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Minnesota publisher gives away his newspaper to go join the fight in Ukraine: 'I just couldn’t take it'

'There is death going on and right now, I'm sitting here doing nothing to stop it,' the 54-year-old said.

Minnesota publisher gives away his newspaper to go join the fight in Ukraine: 'I just couldn’t take it'
Cover Image Source: YouTube/KARE 11 News

A Minnesota publisher has given away his small-town newspaper to go to Ukraine in an effort to help fight Russian forces. Lee Zion, who owned the Lafayette Nicollet Ledger—a weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 500 readers in the cities of Lafayette, Nicollet and Courtland in southern Minnesota—has decided to effectively end his 32-year career in journalism to join the Ukrainian efforts to hold off Russia's invasion. "There is death going on and right now, I'm sitting here doing nothing to stop it," the 54-year-old told The Washington Post.


Zion joined the Navy in 1990 in pursuit of "a real job" after graduating from the State University of New York. Although he'd imagined becoming a military correspondent before working his way into broadcast to gain experience behind the camera and eventually move into film, the Navy had other plans for him. He was assigned to a print shop in the early '90s and was charged with cranking out a newspaper for the roughly 5,000 sailors on the USS Kitty Hawk once a week while ashore and daily while at sea. The newspaper, comprised of about six letter-sized sheets stapled together and filled with wire stories from across the world—proved to be very in-demand among sailors.


"It was tremendously popular because that was the only source of news anyone got," Zion said. Despite newspaper journalism not being what he had wanted, Zion took a shine to it anyway as he liked making something tangible at the end of the day and the wide variety of information he got to work with. "If you're a stockbroker, all you do is move things from one side of the screen to the other," he explained. "But in my case, I'd have a different day every day." However, his experience did little to help him land a job when he left the military in 1995 as a petty officer second class.


After much struggle to get a job in the private sector, Zion ended up with reporter gigs that took him to North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Virginia and Florida—"pretty much everywhere"—before he bought the Ledger in 2018 for $35,000. As the boss of his own newspaper, Zion wrote columns, sold ads, assigned stories about sports, proms, carnival fundraisers, school-lunch menus, and so on to a stable of freelancers and edited them himself. For four years, "it's just me and the newspaper," said Zion, who has no significant other or children.


His life took an unexpected turn earlier this year when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Zion, who was studying to be in a production of William Shakespeare's "All's Well that Ends Well" was inspired by one of the characters—"a jerk," as the lifelong journalist called the character—who travels to another country to fight in a war "that isn't his." "And although he's a jerk, it still puts a thought in my head that maybe I should be like that jerk and go off to another country and fight in a war that isn't mine," he explained. After two more weeks of silently bearing witness to the war, Zion's mind was made up. "I saw the carnage. I saw the deaths on TV. I heard the lies from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. And I just couldn't take it," he said.


However, he couldn't just leave everything behind and take the next flight to Kyiv as he owned a newspaper that many in his community depended on. When no one expressed interest in buying the paper, Zion decided to give it away to "the right candidates." After weeks of searching, Zion has found just such a person: Michael Lemmer, who used to work as a local radio DJ and is well liked by folks in the area. Lemmer took control of the newspaper two weeks ago. Meanwhile, Zion's family and friends aren't happy about him going to a war zone. His father, Zion said, is "very worried." But after 54 years, he "knows that I'll do something if I set my mind to it."


In the meantime, Zion went to the Ukrainian Embassy in Chicago to apply for the Territorial Defense Forces and is waiting to hear back from officials about his application and when a face-to-face interview will be scheduled. He is determined to do anything he can—teach, drive a truck, report as a journalist, shepherd refugees or deliver food and medical supplies—to help in the war-ravaged nation. "If they tell me to pick up a gun and be on the front lines, that's exactly what I'll do," Zion said. "I do not want to die. I am not afraid of dying."


Zion affirmed that he's not blind to the realities of a brutal war and is aware of the recent news that Russia captured two American veterans who went to Ukraine to help with the war effort—men the Kremlin announced won't be granted the protections afforded to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Although the realization that he might have to face torture, summary execution or both gave him a moment of pause, Zion said he's determined to forge ahead as he doesn't want to let his fear defeat his desire to help people who need it. Zion said that he's not going to be "a miser and hold onto life when I can do something with that life. I'm 54. It's not like I have a long life ahead of me."

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