By Shereen Siewert, Wausau Pilot & Review founder and publisher
About two weeks ago, I received a letter from a former donor who said he was pulling his support because I refused to republish a story, without the original publication’s permission, that not only contained false information but also was not relevant to our local community. That’s okay. We’ll survive without him. But we won’t survive if we bend to that kind of pressure.
I realize that some readers do not appreciate some of the stories we post from partner publications like the Associated Press, or Kaiser Health News, because they disagree with the content. That’s okay, too. We’re not going to please everyone, and we don’t write those stories ourselves. But one thing I want to make clear – our biggest focus is, and will always be, the local journalism we produce. Stories about the people and processes that impact Wausau and our surrounding communities.
When Wausau Pilot & Review launched in 2017 as a nonprofit, online only publication, it was a response to what was already a sharp decline in local news in the Wausau metro area. It’s hard to imagine a world in which local news coverage does not exist. But it’s no secret that cuts have decimated the industry, as newsrooms face increased pressure to cut down on staff to minimize costs.
As a nonprofit organization, our work largely depends on you, our readers, who voluntarily contribute, making our local coverage possible. So – what would happen if we shut our doors tomorrow, if more donors insisted on trying to dictate our reporting? The national landscape holds some clues to that.
Penny Muse Abernathy, of the New York State Bar Association, wrote a comprehensive explanation of why local news matters:
“Today, there are 50% fewer newspaper journalists than in 2008, resulting in a decrease in quality and quantity of public service journalism. Often, no reporter shows up at town council meetings, nor do the journalists at many newspapers receive the time or encouragement to produce in-depth analytical pieces that illuminate and inform. As a result, Facebook has become the default medium for sharing local news.
Second, strong local newspapers have built community by encouraging regional economic growth and development. Through advertising, newspapers have helped local businesses connect with local consumers. However, print newspaper advertising, which has historically furnished 75 to 90% of total revenue, is at an all-time low and continues to decline. Making matters worse, as much as 75% of the dollars devoted to digital advertising in even the smallest markets go to Facebook and Google, leaving all other media outlets – radio, television, online and print – to fight over the remainder.
Third, strong community newspapers have encouraged social cohesion and political activism. Just as all politics is local, all news that matters is ultimately local. Readers of local newspapers are residents not only of a county, but also of a region, a state and a nation. Strong news organizations put into local context issues that may seem to be national or regional ones, such as health care, gun control, or the opioid crisis.“
Jay Hamilton, a Stanford economist, attached a price tag to the lives saved and environmental disasters averted in his book, Democracy’s Detectives. But that sort of journalism requires the financial strength to pay for open records requests and documents as well as legal challenges that arise. It’s not surprising that publishers now think twice before moving forward on potentially controversial and time-consuming investigations.
When local journalism goes away, stories go untold. Local government bodies pass rules with wide-ranging impacts on residents with little to no oversight. Local elections are held with candidates about whom voters know very little, if anything.
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’re proud of what we achieved, and the more than two dozen state and national awards we’ve earned since our publication launched. The stories we told changed lives, saved taxpayer dollars, prompted at least one DNR investigation and more. None of that work would have been possible without dogged shoe-leather reporting: tracking down sources, digging up public records, analyzing data, interviewing experts and telling all the sides of the story.
Now through Dec. 31, all donations are tripled – up to $1,000 per donor – giving us the opportunity to raise an additional $33,000 in matching funds. This is a huge opportunity for us, and one our future depends on. While Wausau Pilot & Review will never have a paywall and will always be free to read, we hope you consider supporting our work. You don’t have to agree with everything you read, and we are well aware that there will always be more than one right way to tell a story. But we hope you see the value in local journalism – and choose to support it.
You can also send checks to Wausau Pilot & Review, 500 N. Third St. Suite 208-8, Wausau, WI 54403. All donations are tax-deductible to the extent of the law, and we will happily send a donation acknowledgment for your tax records in January.
As always, we appreciate each and every one of you.