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. Gillian’s story is part of a series that illustrates why local journalism matters and why we need journalists to confront our urgent local issues.
Gillian Pomplun | Soldiers Grove, WI
My partner, Charley Preusser, is the editor of those newspapers. Since Covid, we’ve been working here together at home.
When I was a kid, I was really into James Bond. I thought I wanted to have that exciting lifestyle, to be a secret agent or a journalist. I just naturally gravitate to things that are verbal. For years I worked at North Farm Cooperative in Madison, and when North Farm went out of business in 2002, I wound up working at Organic Valley, near Viroqua, for close to a decade.
I had met Charley in Madison when we were both cab drivers at Union Cab Cooperative, and then we bounced into each other both up at the Madison Farmers’ Market where we were selling vegetables.
I always wanted to live in the Driftless Region. After we moved, my daughter was able to have a horse. My son hunts and fishes and hikes and canoes, and that was more of my vision for who I wanted my kids to become. At one point it dawned on me that I had to get my own farm. One day, I looked up and my kids were graduating from high school and going off to college. With an empty nest, I started to be less oriented towards the income, the health insurance, all of that, and more oriented to what do I want to do?
That’s when I started working with Charley, reporting for the Scout and the Independent, covering the issues that are important to our community. We’re part of a large newspaper group, Morris Newspapers Inc. I think it’s the largest privately held group of small, local papers in the United States. I always joke with people that we’re the Siberia of our newspaper group. We’re kind of the lone rangers up here. How many pages we get every week is sort of a function of how much advertising we’re getting. There’s no question our newsstand sales are down since Covid. It’s kind of shaky. I mean, you worry about a 115-year-old newspaper just fading away. That would be a shame.
It’s essential to have someone watching and reporting what’s going on in this region. Charley and I both have backgrounds in organic production, so we are known for our reporting on farming. I like this type of journalism because it’s high engagement in all of the issues that are out there, helping our community navigate all of the complexities and confusion that is part of the modern world. Maybe we are on the cutting edge of helping people to understand things that are changing, how they’re changing, what it means.
The Driftless Region is a very unique and special area. We’re blessed with some of the absolute best water in the world and a great place to farm, a great place to recreate, but we’re also challenged or burdened with vulnerable hydrogeology that causes us to fear for the continued quality of that resource. There’s a lot of tourism in this area, and Trout Unlimited has a study that establishes that it brings about $1.6 billion dollars into the Driftless Region economy per year. But a lot of local farm families that have farmed here for multiple generations are expanding, and they have these models where they get these big lagoons of slurry and the animals are confined. They put a lot of manure out on the landscape on farm fields; it’s dangerous because they run it all over the landscape in these things called dragline hoses.
But it’s complicated to cover because our economies out here are rural; they’re depressed. A lot of kids are moving away, looking for more opportunities. And we’ve also seen the collapse, essentially, of family farming, and in particular the dairy farm.
One of the very best things that’s ever happened to me in my entire life is I became involved with a group of farmers that got funding from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to protect the Tainter Creek Watershed. In 2016, we had a rain event that dumped eleven inches of rain overnight. It caused all kinds of chaos in the watershed and also in Rush Creek. It was devastation; the water was probably about five feet high across the whole valley.
The farmers kind of scratched their heads and went, “Oh, my. We can’t go on like this, and maybe there are things that we could do that would help with this situation.” The first time I went to their meeting, I felt like an outsider, and I had to introduce myself. But now, I’m like their embedded reporter.
I’ve seen this group of farmers evolve, grow into a leadership role, start to become conscious that they’re not only making a difference in their watershed but also inspiring other groups to start to grapple with all these issues: climate change, increased precipitation, the vulnerability of our landscape and our groundwater and our surface water. It’s been fascinating to be along on that ride with them.
What keeps me going, I think, is just a passion for my community, a passion to want to ensure that we have a well-informed population that is able to be civically engaged. I also have a passion for the free press. My role is to protect that and to reinforce that and to continue to be that element that helps our community be as informed as possible.
Gillian’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.