‘How could I sit at my desk as Ukrainian children die?’: small-town newspaperman heads to war
The editor-reporter-photographer says he’ll do whatever he can to help and hopes others will follow his lead
‘How could I sit comfortably at my desk while Ukrainian children die?’ Lee Zion asked. Photograph: Matthew Cantor/Lee Zion
Sun 5 Jun 2022 11.15 BST Last modified on Sun 5 Jun 2022 11.16 BST
Lee Zion is preparing to head to Ukraine this summer.
- “I have gotten all my shots. I have started putting personal possessions into storage, giving other things away. I’ve adopted out two cats,” he said. “And minor things – I’m trying to learn the language. I can at least communicate some basic needs. Like ‘me want cookie,’” he said.
For four years, Zion has worked seven days a week at a small-town Minnesota newspaper. But now, disgusted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he plans to fly to Europe and help the Ukrainians in any way he can.
First, though, he has to find a new boss for the Lafayette Nicollet Ledger.
- It’s not an easy role for whoever takes it on: Zion works more than 80 hours a week, he told the Guardian, as “owner, editor, reporter, photographer, layout guy and the person who takes all the garbage to the recycling center”.
Zion tried selling the paper without much luck, so he’s trying another route: giving it away.
- “You can own a weekly newspaper – FOR FREE,” he wrote in an advertisement, saying he wanted to leave the paper “in good hands”. Though the paper is “financially solvent”, Zion wrote, “the next owner must show that he or she has the knowledge, experience and the drive to take on the challenge”.
Robert Lawson, 37, a local resident and former editor of another area newspaper, replied. “It was just kind of perfect,” he said of the opportunity.
Lawson plans to keep the paper on its current trajectory, focused on local news – recent headlines cover Memorial Day events and graduation ceremonies, with church schedules and a community calendar – while expanding its online presence. “My big plans are basically: see what we can do to enhance content and what we can do to enhance community involvement,” he told the Guardian.
Zion, 54, has worked in the newspaper business for decades, starting as a reporter and working his way up to editor and now owner. Originally from Brooklyn, he was drawn to the Ledger after seeing an advertisement seeking a new owner for the Minnesota outlet.
“I was looking for a new job because I was gruesomely mistreated at the previous paper I was working at,” he said. “I jumped at the chance.” He bought it for $35,000 in 2018; now he’s repeating the process from the other side.
One element of his predecessor’s work Lawson may not pursue is his editorials, which have occasionally landed him in hot water. In 2019, Zion wrote a piece on declining fertility rates in which he suggested a remedy: women could “have sex with me”. It also suggested increasing immigration, noting that this might bother some people because it could “make America less white”, referencing Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” slogan.
“I did exactly what Jonathan Swift did. I took an issue that had racial overtones and was connected with a birth. That is to say A Modest Proposal,” he said, referring to the 18th-century satirical essay suggesting impoverished Irish people sell their children to rich people as food. “And then I proposed a commonsense solution, just as Jonathan Swift was doing.”
But many in the community were not amused. “There was a huge outcry. Some people really, really loved that piece. And others hated it. Hated it with a passion,” Zion said. Subscriptions were cancelled and advertisements dropped. “We are asking that Mr Zion make Lafayette, and the surrounding communities, less creepy again by packing up your wares and opening shop someplace else,” said a reader on Facebook, as Southern Minnesota News reported.
“One of them said, I will never advertise in this paper, so long as Lee Zion is in charge,” Zion said. “Now that I’m done, a new person can probably win this guy back.”
Another controversy came after officials used a nearby Courtland city council meeting to criticize a flood of maintenance-related complaints from the public, Zion said. The post-meeting headline: “Cortland residents, you complain too much. And by the way, your water rates are going up.”
The mayor “told me that he would never advertise in the paper ever again”, Zion said. “But eventually he forgave me.”
While Lawson prepares to take over, Zion is investigating different organizations that might be able to help him find a way to be useful, militarily or otherwise, in Ukraine. “How could I sit comfortably at my desk while Ukrainian children die?” he asked. “If they want me as a teacher, I’ll be a teacher. If they want me as a guy driving a truck, delivering supplies, I will deliver supplies. If they need help with cleanup efforts in Bucha and other cities, I will assist with the cleanup,” he said.
He’ll stay, he said, “for as long as they’ll have me. And who knows? There’s a Jewish community in Ukraine. I could find a home among the Jewish community.”
He hopes his plans inspire others to take similar action.
“Although this is an important story, I am not the most important part of the story,” Zion said. His aim in speaking up is “that people reading this article would feel strongly about it. And they’d say: hey, if this guy can go to Ukraine, why can’t I?”
As for Zion himself, “with luck, I’ll be on a plane by July 15.”