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Happy Birthday, Root River Current!

By Steve Harris, March 21, 2024

Root River Current's founding board members celebrate the eMagazine's first year of publication – pictured left to right: Steve Harris, Renee Bergstrom, John Gaddo, Loni Kemp, Dick Nethercut, Melissa Wray, Pat Torgrimson, Nancy North, and John Torgrimson. (Photo by Susie Harris)

Happy Birthday, Root River Current!


March 2024 marked the one-year anniversary of publishing Root River Current (RRC). To celebrate and reflect on that occasion, RRC board member and contributing writer Steve Harris led a discussion with John Torgrimson (co-publisher/managing editor) and John Gaddo (co-publisher/operations manager) to talk about RRC: past, present, and future. 


One year, and growing…

Steve Harris: What is Root River Current?

John Torgrimson: Root River Current is an on-line magazine primarily serving people in the five counties of the Driftless region and the Root River watershed area. Our purpose is to tell the stories of local people, culture and history. There had been a significant loss of local media in recent years; a number of small-town newspapers that used to tell these stories were gone. We wanted to fill that media gap by telling stories of the magnificent people and culture of this area.

John Gaddo: We want to tell stories that are often under-told or not told. This isn’t a criticism of media still existing in the area, such as local newspapers, or area radio and television stations. Media outlets are strapped. We saw an opportunity to look for special stories about the people, places, organizations and businesses that make this community what it is. Our motto or vision is “…building community through storytelling.”

Harris: How does Root River Current work?

Torgrimson: Twice monthly we send out newsletters to our subscribers highlighting new articles that are free and accessible on the Root River Current website.

Gaddo: We don’t publish an actual “monthly” e-magazine, say a January or February edition, like you would with a printed magazine. Instead we tend to post 8-10 stories monthly, all at the same time for convenience and expediency. We also regularly return to stories, to keep them as current as possible – to keep them timely and informative. I like to think of it as a “living publication.”

Left to right, Steve Harris, John Gaddo, and John Torgrimson, discuss the first year of publishing Root River Current. (Photo by Nancy North)

Harris: How did Root River Current get started? 

Torgrimson: It was a pretty organic process. I had been the editor and publisher of the Fillmore County Journal with my wife, Pat, for 13 years. There had been six or seven other town papers in operation, so when we weren’t telling a story, others were. With the loss of those papers in 2021, we noticed that stories were being missed. As John said earlier, that is not a criticism, it is just a fact of life. I was aware of John’s background in journalism. We began talking and sharing ideas. I was sure to ask him repeatedly, “is this a stupid idea?” 

Neither of us had worked on an online magazine before, although we were somewhat knowledgeable of what was involved in creating a publication. We researched similar efforts. (MN Post is one example; the Sahan Journal in the Twin Cities is another). We decided the best model for us was to be a nonprofit relying on foundations and individual donations.

Gaddo: Thinking back on my background in public media, I saw the opportunity to post not just text-stories, but also photography, audio, video, and more. The digital world provides all kinds of possibilities for creative juices to flow! 

Late in 2021 we pulled a core group together that became our founding board. The first  year – 2022 – was a lot of work with setting up the organization, incorporating, getting our IRS (nonprofit) designation. We engaged a Rochester marketing/branding firm to work with us to develop our ‘look’ and website. We went finally went ‘live’ in March 2023.

Torgrimson: I remember the first time I saw our website. The hairs on the back of my neck went up! I was so proud and excited to see what had come together.

Photographer Renee Bergstrom regularly contributes photos to Root River Current Photo Gallery. As singer/composer Rod Stewart writes, “every picture tells a story.”

Harris: I remember when we settled on the name Root River Current. It just fit and had a great energy about it.

Torgrimson: Our initial board felt like a dream team. John and I both had journalism backgrounds; my wife, Pat, is a graphic designer; Nancy North has great experience in communications strategy and project management; Loni Kemp is a policy analyst specializing in environmental issues; her husband, Dick Nethercut, is a lawyer; Steve, you’re a published author; Renee Bergstrom is very involved in the local arts scene and is a wonderful photographer; Melissa Wray, with Lanesboro Arts, brought writing and nonprofit experience, time at The Loft in Minneapolis, and a refreshing, informed perspective to what we were trying to do. There were no gaps and no egos involved.  

Gaddo: We kept talking and planning. We set some ‘go, no-go’ dates to carefully review each step. When nothing seemed to get in the way, we just kept going!

Harris: What articles from the first year of publication were highlights?

Torgrimson:  Julie Little’s story on the unique farm transition from Harvey Benson of Harmony, Minn. to a neighbor couple was personal and factual and could fit in any publication in the country. I wrote an article about a traffic accident that took the life of an Amish young person near our home and was able to follow the case from the day it happened until the day it was adjudicated in court.

Harvey Benson, pictured with his partner Bonita Underbakke, considered more than the ‘bottom line’ in the story “Passing On the Farm.” He wanted to see the land worked in new and innovative ways with “a more holistic farming operation.” (Photo by Renee Bergstrom)

We’ve done several stories related to land and water issues, including a story on the expansion of feed lots in Fillmore County, including their potential impact on water quality in the area. We looked at the opposition to that, but also presented the perspective of people who were for it, including farmers who see it as expanding needed capacity. We’ve also done 4-5 pieces on local water issues which is a topic of growing concern. 

And then there are some really good profiles of people and community organizations. This is an agricultural area, but it also offers a dramatic arts scene, tourism, travel, and more. We hope in every issue there is some story that grabs people and that makes them think, “I’ve got to read this!”

Harris: Poetry appears in almost every issue as well, correct? 

Torgrimson: Yes, poetry along with essays and photos, as John mentioned. We occasionally assign story ideas, but mostly we encourage freelancers to write what they’re interested in.

Gaddo: We hope contributors of original, creative content – essays and poetry, for example – will see this as a win-win and appreciate having an opportunity to share their creative energies with the broader public in ways they might not ordinarily experience. A grant from SEMAC (the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council) helps support and encourage exposure of these and other local artists and art initiatives.

Dave and Lynn Susag are profiled in the story “A Norwegian Love Story.” Pictured here in traditional Viking garb, the couple has made multiple trips to Norway. (Photo submitted by Lynn Susag)

Torgrimson: People can send in ideas through the website. I encourage prospective writers to review our guidelines. I let people know about deadlines. We do offer small stipends for stories that are more comprehensive, requiring additional research or multiple interviews.

Harris: You mentioned finances as a challenge that has led to fewer newspapers. How are finances going for RRC

Gaddo: Our business plan is much different than a for-profit, privately-owned organization. As a nonprofit we rely primarily on grant funding and private donations. As publishers and trustees of RRC it’s been heart-warming to receive donations from individuals who read our articles, finding something that informs them, that they find useful, and that they appreciate and value enough to financially support.

Torgrimson: We received initial grant support from SASA, a Preston-based foundation, that helped us get organized and create our website. The SEMAC grant that John mentioned is focused on arts-based content. We’re a low-budget operation and have no brick-and-mortar costs; we all work remotely. 

Our all-volunteer board has been incredible in taking on a variety of tasks. Our biggest expense currently is managing the website. But our vision for the future is to grow, to add more contributors, to expand the website, and to add staff so we can do more. We’re constantly looking for ways to generate income to make all that happen. 

We want to continue to deliver content that people are interested in and to create a sustainable publication. We don’t want this to be a two-year project. We want Root River Current to be something that appeals to the ‘next generation’ of readers.

Harris: How many readers do you have already? 

Torgrimson: We’ve exceeded 500 newsletter subscribers in our first year and have had more than 30,000 website page views. That’s all happened with a pretty quiet start and mostly word-of-mouth advertising.

Harris: I’d call that quietly remarkable! What’s next? What do you hope to see in Root River Current a year from now that doesn’t exist today?

Torgrimson: I hope we’ll see more community participation and more ways for people and organizations to contribute content. We’re planning an easily accessible calendar of events and exploring adding comments to articles. We’re still a small group of people doing this; we’ll expand as it becomes possible.

Gaddo: A year from now I’d like to see us inundated with so much community-contributed content that we’re faced with really difficult choices as to what to publish each month! Also, more ways for the community to dialogue with itself. More ways to tell stories. More videos and creative ways to do that.

Harris: It’s been an exciting beginning, with more to come. Thank you, gentlemen, for all you and others have done. Happy birthday, Root River Current!




Steve Harris, a freelance writer who lives in Lanesboro. Steve is the author of “Lanesboro, Minnesota” and “Dads Like Us: Raising a Child with Disabilities.” He can be reached at sharris1962@msn.com.

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