The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Minnesota publisher just gave away his newspaper to fight in Ukraine

Lee Zion, 54, knows he could be tortured or killed but said he’s ‘not afraid of dying’

Lee Zion at the Lafayette Nicollet Ledger. (Courtesy of Lee Zion)

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

Not anymore. Zion just gave away 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 going on,” Zion told The Washington Post, “and right now, I’m sitting here doing nothing to stop it.”

Zion, 54, has decided to effectively end a 32-year journalism career that has taken him to newsrooms across the country and even around the world while aboard an aircraft carrier. He had worked as a reporter, copy editor and editor before, in 2018, buying the Ledger, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 500 readers that serves the cities 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 finagle his way into broadcast to gain experience behind the camera and eventually move into film.

Instead, the Navy plopped him into a print shop in the early ’90s. Once a week while ashore and daily while at sea, Zion was charged with cranking out a newspaper for the roughly 5,000 sailors on the USS Kitty Hawk. The newspaper consisted of about six letter-sized sheets stapled together and filled with wire stories from around the world.

“It was tremendously popular because that was the only source of news anyone got,” Zion said.

Newspaper journalism wasn’t what Zion had wanted, but he took a shine to it anyway. He liked making something he could hold in his hands at the end of the day, and he also enjoyed the 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’d have a different day every day.”

Zion decided to stay in journalism after he left the military in 1995 as a petty officer second class. He stepped into the job market assuming editors would be clamoring to hire someone with his skills. It didn’t work out that way. Zion struggled to get a job in the private sector. At one point, he was so frustrated that he applied to be a dishwasher. He didn’t get that job either.

Zion kept at it, eventually landing a gig as a reporter in California. Subsequent 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’s led a stable of freelancers to capture the life of his new home — sports, proms, carnival fundraisers, school-lunch menus. With no significant other or children, “it’s just me and the newspaper,” he said.

Then came Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine some 5,000 miles from the Ledger’s office. Zion doesn’t have a connection to the country and hadn’t much thought about it before the war.

Still, by early March, an idea flickered in his brain: What if he traveled halfway around 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 jerk,” by Zion’s telling — 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 said.

After watching two more weeks of 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.

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

But not to 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 paper.

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

Zion said he’s found just such a person. The new owner — Michael Lemmer, who took control of the newspaper two weeks ago — used to work as a local radio DJ. Folks in the area knew him and liked him. Last week, Zion was helping Lemmer put out the paper during the transition.

Zion’s family and friends aren’t as gung-ho about him going to a war zone, possibly to fight, and have tried to persuade him to stay, Zion said. His father is “very worried.” But after 54 years, he “knows that I’ll do something if I set my mind to it.”

His friend Miles Hutchins described Zion as “golden-hearted,” adding that he can’t imagine someone matching Zion’s skill at running the Ledger. More importantly, Hutchins doesn’t want to see his friend get captured, hurt or killed. He’s barraged Zion with entreaties not to go for weeks but made little headway.

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

And so Zion’s preparations continue. He went to the Ukrainian Embassy in Chicago to apply for the Territorial Defense Forces. He said officials quickly kicked back a form letter confirming they had received his application, were reviewing it and would let him know about a face-to-face interview. Zion described the response as “a hard maybe.”

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

Even without something definite lined up, Zion is getting ready. He’s moving some belongings into storage, giving away others. He needs to find a new home for his cat, Creamy. He’s been learning Ukrainian, enough to at least communicate basic needs, or as Zion puts it, “something along the lines of ‘Me want cookie.’ ”

Zion said he’s 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’s heard 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.

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

American detainees won’t get Geneva Convention protections, Kremlin says

Although the news gave him a moment of pause, Zion said he’s determined to forge ahead. Realizing that such a fate could befall him, he’s imagined several movie-like scenarios. In one fantasy, he fights valiantly for Ukraine, earning glory on the battlefield. He sees Tom Hanks playing him in the movie adaptation.

In another, Zion imagines himself captured and tortured to death by Russians. Hanks also plays him in that movie. Although he called being killed as slowly and painfully as possible “the nightmare scenario,” Zion quickly pointed out he’s thought of something that scares him even more: either scenario, but he’s played by Zac Efron.

Zion said his gallows humor helps him cope and hopes it continues to come in handy.

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

But, Zion added, he’s not going to let his fear defeat his desire to help people who need it. He’s not going to be “a miser and hold onto life when I can do something with that life.”

“I do not want to die,” Zion said. “I am not afraid of dying.”

Then he paused.

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