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. Diane’s story is part of a series that illustrates why local journalism matters and why we need journalists to confront our urgent local issues.
Diane Everson | Edgerton, WI
When I was very little, my dad would take me there on Saturdays, and I worked with him to melt down the molten lead then used in the printing process. One of my first jobs was to go to collect the papers as they came off the press in Broadhead. When I started working at the paper, my parents had me learn every job to prepare me for whatever I wanted to do. I drove the newspaper plates, (the aluminum that had the image of the newspaper page on it,) wrote articles, covered sports, took and developed photographs, and sold ads. I became the co-publisher with my mother, Helen, in 1989, and publisher upon her death in 2017.
One of the things most people say about Edgerton is how friendly everyone is. There’s such a generosity of spirit. Whenever there’s a fire or there’s a fundraiser for someone’s health, the town really bands together. We have a lot of civic pride and a high level of volunteerism. We have some festivals that take hundreds of volunteers, including Chilimania, a book festival, Tobacco Days, and a pottery festival.
When I was growing up, the population was hovering right around 4,000 people. Now, because we’re in a growth corridor between Madison and Rockford, we’re about 5,500. We’re projected to grow eleven percent a year. In the last few years, we have twenty-one new subdivisions in our school district. The challenge with the new residents is that they’re younger families and two-income households. So, the husband may work in one direction, and the wife works in another. They shop where they work, so it’s hard for our community businesses to reach them, and as well as the newspaper. We’re starting to take on the characteristics of a bedroom community. Downtown is very much like many small Wisconsin towns. We have several empty storefronts, often owned by out-of-town owners.
We have continued to publish, even during Covid. We were starting to call ourselves “The Weekly Miracle.” It’s been challenging for us because it’s very challenging for the businesses. We have two sources of revenue, subscriptions and advertising. Many of the businesses were closed down, so they weren’t able to advertise. But some of the businesses are starting to grow again.
We also have a lot of challenges with social media and the internet. Craigslist was very hurtful in terms of classified ads; we no longer have car dealership advertising. However, we still have real estate advertising. We’ve cut as much as we can. We have four employees, and nine freelance writers.
I write editorials and a note to readers each week. When I have time, I write a weekly column called ‘Back of the Envelope.’ I used to write news articles, but now I hire freelance reporters to do this important investigative work. During my childhood, I listened to many kitchen table conversations between my parents about issues in the town. They had a big commitment to public service; and in that role, really had a finger on the pulse of the community. They had a high bar, which I still try to reach.
I always look out for what I think is best for the community, and my weekly editorials are not always popular. A recent editorial that caused a lot of consternation was about a youth football league that was going to Green Bay on Friday nights to compete. I felt that it was irresponsible because Brown County was the third highest in the state at that point in Covid cases. As you can imagine, that caused quite a bit of angst, especially among the parents of the football players. However, even though I had all those angry parents, I also had people thanking me. They didn’t want their names printed, but they felt good that somebody was standing up for them.
I’ve seen where editorials have made a difference. A couple of years ago, our school superintendent was retiring after twenty-some years, and the school board voted to remove the residency requirement. I felt strongly that the superintendents should live in the city that they’re working in. I editorialized about it for several weeks, and the school board members changed their minds.
Anything that happens nationally filters down to our community. I worry that people are not looking to the news as much as they should. They’re listening to what speaks to them, either on social media or to their families. But there’s not the effort to really understand the context of the news they’re reading. That’s where print is so powerful, because we have the space to put the context for what we’re talking about.
A bigger concern is that there are many communities without a newspaper, so who is covering the school board and covering the city council? Local reporters are needed to shine a bright light on what the school board’s doing and what the city council’s doing. Also, people tend to be more responsive and more decent if they’re being watched. I have a big concern about more places becoming news deserts. In fact, there’s a county in Wisconsin, Menomonie County, with no newspaper in the whole county. I make sure to assign a reporter to all our surrounding towns to cover these government functions. It is important to have trained journalists who know how to gather information from many sources, verify the information, and make sure the story is unbiased.
Diane Everson | Edgerton, WI
Diane’s story was produced by Catherine Capellaro and is part of Love Wisconsin’s Democracy and the Informed Citizen series.
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.