by Hannah Lang
Sam Carlen wasn’t like most freshman staff writers at the Manitou Messenger.
“I remember noticing him right away,” said Emma Whitford, who worked as an editor for the paper at the time. Carlen was eager to write and full of ideas, something that Whitford didn’t see often.
Whitford and Carlen’s liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota, didn’t have a journalism program, but Whitford sensed that he had somewhat of a knack for the job.
“He's kind of got that innate skill that's difficult to teach,” Whitford said.
Carlen started writing opinion pieces for St. Olaf College’s student newspaper his freshman year to get involved on campus and gain some more writing experience.
“The more I did, the more positive response I got from editors,” said Carlen, now 21 and a rising senior. “They liked my writing, I liked doing it.”
Soon, he was churning out news stories and speaking up in the newsroom.
“It's just kind of circumstance,” Carlen said. “I kept doing more and more journalism. I didn't plan on doing it when I started writing for the paper. I just got more and more involved.”
Carlen eventually became a senior reporter and then, his junior year, news editor for the the Manitou Messenger, lovingly known among St. Olaf students as “the Mess.” His academic background as an economics and mathematics double major helped him dig into data-heavy topics and, as editor, he became known for his determination in pursuing difficult and in-depth stories.
“Something that struck me right away about him was that he was always willing to go for it, and it seemed like he had no fear,” Whitford said. “To challenge the administration, to talk to fellow students, to ask them hard things that a lot of students at a Lutheran tiny college didn't want to talk about — he ended up writing some really big stories that way, and wasn't afraid of making mistakes, just going for it and getting into stuff.”
Before he returns to Northfield to run the Messenger this fall as executive editor, Carlen will spend a summer working for the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal as a part of the Dow Jones News Fund 2019 American City Business Journals Business Reporting program. Carlen is from the Twin Cities area and currently resides in St. Paul.
Though Whitford graduated from St. Olaf a year ago, she has followed Carlen’s career and has continued to read his stories. She’s unsurprised by his continued success.
“When you first meet him, he can come off as sort of unassuming, but he has tons of ideas and he speaks up right away … ” Whitfeld said. “He's never afraid to sort of chime in and give his two cents — which I always appreciated especially at a tiny college newspaper, because we didn't have a lot of people around to help out.”
Avery Ellfeldt, a former executive editor of the Messenger, echoed Whitford’s praise. Carlen’s initiative has “transformed” the paper’s news section, she said.
“While we were working on my capstone project, Sam threw himself into the process as he understood he would soon inherit the paper, along with any fallout from my final piece.” Ellfeldt said in a text message. “This was just one of several pieces we worked on together, all of which benefited from his dedication to accuracy and strong writing.”
Carlen remembers the exact story Ellfeldt mentioned.
“The day before we sent it to print, the night that we were going to finish things up, we were in the office until 6:30 a.m.” Carlen recalled, laughing. “It was actually pretty fun.”