The Tri-State Neighbor started at a time when the agricultural economy was in shambles, but publisher Bill Byrne was optimistic, and he remains that way today.
Byrne founded Tri-State Neighbor in 1984 and sold to Lee Enterprises nine years later. He visited the Neighbor offices this winter to reminisce about running the paper and talk about the importance of serving rural America then and now.
A self-described contrarian, Byrne, 75, started the paper amidst the 1980s farm crisis because he saw a need for agricultural news and advertising. It was well received from the start, and it continues to fill a valuable role today, even as the ag industry is in another downturn. Byrne said he’s always been optimistic about agriculture.
“It will always be tough business, but it won’t always be this tough,” he said.
Byrne is no stranger to the trials of farm life. He grew up the oldest of seven kids in Pocahontas County, Iowa, raising hogs and row crops. He enjoyed working with machinery and working in the field, but he remembers his old farm house as a chilly place with less-than-luxurious bathroom facilities. Going away to college at Iowa State University, he said, was like a vacation.
It was at Iowa State that he began to realize the value of growing up on a farm. He expected students from the city to be far ahead of him in their knowledge of the world. He soon learned not to be intimidated. It was the farm kids that knew more.
“It was a wonderful way to grow up and learn a lot of things that the city boys and girls probably didn’t know,” Byrne said.
Still, he knew farm life wasn’t for him. He put himself through college at Iowa State and the University of Nebraska working at radio stations – his first brush with the media.
He studied business, and working in Minneapolis at age 29, he became the youngest branch manager in the country for the New York Stock Exchange. He moved to Sioux Falls in 1970 and invested in his first of more than 20 Taco John’s franchises in 1973 in Des Moines.
The Tri-State Neighbor wasn’t Byrne’s first newspaper. He started the Sioux Falls Tribune, a weekly paper, in 1979. From its start, the Neighbor shared resources with the weekly, including some columnists.
One new edition for the Neighbor was columnist Jim Woster. Woster had a regional following from those who knew him from TV and the Sioux Falls Stockyards. Byrne liked his communication style. Bringing him on the staff was a smart move, Byrne said, as Woster quickly became the face of the Neighbor.
“A lot of people thought he owned the Neighbor, which was fine with me,” he said.
General manager Randy Ahrendt was also an important part of the newspaper. Byrne said he was trusted and liked and provided a steady hand to carry the paper through the decades, even after Byrne sold the paper to Lee in 1993.
“The fact that he was here for 35 years says a lot. He ran the newspaper longer than I did,” Byrne said. Ahrendt retired in 2016.
Byrne’s wife, Lynne, has always been a big part of his business ventures. Her photos on the cover of the early Neighbor pages were loved by readers, and she loved taking them and visiting with rural residents, her husband said.
They have two kids and six grandkids who live in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and Denver.
Byrne is semi-retired. He’s still involved with VistaComm, a marketing agency he founded in 1997. VistaComm is also rooted in agriculture, having gotten its start by producing newsletters for agricultural cooperatives. Today, VistaComm is a full-service creative agency partnering with agricultural businesses across the country.
Byrne wrote a book on business and finance, but there’s one move he regrets: selling the family farm. His dad passed away about 20 years ago, and the siblings decided to sell.
“Farm life is a part of me,” Byrne said. “I’ve always had an appreciation for rural people. Creating the Tri-State Neighbor reconnected me with rural people. I love the Tri-State Neighbor if for no other reason than for keeping me in touch with my rural roots.”