week with ways to reach more age groups through social media and their website, which they redesigned this past summer. She left the meeting wondering when and how to break the bad news to both digital and print readers. The weekly’s office manager, John Erik Stacy, couldn’t believe it.
“It’s a huge loss — 125 years of publication means a lot,” said Stacy on Monday, when he still thought he was working his last week at the paper. Stacy grew up in Norway, lived in Minnesota, and moved to Seattle about a decade ago.
Skaftun said she’s relieved that the Nordic Heritage Museum has already agreed to take care of archives of the Western Viking, Norwegian-American Weekly, and vintage Norwegian comic strips from the early 1900s.
By the end of the month, everything else in their small Green Lake office next to the Royal Norwegian Consulate may need to be cleared out.
The staffers don’t know if a new Norwegian-American news and culture outlet would fill the void. Skaftun doubts that weekly’s owner, the Seattle-based Norwegian American Foundation, will launch anything new because its own existence and stability is in question. The foundation’s email address and phone number are defunct.
Skaftun said the foundation also declined to issue a statement to the staff for what they initially thought would be their final publication, a goodbye issue that the board kept from going to press at a Minnesota printer Tuesday.
Jones said she’s happy she was able to show skeptics that she could use what she learned about Norwegian studies and communications from college in the real world, at least for a little while.
“It’s fun that I got to actually use it,” Jones said. “The content is great, my co-workers are great — it’s just nice to get paid to do what you love.”