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News won't stop: True Dakotan keeps reporting despite fire to office building

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True Dakotan owner Kristi Hine, right, and office manager Delia Atkinson sort newspapers for mail delivery in Hine's garage on Wednesday, June 24 in Wessington Springs. (Matt Gade / Republic)

WESSINGTON SPRINGS — Kristi Hine is accustomed to reporting the news, but two weeks ago the newspaper publisher found herself both the reporter and the source.

The basement of the 100-year-old building that houses Hine’s newspaper, the True Dakotan, was ravaged by fire June 12 on Wessington Springs' Main Street.

Hine was on a Zoom call with her son, JR, and his summer school teacher at about 8:20 a.m. when Ryan Jensen, owner of Springs Food Market, alerted her that smoke was pouring out of the back of the True Dakotan building.

“Sorry, I think my building’s on fire, we’ve got to get off the Zoom,” Hine told JR’s summer school teacher. “We just jumped in the car and I was trying to call 911.”

Sutten Jensen and his grandmother, Peggi Jensen, Ryan Jensen’s son and mother, were the first to see smoke coming from the building, as they had stopped by the Sweet Grass coffee shop across the street from the newspaper office.

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Hine initially didn’t answer the phone, so Jensen called her husband, Jason Hine, a member of the town's volunteer department. Jason Hine darted straight from his work to the office building.

“I don't know why I didn't call 911, I guess I just wasn't thinking right,” he said, noting he didn’t think the smoke was as bad as it was until he got to the office.

Jason Hine and others on the scene grabbed computers and file cabinets -- everything they could -- while waiting for the fire truck to arrive.

About 10 minutes after she’d arrived at the building, Hine was asked to leave and did what came naturally to her -- picked up the camera that tends to ride around on the front seat of her vehicle and began taking pictures as the fire department dealt with the fire.

“That probably helped me kind of keep my cool when I really think about it,” she said, “because it was just going to work and doing what I know how to do.”

The fire was deemed electrical by authorities. Hine said she’s grateful that the fire happened during the daytime, when it was easier for people to see and could catch it earlier rather than spreading.

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“I'm glad I didn’t burn down the block,” she said, considering the devastation that could have meant to the community that she loves.

The True Dakotan serves as the official newspaper for the towns of Alpena and Lane, the city of Wessington Springs and Jerauld County. Hine’s mother, Delia Atkinson, serves as the newspaper’s office manager and typically opens up the business at 8 a.m. That Friday morning, however, she was running a little late.

“I was just a little bit late … not a lot,” Atkinson said .

“I think that’s the first time you admitted that,” Hine said jokingly.

Atkinson spent the rest of that Friday looking after JR and Chase so Kristi and Jason could focus on the fire.

The True Dakotan, which goes to print on Tuesdays and is distributed on Wednesdays, serves as home to Chase, a former farm cat that is a common attraction to residents who visit the business.

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True Dakotan office cat Chase is now staying with the the office manager Delia Atkinson as the newspaper building is closed since the fire on June 12 in Wessington Springs. (Matt Gade / Republic)

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Hine said most people’s first questions after the fire were about Chase, so she posted a photo of Chase to Twitter for those who were worried.

“I've had ... at least a handful (of people say). ‘The first thing I thought of was the cat, sorry,’” Hine said. “They say ‘sorry’ at the end, which I find funny.”

Chase was Kristi’s first thought on-scene, too. When Hine arrived on the scene, the first thing she did was rescue the cat who she said decided to run back into the smoke instead of cooperating with Hine when she called for him the first time. Since the fire, Chase has taken up residence with Atkinson.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close, Hine had been working largely from home while caring for her son. Just as she was starting to get back into working in the office, the fire extended the use of a “remote newsroom” indefinitely.

Hine said she’s been surprised how many people have suggested that, since the building has had to close, she may close the paper and move out of town.

“Some people say ... with COVID and then this, it’s too much,” Hine said, “‘It's OK -- we're OK” with a commitment to keep the news alive in Wessington Springs. We’re going to get the paper out every week. ... I don't know why people would think that. It’s just a fire -- a newspaper is more than a building. … I have a family here -- I’m not going anywhere.”

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True Dakotan owner Kristi Hine designs the July 1st edition of the newspaper on her computer on her dining room table. (Matt Gade / Republic)

But putting the paper together since the fire has not come without challenges. Although Hine was able to save her computer from the flames, it hasn’t operated the same since.

“I backed it up. The fan would kick on. It would smell like smoke. And then it would crash. Oh, that happened, it was on press day,” she said. “I’m limping along on that.”

About to finalize the first week’s edition following the fire, Hine struggled to get the file to send to the printer.

“At the end of the (file) name it just said, ‘Please God, please God, let this one be okay,” she recalled. “We were pretty well into it ... like an hour away from deadline. But it worked out.”

Hine has ordered replacements for some of her computer equipment.

Since the fire, the city has kept power turned off to the building until it is deemed up to code. In an attempt for optimism, Hine said she sees the fire as an opportunity to not only upgrade equipment, but possibly remodel her building.

For now, Hine continues work out of her home, with phone calls and emails transferring to her phone. Now, instead of going to the office to sort papers for each week’s deliveries, that’s done from her garage, and Atkinson has a drop-off envelope outside of her home for news submissions while the office is closed.

“It’s a day-by-day issue,” Hine said. “We’ll just keep getting a paper out every week and figure stuff out.”

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