A journalist from Minnesota donated his newspaper to fight in Ukraine

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Lee Zion has spent three decades building a career as a journalist, which culminated four years ago when he spent $35,000 to buy his own newspaper. As boss, Zion continued to work as a jack-of-all-trades — writing columns, selling ads, assigning and editing stories — all to keep the citizens of western Nicollet County, Minnesota informed about what was happening in their community.

Not anymore. Zion just gave the Lafayette Nicollet Ledger to pursue a new line of work — going to Ukraine to possibly pick up a gun and fight.

“There is death,” Zion told The Washington Post, “and right now I’m sitting here doing nothing to stop it.”

Zion, 54, has decided to end a 32-year career as a journalist that has taken him to newsrooms across the country and even around the world aboard an aircraft carrier. He had worked as a reporter, editor, and editor before, in 2018, buying the Ledger, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 500 readers that serves the towns of Lafayette, Nicollet, and Courtland in southern Minnesota. .

After graduating from the State University of New York and resolving to get “a real job,” Zion joined the Navy in 1990. He figured he could become a military correspondent and work his way up. in broadcasting to gain experience behind the camera and eventually move on to film.

Instead, the Navy sent him to a printing press in the early 1990s. Once a week ashore and daily at sea, Zion was tasked with creating a journal for the USS’s approximately 5,000 sailors. Kitty Hawk. The journal consisted of approximately six letter-sized sheets stapled together and filled with thread stories from around the world.

“It was extremely popular because it was the only source of information anyone had,” Zion said.

Newspaper journalism wasn’t what Zion had wanted, but he was interested in it anyway. He liked to make something he could hold in his hands at the end of the day, and he also enjoyed variety.

“If you’re a stockbroker, all you do is move things from one side of the screen to the other,” Zion said. “But in my case, I would have a different day every day.”

Zion decided to stay in journalism after leaving the military in 1995 as a second class NCO. He entered the job market assuming publishers would clamor to hire someone with his skills. It didn’t work that way. Sion struggled to find employment in the private sector. At one point, he was so frustrated that he applied to become a dishwasher. He didn’t get that job either.

Zion continued, eventually landing a gig as a reporter in California. Later jobs took him to North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Virginia, Florida — “pretty much everywhere,” he said.

Finally, he bought the Ledger in 2018. For four years, he led a stable of freelancers to capture life in his new home — sports, balls, carnival fundraisers, school lunch menus. With no significant other or children, ‘it’s just me and the newspaper,’ he said

Then came February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine some 5,000 miles from the Ledger’s office. Zion has no ties to the country and hadn’t given much thought to it before the war.

However, at the beginning of March, an idea flashed in his brain: what if he traveled to the other side of the world to help? At the time, Zion was studying to be in a production of William Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” and noticed that one of the characters – “a fool”, according to Zion’s account – goes to another country to fight in a war “which is not its own.

“And although he’s a jerk, it still makes me think that maybe I should be like that jerk and go to another country and fight in a war that’s not mine,” he said. declared.

After observing two more weeks of war, Zion’s decision was made.

“I’ve seen the carnage. I’ve seen the dead on TV. I’ve heard the lies of [Russian President Vladimir] Cheese fries. And I just couldn’t take it,” he said.

Ukrainian war volunteers return home, counting on a tough fight

But Zion couldn’t just catch the next flight to Kyiv. He owned a newspaper. A community depended on him. He nevertheless set the wheels in motion by trying to sell the paper. When no one showed interest, he decided to give it away.

But not just anyone. “We want to know how dedicated you are, how knowledgeable you are, and you need to write an essay about what you plan to do with this document.

“We give it away,” he told the Post in a late May interview before the ownership transfer, “but only to the right candidates.”

Sion said he had found such a person. The new owner – Michael Lemmer, who took over the newspaper two weeks ago – worked as a DJ at the local radio station. The people in the neighborhood knew him and liked him. Zion was helping Lemmer publish the journal during the transition last week.

Zion’s family and friends aren’t as keen on him going to a war zone, perhaps to fight, and have been trying to persuade him to stay, Zion said. His father is “very worried”. But after 54 years, he “knows that I will do something if I choose to”.

His friend Miles Hutchins described Zion as “heart of gold”, adding that he can’t imagine anyone matching Zion’s skills in managing the Ledger. More importantly, Hutchins doesn’t want to see his friend get captured, injured, or killed. He bombarded Zion with pleas not to go for weeks, but made little progress.

“He’s about as stubborn as a mule,” said the 34-year-old. “My words are falling on deaf ears.”

And so the preparations for Zion continue. He went to the Ukrainian Embassy in Chicago to apply for the Territorial Defense Forces. He said officials quickly sent back a form letter confirming they had received his application, were reviewing it and would direct him to a face-to-face interview. Zion described the answer as “a harsh maybe”.

He said he would do anything – teach, drive a truck, report as a journalist, mentor refugees, deliver food and medical supplies – whatever the war effort requires. “If they tell me to grab a gun and be on the front line, that’s exactly what I’ll do,” Zion said.

Even without something definite lined up, Zion is getting ready. He moves certain belongings in a warehouse, gives others. He must find a new home for his cat, Creamy. He learned Ukrainian, enough to communicate at least his basic needs or, as Zion puts it, “something like ‘I want a cookie.’ ”

Zion said he was not blind to the realities of a brutal war that in four months has killed tens of thousands, scattered millions and turned cities into little more than rubble. He recently learned that Russia had captured two American veterans who had gone to Ukraine to help with the war effort – men announced by the Kremlin would not benefit from the protections granted to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

Sion knows that could mean torture, summary execution or both.

US detainees will not enjoy Geneva Convention protections, Kremlin says

Although the news gave him a moment of pause, Zion said he was determined to move on. Realizing that such a fate could befall him, he imagined several scenarios worthy of a film. In a fantasy, he fights valiantly for Ukraine, gaining glory on the battlefield. He sees Tom Hanks playing him in the film adaptation.

In another, Sion imagines himself captured and tortured to death by Russians. Hanks also plays him in this film. Although he called being killed as slowly and painfully as possible “the nightmare scenario,” Zion was quick to point out that he had thought of something that frightened him even more: either scenario, but he is played by Zac Efron.

But, Zion added, he won’t let his fear overcome his desire to help those in need. He’s not going to be “a miser and cling to life when I can do something with this life”.

“It’s my way of preparing myself mentally for very horrible things that could happen to me,” he said, adding that it “might also help me fit in with Ukrainian soldiers.”

But, Zion added, he won’t let his fear overcome his desire to help those in need. He’s not going to be “a miser and cling to life when I can do something with this life”.

“I don’t want to die,” Zion said. “I’m not afraid to die.”

“I’m 54,” he added. “It’s not like I have a long life ahead of me.”


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