Buying The Mail and Sun

I’m not sure who contacted Frank and Sally Morlan about their selling The Sheldon Mail and The Sheldon Sun to our newly formed Iowa Information publishing company. It wasn’t a member of the immediate family. Connie, Jeff, Jay and I expected there would be an extended period before any serious conversation regarding their selling would take place.

The only comment I heard out of The Mail-Sun building was attributed to Sally Morlan.

“I don’t know why that group didn’t come to us,” she was reported to have said.

The early contact might have been made by Tom Whorley, our new firm’s Sheldon attorney, acting on behalf of the investor group.

It would have been to the investors’ advantage to bring about a sale quickly. Making Sheldon a one newspaper company town would have saved them duplicated advertising costs and lead to an increase in profits from the paper at a quicker pace.

But during a recent discussion with Whorley, he was as surprised as I that it came to a head as quickly as it did.

But then, nobody expected the intervention of Sheldon’s Hy-Vee Sheldon store manager Gary Adams and his sudden decision to pull all his advertising from The Mail and The Sun in favor of Iowa Information’s Golden Shopper.

The conversations with the Morlans began sometime around Thanksgiving 1986 and continued off and on until late New Year’s Eve.

Meanwhile, during the few months following our reorganization, our new firm attempted twice to purchase The Sibley Gazette-Tribune from Murray Hubbard who had bought it from John van der Linden.

The first took place when Hubbard offered The Gazette-Tribune for sale in the Iowa Newspaper Association’s weekly bulletin. His published asking price was $300,000.

Tom Whorley and CPA Jerry Sears were approved to attempt to purchase the Sibley paper and arrangements with Keith Campbell, president of Citizens State Bank, to authorize a $300,000 cashier’s check to close the deal.

But when Whorley and Sears arrived at The Gazette-Tribune office they were greeted with suspicion. Hubbard looked at the certified check and asked one question: “Is this Peter Wagner? If it is Peter Wagner, I can’t take this check.”

When Whorley and Sears responded they could not confirm the name of the buyer, Hubbard tore the check in two and sent the men on their way.

The second attempt came a few weeks later when Bob Reiste said he would be interested in selling the Ocheyedan Press if Hubbard was willing to also sell The Gazette-Tribune.

But again, Hubbard passed on the idea. He said he couldn’t do so since it wouldn’t be fair to the Morlans.

Less than six weeks later, Frank and Sally sold us The Mail and The Sun and left Hubbard standing alone.

Meanwhile, back in Sheldon, things were heating up in the possible purchase of The Mail and The Sun as outside the pre-Christmas holiday temperatures grew colder. The Morlans hired a Des Moines attorney in Des Moines to open serious negotiations with Whorley and Sears.

But the discussions were on and off and then on again. At one point, right before Christmas Day, we were told a sale had been confirmed and the paperwork agreed upon,

Then Sally Morlan was reported to have suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. The attack, we were told, had been brought on by the pressure the sale was putting on her. Immediately, the entire deal was called off.

But just a few days later, New Year’s Eve morning, it was on again. Sally, it seemed, had only suffered a severe anxiety attack.

The Morlans’ attorney flew to Sheldon from Des Moines that afternoon, and Whorley and Sears forsook their New Year’s Eve plans to finalize the sale.

For the first time since the conversations had started, Jeff was allowed, after closing hours, to tour The Mail and The Sun office to see what equipment and other physical assets we were buying. One of the stipulations of the sale was that I could not enter the building until after the sale was completed.

Connie and I were supposed to spend New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day at my brother’s home in Brookings, SD. The Wagner family always gathered there for the first-of-the-year holiday. We usually got there in time for a late supper. But that night, we had to call Bob and Mary twice to say we would be late, and it was after midnight when we finally arrived in Brookings.

The Morlans had been careful not to tell their staff of the potential sale. Some had their suspicions, however, saying Frank and Sally had stayed late many nights shredding papers in their office.

All our team were aware, however, since we had told them of the potential purchase before they went home New Year’s Eve.

Friday morning, the day after New Year’s Day, all our staff and the Morlans’ staff met together for the first time in the front area of The Mail and The Sun building. Frank and Sally chose not to be there. Although it would create a financial burden, we announced that all of them would continue to have a position with us and none would be laid off. Most of the former Mail-Sun group, however, found it difficult to work for their former competitor and moved the next few months to new positions, mostly in other communities.

The only exception was Karen Griggs, the Morlans’ lead accounting person. Griggs stayed on with us for many years.

Our plan was to immediately combine The Mail-Sun subscription list with that of our N’West Iowa The REVIEW and publish only The REVIEW the next day.

And, because we were working with a much larger group of staffers, we decided to put that REVIEW together in The Mail-Sun building. We would move our equipment from our much smaller office the following week.

Fate wasn’t with us, however. The moment we turned on The Mail-Sun Compugraphic typesetter, it literally blew up. Jeff and a few of the stronger men in the building had to borrow a pickup truck and move our huge, cumbersome 7700 typesetter and terminals to The Mail-Sun location before the reporters could start writing stories to for the paper. Jay, as REVIEW editor, also was appointed editor of the midweek Mail-Sun.

That first edition of The REVIEW carried the story that The Mail and The Sun had new owners. A framed copy of that front page, and the front page of the following Wednesday’s Mail-Sun, along with a framed copy of the front page of the first Sheldon Mail from 1873, hang in our second-floor conference room today.

From the beginning, our intention was to keep The REVIEW a regional paper. Our focus in that paper would continue to be on news, events and sports of interest to the larger four-county area.

The Mail-Sun, however, would be a separate midweek paper with its own circulation list, staff and a commitment to reporting news and information more important to Sheldon area residents. Some stories, of course, would overlap, but even those would be separately written to include the details important to that publication’s reader.

Frank and Sally Morlan continued to live in Sheldon the next few years. For some of those years Frank handled public relations for what is now Northwest Iowa Community College.

Eventually, the two of them moved to Osceola in south-central Iowa, where the purchased and published the Osceola Sentinel-Tribune and a shopper.

We will get back to that later.

Peter W. Wagner lives in Sibley. He is the founder/publisher of The N’West Iowa REVIEW and may be reached at