In recent decades, many of Wisconsin’s independent and local newspapers have folded or been absorbed by large media conglomerates that hollow them out and reduce local content. Catherine produced this story series that illustrates why local journalism matters and why we need journalists to confront our urgent local issues.
Catherine Capellaro | Blooming Grove, WI
She was a Milwaukee Arab-German, and he was an Italian-Irish Korean War vet who came to Wisconsin on the GI Bill after serving as an Army cryptographer during nuclear tests on the U.S. Marshall Islands.
They were, and are, my heroes. When I was tiny, Mom put in long hours at The West Bend Daily News while Dad worked in TV, and then commuted to the State Capitol to serve as an aide to Lt. Gov. Jack Olson. They stopped chasing those dreams to buy two small-town papers, The New Glarus Post and The Monticello Messenger, when I was in second grade. They bought a fixer-upper farm.
At the table, Dad would read to us from whatever was exciting him: news stories, Dave Barry columns, James Thurber humor columns, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Poe. Mom would debate him, and teach about feminism by example. The ideas for their weekly columns, “Bill’s Corner” and “Equal Time,” would bubble up at family meals, in between us four kids pounding on each other, myriad pets swirling around, and covering school board meetings and house fires.
I was never bored. The newspaper office was a source of never-ending curiosity: my loud dad; the wisecracking ad layout guy; the iron-fisted receptionist; the chain-smoking typesetters; the photographer who rode a motorcycle and smoked joints in the darkroom where he posted a tasteful collage of porn images; the fresh-out-of-UW-Madison Daily Cardinal alumni who probably had no idea their words would share pages with American Legion potluck notices and “Local Briefs,” a compilation of stories about who visited whom.
Everybody read the paper. It was, as Ron Smith said, the glue that held us together, a shared story that my parents shaped every week for 12 years. Vacations were not an option. They needed to be there to write the stories, cover the meetings, sell the ads, take the photos, lay out the paper on slanted boards.
They weren’t getting up at 4 am like our dairy farmer neighbors, but on Tuesday night and into the wee hours of Wednesday, the team stayed up as long as it took — sometimes up until 4 am.
Every story was typed out on manual clickety-clacking typewriters, then retyped into bulky typesetting machines. Long strips of copy spooled out of one machine and we fed them into another machine that applied wax. Every word was checked and double checked, each comma was fixed, images shot and reshot. We pasted the stories onto big pieces of paper, cutting photos and stories with X-acto knives. Once we were satisfied, those pages were shot, transferred to giant negatives and then to giant metal plates that my father would drive to Broadhead to be printed and bundled. This exhaustive ritual was repeated weekly for 12 of my formative years.
For as long as I could remember, I wanted to be there with them until the bitter end, for those bleary celebrations after the papers were put to bed, that magical feeling of doing everything we could to make it as good as it could be.
I couldn’t get enough. As soon as I was able, I gathered a bunch of friends and we started our own newspaper, The Gazette, taking over the newspaper offices on days between production.
What my parents taught me was that news matters. That healthy communities need watchdogs, need somebody peeking over their shoulders, helping them to not take themselves too seriously. They need someone to listen when they have been wronged, and to celebrate their accomplishments.
Another lesson they tried to impart, with partial success in my case, was not to fear judgment. Journalism is a public service, not a popularity contest. Yet when our former president called journalists “enemies of the people” I felt the sting.
I thought of my sleep-deprived mom and dad, raising four children and toiling to seek the truth.
This series was funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.