'He made it everybody's paper': Remembering Fred Berner, Antigo's hometown paper legend

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ANTIGO, Wis. (WSAW) -- When Antigo Daily Journal editor Fred Berner, 71, passed away at his desk last Monday while getting a head-start on the day's paper, he was days away from retirement. The newspaper remembers him as having carried on a legacy begun by his family when they founded the city’s daily paper in 1905; his community calls him their champion.

Photo of Fred Berner, courtesy of Antigo Daily Journal / Photo of ADJ office front, Nov. 4, 2019 (ADJ/WSAW Photo)

“His goal was always to continue the legacy that they started, and that was to support his community as well as he could, to tell the stories of his community as well as he could tell them good and bad,” Antigo Daily Journal editor Lisa Haefs said. The first lesson he impressed on her years ago was to give people the information of what was happening—and then let them make their own decisions.

“We’re gonna keep doing it, in his honor,” she said. The second lesson?

“No matter what happens, the presses are gonna roll.”

That was hardly more true than on Monday morning, when Haefs learned the news of his passing. “Our goal that day was to get the paper out. And I got in the office and I told people, ‘We’re getting the paper out today.’ And it never ever crossed anybody’s mind that we were not putting that paper out,” Haefs reflected. The paper was ten minutes late the Monday that he died. He wouldn’t have liked that.

“But he would be pleased we got a paper out,” she said. It’s what he would have wanted.

Berner grew up in Antigo, born to parents Artemas and Marie Berner. He left the area to earn his degree in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, followed by a brief stint at the Hartford Times-Press before returning to his hometown to take over as editor of his family’s paper. In 2011, following the death of his mother and the paper’s publisher Marie Berner, he became its publisher.

When friends, colleagues and associates spoke about him to NewsChannel 7, their first statements were comments on the greatness of his life. But next—they would talk about his paper.

“He made it everybody’s paper,” Brandt said.

“Every little detail, he was there. For different parades, or Fourth of July,” lifelong friend Larry Ourada said. “You know, the paper was our paper. Antigo. It told a story about us.”

Friends who gather daily at the local Dixie Lunch recalled the little things that defined him—like the Wall Street Journal he would immerse himself in, sitting on the same bar stool chair. More than one laughed about the stories they couldn’t tell. “We’ve been just, friends forever—go drinking together, go out to eat.” Or a fan favorite: his weekly Bits & Pieces column—his ‘baby’, Ourada said.

“All from right here,” another lifelong friend Bill Williams said, holding his hand over his heart.

“He used the paper to enhance the community and forward it,” longtime associate and Antigo mayor Bill Brandt recalled. “He made it everybody’s paper…So many of the people who grew up here and the young people had an opportunity to read their name or see their picture in the local paper.”

“It was his heart and soul,” Williams said.

For Berner, that meant helping promote and encourage the projects and events that would make Antigo and Langlade County a better community. 'Big moments' for a paper like the ADJ look different than they do for the New York Times, editor Haefs explained.

"He was very proud of our role that we had in promoting and supporting county and city efforts to create a trail system in Langlade County; we’re now known as the county of trails," she noted. And for Berner, it was a hard day when the Chicago Northwestern Railroad pulled out of Antigo, taking with it a major Wisconsin railroad hub.

"It's all part of the daily coverage," Haefs said.

In an era where newspapers across the country are folding, cutting staff, or merging, the presses at the paper Berner leaves behind keep going--literally. Reporters sitting in the newsroom can glance through the windowed walls to the journal’s presses in the next room over, churning out the day’s paper each afternoon.

According to the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Antigo Daily Journal was the last independently-owned paper in Wisconsin until its sale from the Berner family to the Adams Publishing Group in June of this year. The paper had been in the Berner family for more than 100 years at the time of its sale.

In 2018, according to WNA records, the Journal’s circulation had been just shy of 5,000—in a city of a little more than 8,000 at the 2010 census. It’s difficult to tell how many other papers in the state still produce daily editions in towns of similar or smaller sizes, given that the newspaper landscape is continually changing as papers decrease production or close altogether. But for current editor Lisa Haefs, their mission will remain the same.

“It may not be a printed on-paper product for ever and ever—not just talking the Antigo Journal, I’m talking newspapers in general. But our mission and our role is never going to change. And that’s to tell stories honestly, faithfully and to the best of our abilities, and to reach the largest group of people that we can reach. That’s Fred’s legacy more than anything else.”