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Feature: Going strong at 25

Published (2/15/2008)
By Nick Busse
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Since the first issue rolled off the presses in March 1984, much has changed with Session Weekly: its eight pages have grown to 24; the keyline boards and typesetting machines have been replaced by laptops; the photographers’ darkroom has been replaced by digital editing software; and a new thing called the Internet is now home to a full online version of the magazine.

One thing that hasn’t changed — in addition to the staff still pulling the occasional all-nighter to keep up with the legislators — is Session Weekly’s mission: keeping the public informed in a nonpartisan way. And although many may not remember it, that was once a radical concept.

Today, for the most part, it goes without saying that citizens have a right to know what goes on in their government. Former Chief Clerk Ed Burdick, however, remembers a time at the Minnesota House of Representatives when there was no Session Weekly, no House Public Information Services, and in fact, no public information at all.

Former Chief Clerk Ed Burdick was among those advocating in 1971 for the creation of an "Office of House Public Information." (Photo by Andrew VonBank)“When I first came to work at the House [in 1941], there was no such thing as a full-time legislative employee, and there were no public records. If you came to the Capitol three months after the session adjourned, there was no place to go to check on any legislative records. They were all locked up,” Burdick says.

Back then, ordinary citizens were barred from attending committee meetings, much less testifying. Nor could they get copies of bills. In fact, since the technology didn’t yet exist to reproduce bills quickly and en masse, the legislators didn’t even get their own copies. (The lucky ones got to read one of two printed copies of a bill before voting on it.)

In short, no one really knew much about what went on at the Legislature.

That was then. Today, in the pages of this magazine, a full staff of writers, editors and photographers provide comprehensive and in-depth coverage of the legislative process here at the House, from gavel to gavel.

As we begin our 25th straight year of publication, we reflect on the long road that brought us to where we are today, the road that lies ahead, and the revolutionary idea that first produced Session Weekly.

An information office

According to Burdick, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, legislative bodies across the country began establishing public information offices as a way of making the legislature more visible at a time when, in his words, it was “really not a co-equal branch of government.” At that time, many legislatures (Minnesota’s included) met for a few months every other year. Governors, who worked every day, tended to get all the glory.

“The legislatures — around the country, not just in Minnesota — said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and do a better job of promoting the legislature.’ And that’s exactly what happened,” he says.

In 1971, Burdick and a small group of legislative staffers approached House leadership and pitched the idea of an “Office of House Public Information.” It was a hard sell, but they got permission to hire a session-only employee.

“It was a one-person operation, and he had a table in a hallway. It really wasn’t an A-plus deal,” he recalls.

The office got off to a shaky start, hiring and then losing two public information officers in as many years. One problem was a perceived lack of credibility: many of the representatives doubted that a House public information office could remain nonpartisan while working, essentially, for partisan House leadership.

That all changed, however, with the hiring of an energetic and talented newcomer named Jean Steiner.

Focus on the public

Steiner, who previously worked as a public relations writer for the Minnesota Medical Association, was brought on as the House’s new public information officer in December 1973. She remained in that post for the next 15 years, during which time she transformed the office into a permanent and valued fixture at the House.

Jean Steiner poses with her books. Steiner transformed the "Office of House Public Information" into a permanent and valued fixture at the House. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)Although she had never been “politically involved” and knew little about the inner-workings of the Legislature, Steiner came to the job with a powerful conviction: that the focus of public information should be on “educating the public, not just reaching out to politicians.”

That was an unusual approach at the time. Up until then, Steiner says, “All information offices had a political person at the head of them; that was the right of the person in power.” Her revolutionary idea was to present objective information to the public in a strict nonpartisan manner.

In addition to publishing a variety of educational materials, including legislative directories, informational pamphlets such as “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” and a painstakingly assembled legislative district finder, the office established an annual booth at the Minnesota State Fair. It also began printing legislative newsletters.

From 1975 to 1983, Steiner and her staff experimented with a variety of newsletter formats. One of the most popular, the Weekly Wrap-Up (1976-1981), had its funding cut during a budget crunch; however, in 1984 she was able to start publishing a new, smaller version. It was called Session Weekly.

A resounding success

When Steiner was hired in 1973, the House’s information office consisted of exactly two people: Steiner and her session-only assistant, Susan Shephard, who would later become Susan Carlson — as in Mrs. Gov. Arne Carlson. Their work wasn’t very glamorous.

“[Susan and I] worked terribly, terribly hard for the information office. It was well into the night every night,” Steiner says.

It paid off, however, and it wasn’t long before awards and acclaim began pouring in from around the country, both for the office and for Steiner herself. Soon, information officers from other states began calling to find out what kind of projects the Minnesota House was working on.

“Jean took hold and that office really succeeded,” Burdick says. “The public was happy with it, the newspapers were happy with it.”

Steiner even recalls attending a national convention for public information officers in which the main presenter, a reporter from the Des Moines Register, declared, “I don’t know why you selected me as the keynote speaker, because I don’t believe in public information offices — except for one, and that’s in Minnesota, where they are attempting to educate the public, and that could work.”

Eventually, Steiner was able to bring on a larger staff that included front desk office assistants, session writers, photographers and unpaid interns. Today, the office, now called House Public Information Services, includes 11 permanent and eight session-only staff members, and, in addition to publications and photography, is responsible for providing the House’s television coverage.

A bright future ahead

Steiner and Burdick are both retired now, and live coincidentally in the same building in a Roseville retirement community. Since she left the House, Steiner has performed a variety of work, most recently as an author. She co-wrote two books with her daughter, Mary Steiner Whelan — “For the Love of Children” and “This Year I Sing.” The latter she also wrote with her granddaughter, Shawn Whelan. Steiner has also performed public relations work for Mary and Shawn’s nonprofit group, Give Us Wings, which help impoverished women in Kenya and Uganda. Burdick retired from the House as chief clerk in 2005.

As for Session Weekly, after nearly a quarter of a century of evolution, its basic formula remains the same: articles highlighting key legislative activity; information on House and Senate members and committees; and features on the state’s history and culture. Over the years, photos and improved graphic design have been added, along with longer articles.

The magazine remains almost totally unique among government-produced publications. Nebraska is the only other state known to have a weekly nonpartisan news magazine (Unicameral Update) devoted entirely to state legislative affairs.

It is perhaps fitting that Session Weekly’s 25th year marks the first time it is being published in an HTML format on the Web, as House Public Information Services continues to expand its activities and presence on the Internet. But despite ever-changing technology, our basic mission is unlikely to change.

“I think the success of the House information office was due to the young people that were willing to work extremely hard because they believed in it,” Steiner says. “They believed it was helping the public. And I kept bringing that home to them. We have 134 bosses, as the chief clerk always said, but we all have 2 million plus bosses, and that’s who we look for — the faces behind those representatives.”

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