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Editorial: Portage Co. has a serious news problem

By Brandi Makuski

It was a cold winter day in 2005 when I walked into the glass-walled editor’s office at the Stevens Point Journal, where my editor, Lisa Nellessen-Lara, was being teased by a local government reporter for leaving the “foxhole” of the newsroom to “rub elbows with the elite” at a black-tie fundraiser event the night before.

The reporter, Patrick Thornton, was a cliché of a newsman in my mind—a hard-nosed, chain-smoking Irishman who enjoyed a hard drink and rarely spoke a sentence that did not contain a cuss word, particularly when an unhappy reader called to accuse him of getting a story wrong. I’d been freelancing at the Journal for about a year and had just started to cover school board and the odd municipal election. But I always felt like a blonde monkey next to Thornton; he was so confident in his ability, and his reactions to the really negative feedback from readers—today they’d be called “trolls”—were almost visceral, as though anyone doubting his work had just attacked the integrity he wore like a blanket.

Both had a keen understanding of how their positions at the paper, and in the community, were meaningless without solid relationships. There would be highs and lows, but having a connection with a local business owner, a police officer, a secretary in a county government office—these provided a better level of credibility, would yield greater context for stories, and produce new stories for Nellessen-Lara and Thornton to cover.

They took a lot of time to learn about the people they covered. A person’s past, their motivations, their personal and political allegiances, were all an important part of the story—and they could honestly say their sources had been vetted, even if these details didn’t make it into print. Mix all of that context, and institutional knowledge of the collective newsroom, with times, dates, quotes, and votes, and you’ve got yourself a news story—subject, of course, to spot-checks and audits from the editor.

That’s how Journal reporters were taught to operate, and it’s how they met their quota of two daily stories, with an additional piece ready for the larger Sunday edition.

They understood, as most reporters did in those days, that their work was part of a larger system in the community. Their newsroom was a piece of infrastructure, a hallowed hall of knowledge and experience held together by reporters, photographers, copy-editors, and designers. The first time I entered that newsroom, it was clear we had our place within that larger system and so long as we were doing this job, we weren’t meant to leave it.

Listen to me, writing about “those days” as though I were bouncing a grandchild on my knee. The changes in the local news industry have been so dramatic one would expect they took a generation or more to take hold. But Portage Co. has lost at least 10 journalism jobs in the past three years, and the Journal is one of many print news publications that are mere shadows of their former selves.

Social media has replaced legitimate news for many people in the community, and in the process, has also broken apart the infrastructure of the institution that once made our citizens more informed.

Today, the appearance of a reporter at newsworthy events is uncommon; running into one that’s actually trained is even less common. The ongoing professional development we once had in our local newsrooms is gone, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars locally that now go to Facebook instead of the traditional media.

During this same period, the national discourse has turned vulgar, violent, and overly emotional. A person who once used an investigative story from the Stevens Point City Times to underline their point at a City Council meeting has now been reduced to, “I don’t know, I saw it somewhere on Facebook.”

It’s almost as if the legitimate news industry in Portage Co. has become confused with the unvetted, unverified, often anonymous information on Facebook. All one needs to do is place a quote over a photograph of Clint Eastwood or Ronald Reagan—or post a bar graph of unknown origins with COVID-related information—and, suddenly, it becomes accepted as fact and is shared as such. 

What the hell happened to us?

Most adults are smart enough to see the difference between cartoons or jokes posted to Facebook, and the news. But we don’t necessarily know how to teach our children—we only recognize that difference because of a lifetime already spent being exposed to news reported correctly: stories containing multiple sources (and opposing views when applicable), supporting data, supplemental quotes from someone in a position to speak on the topic, and context explaining how this story is related to other ongoing issues in the community.

Today, young people are growing up without a print newspaper in their household for the first time since the 1700s. The news literacy once learned by watching parents’ reactions to the stories they read, and hearing their related conversations, at the breakfast table is no more. Today’s young people are becoming accustomed to a far lower standard of proof than their parents have; they’re most likely to click on links with pretty colors and salacious headlines, then later, they accuse the press of sensationalism.

Pandemic-related information is shared by an army of armchair experts without medical backgrounds, and hecklers manage to hijack just about any online discussion about city or county business by inserting an irrelevant comment on bike lanes. And it’s all supported by a battalion of people who don’t read the stories before commenting; pretty soon, the comment section becomes a junior high playground filled with bullies.

Elected officials take advantage of the situation even if they’re unaware of doing so. Consider the outpouring of strong opinions on social media when the Stevens Point Area Public School District announced it would require masks when the fall semester begins in September. Hundreds, if not thousands, spoke on both sides of the issue even though none could really affect any change.  

Now, consider a recent move by the City Council to change the way it funds sidewalk construction and repair. The Council voted 10-1 on Aug. 16 to remove the status quo of special assessments on property owners, which is a guaranteed funding mechanism even if it’s a pain in the pocketbook for some. Under a change in policy that was approved last week, that cost will now be placed on the city’s tax levy and is subject to annual approval. That means future Councils will be responsible for prioritizing new sidewalks against updating equipment or software for city employees, fixing potholes, updating parks equipment, fixing the roof at the police department, or any number of other capital expenses.

The latter topic, though far more within the control of the public, brought out very little comment, or emotion, on social media, and not a single member of the public spoke on the issue (though a member of a city committee did) before the Council voted.

But during my time at the Journal, it would have been recognized as a Page 1 story, and heads would have rolled had it been ignored by the editorial staff. The story would have had infographics and sidebar stories. Hell, they might have even created a special section for a Sunday edition simply because it dealt with raising property taxes in the city.

Sadly, the Metro Wire was the only publication to cover it. Even though we’ve got three print publications, two television stations within reach, and a number of web-based news outlets in our community, how many of them actually cover the local community?

A 2019 study by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media attempts to address the issue of a phenomenon called “news deserts,” defined by a community that is underserved, or not served at all, by a newspaper. The study focuses largely on the existence of print publications, though some industry organizations estimate as many as 10,000 independent news outlets have sprung into existence in the past few years, run by professional journalists who were let go by a print operation that could no longer afford their experience, knowledge, and training.

That’s how the Metro Wire, the Wausau Pilot & Review, the Racine County Eye, and countless other Wisconsin newsrooms have been born in the past few years. But the local news industry is in dire need of fresh blood—reporters who can continue the legacy of our reporting. Yet, the number of individuals interested in joining this profession is low, largely because there is no organized campaign to promote it in the same way other skilled trades are, and the rebirth of news literacy is something our community desperately needs.

But it’s only something the public can demand, so it’s all up to you.

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