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Ten years ago my life changed after being laid off from the Kenosha News. I was reminded of this today by Facebook in a memory. At the time, I thought it was the end of the world but it turns out that it wasn’t.
I had been writing for the Kenosha News for 18 months after having been in the industry nine years. It was a guild paper, which meant that because I was the last one in, I would be the first one out. I was devastated. I walked out of the news room with a letter of recommendation, six weeks severance, and a piece of advice from my good friend Jess Stephen: go skill up and figure it out. But I didn’t know that meant.
The above photo was taken a few miles away from one of my childhood homes at a tributary that fed into the Grand River in Ohio. I remember feeling angry at the internet because anyone can tell you stuff on social media and you would have no clue if it was true or not. And this disturbed me. But it brought me to these key questions: What role would web-based news organizations take on? How do we operate a sustainable news organization? But even more so, who was I in the grand scheme of things to change anything?
So this was the exact place where I decided that I needed to find those answers.
A year later, I found myself in grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee talking about authority, the democratization of the news, and studying the future of paywalls. During that time, I ended up back at the Kenosha News as an intern and created their police news map, then I got hired on part-time. But I knew I wanted more… ergo my three-year stint with Patch, another layoff, and a third stint with the Kenosha News.
I felt like I needed to breakup with what seemed like a bad boyfriend… newspaper journalism. I was tired of my editors telling me what not to write. I thought those newspapers had it wrong. If your business model is based on a mandatory paywall and you are charging advertisers for access to your audience, this forces the news organization to exploit people versus taking a solutions-based approach to journalism that actually helps its readers.
Thus, the Racine County Eye started in October 2013. Owning a business is hard. Adding in journalism makes it harder. I am fighting to demonstrate our value to advertisers and readers, balancing my time between business owner Denise and journalist Denise, and trying to make sure we’re offering our readers information that helps them live a better life. But while this struggle is real, that’s what I signed up for.
We’ve been able to attract an audience of over 55,000 people per month and that number is growing. And the reason is because we’ve been able to tackle stories that matter. With that said, I would be remiss if I didn’t share my biggest pet peeve though… people thinking that journalism is not worthwhile enough to support financially.
I often hear people say they appreciate my work, but they somehow think it’s supposed to be the other person’s job or the advertiser’s job to save journalism. I assure you… if you read news stories, it is your job to support journalism (if you can afford it). We started this website six years ago with the intention of keeping it free. But a few years ago, we started accepting voluntary subscriptions. There’s a part of me that really doesn’t like the business side of this business. But I’ve made peace with that with the help of my business coach and I realized that if I don’t help you understand the importance of this work, you won’t feel compelled to support it.
And I need that now more than ever. This is my living.
Lately though, it’s been a struggle. Last month, I was diagnosed with having congestive heart failure. The reason I say that isn’t because I want pity but just know that I haven’t been able to write a lot the last month because I’m in cardiac rehab three days a week. But that’s a temporary issue. All of these health issues are manageable through medication and lifestyle changes, which I am committed to making.
But I was reminded of why I do this work when a former colleague invited me to a gathering tonight for former employees of the Kenosha News. You see, our industry continues to rely on an outdated business model and a bloated expense sheet. Something I just can’t be part of anymore.
Earlier this year, the Times Picayune in New Orleans was bought by a competitor and the entire staff was let go. GateHouse and Gannett, two major news publishers are set to merge and further staffing cuts are expected. Locally, the Kenosha News was bought by Lee Enterprises, which is moving its operation out of downtown Kenosha. It’s hard to watch.
The bottom line: I am grateful that I get to do this work. I am also proud that a growing number of independent news websites — run by professional journalists that adhere to the best practices of journalism — are capturing the attention of Facebook, Google, WordPress, and the Knight News Foundation. Because news websites don’t have the same costs associated with printing the news. Also, our organization is poised to grow through actual journalism, not by cannibalizing our competitors or watering down our news product.
This why I belong to a professional organization called LION Publishers. Through LION, we’ve been able to tap into resources we otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. That means, big things are ahead for the Racine County Eye.
So what a difference 10 years makes… I went from being angry with the interwebs to actually owning a news website, advocating for sustainable journalism, and helping my community by offering solutions-based journalism.
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