By Shereen Siewert
Wausau Pilot & Review has been an idea simmering in the back of my mind for nearly a year. Inch by inch, month by month, a vision began to form of an organization that could focus intensely on Wausau as a community, one that would cover some of the news gaps we face and do so in an unbiased, nonpartisan, ethical manner.
That idea remained just a dream until just a short time ago, when an endowment and several generous donors who believe in supporting local journalism made the project a reality.
Wausau is home to many remarkable, talented journalists, some of whom I have had the good fortune to work with and learn from over the years. But it’s no secret that cuts have decimated the industry, as newsrooms face increased pressure to cut down on staff to minimize costs. Wave after wave of buyouts and layoffs have hit nearly every local newspaper. And the pink slips keep on coming.
A few days ago, I looked over some past local newspapers at the Marathon County Public Library and was astounded by the amount of content published even three years ago that no longer exists. Since then, the editorial board went away. Readers no longer see photos of their children accepting awards at schools. You no longer see Eagle Scout ceremonies. There is no weekly crime map or crime gallery. There are no more restaurant reviews and few lifestyle features. The list of what’s missing just goes on and on.
The reasons for the sweeping changes in media are complex, but basically it boils down to this: The money went away. Thanks to free online services such as Craigslist and Indeed, classified advertising for print, once a huge boon for newspapers, all but disappeared. And many newspapers were outgunned by new online giants that provided immediate access to information, all of which was free. Cutting content and laying off journalists was a difficult, but necessary step in an industry that is struggling to redefine itself.
The veteran journalists who remain at our daily newspaper are still doing a terrific job at the work they do. They matter to this community in ways that are difficult to overstate. I pay for a subscription and encourage you to do so as well. But there is no question that, with fewer journalists on staff, there are gaps in local coverage. And I believe that people care about what happens in their own neighborhoods and in their communities far more than they will ever care about what happens in Marshfield, Wisconsin Rapids, Appleton, or Milwaukee.
Journalism produced by nonprofit newsrooms is becoming an important part of the media landscape. As a 501c3 organization, Wausau Pilot & Review is one of a growing list of nonprofit newsrooms to emerge nationwide. Independent journalism is a public good that can produce impact and change. Our goal is to promote and deepen public and private debate, making a difference in the lives of those living in this community. We will do so while adhering to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which requires us to be fully transparent and avoid any conflict of interest, both real and perceived. While we welcome commentary from all elected officials, we do not employ them and will not pay them for their contributions. We will readily disclose the names of all funders and for ethical reasons do not accept anonymous donations greater than $1,000. These basic, guiding principles are more important than ever, as media outlets nationwide are finding themselves under increased scrutiny and pressure to maintain editorial independence.
In its first few weeks, our readership has already exceeded four-month projections, and exciting changes are underway. Additional writers are coming on board. A mobile app for both Android and iOS is under development and will be unveiled soon. A weekly podcast is in production. More features are being planned, with new content added every day.
High quality journalism is a community asset that sustains democracy and quality of life. Wausau Pilot & Review, named for two of Wausau’s earliest newspapers, is in its infancy, but will continue to grow and evolve over the coming months and years. We’ll do our best to add depth to the coverage of community issues that matter to you and to your family, and we’re always open to your suggestions, your comments, and your submissions.