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. Julian’s story is part of a series that illustrates why local journalism matters and why we need journalists to confront our urgent local issues.
Julian Emerson | Eau Claire, WI
Journalism was a dream job for me. I’d get to talk to people, and meet new and interesting people, and then write about it. I studied journalism, first at Carroll College, and at UW-Eau Claire.
I got married after I graduated from college, and I had a little baby daughter on the way. So I took the first journalism job I could get, at a little weekly about half an hour south of Eau Claire, the Durand Courier Wedge. You’re everything at those papers: the editor, the news reporter, the sports reporter, the photographer. That job involved a lot of long days and nights, and learning on the fly, and trying to fit into these small towns where, unless three generations of your family were there, you’re deemed an outsider.
In 1997, I was hired at the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram to cover education. I started doing investigative stories along with my regular work, and one of the first was about the person who was favored to be named the next UW-Eau Claire chancellor. That article caused an uproar in the community. One morning a line of people in suits and ties came in to meet with the publisher, and I quickly realized that it was because of that story. They were furious. I called my wife and said, “I don’t know if I’m going to have this job when this meeting is over.”
To their credit and to my eternal thanks, my editors fought hard for me, and I kept my job. They stood up for me because my stories were based on facts I had spent months gathering, and on interviews with numerous knowledgeable sources who were familiar with this situation. Some months later, after someone else had been hired to lead the university, members of the UW System Board of Regents that approved the hiring of the new chancellor called to thank me for that story.
That initial investigative story set the stage for me to do further in-depth stories, and it hammered home the importance of gathering information from as many sources as I could, to document details allowing me to write stories as accurately and fairly as possible, and to show readers exactly where I got my information.
Other stories stand out that weren’t necessarily investigative. One was a series I wrote about a woman named Patrice Confer who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; doctors gave her a couple months left to live. One of her sons was overseas, in the war in Iraq. She requested that the Army send him home so she could see him before she died. The Army said no.
After my story went out on the Associated Press wire, I received phone calls from journalists around the country wanting to be in touch with the family. After other media wrote stories about the woman’s plight, the Army relented and they sent her son home. In between our other assignments, a photographer and I spent time with Patrice and her family to chronicle her battle with cancer.
I was in the room with her and her family a couple hours before she died. Patrice was just a tiny shadow of her former self, but the setting sun lit her face with this almost angelic glow. Her twin sisters resembled two shadows, huddled over Patrice and sobbing with their arms around each other. That image stays with me today.
I wrote another series, during the winter of 2013, about homelessness in Eau Claire. Virtually every night, and almost every weekend for five months, I headed out to the streets with a photographer. We spent time with homeless people wherever they went. That winter was historically cold and snowy, and reporting in those conditions gave me a greater appreciation of the struggles of surviving on the street in life-threatening weather. Those articles woke up a lot of people who were surprised that there was homelessness in Eau Claire.
My younger self wanted to make it to the Washington Post or The New York Times and be some superstar journalist. I have since learned that there’s a real value to working in one community, even a smaller community, for a long time, and having people trust you to tell certain kinds of stories, like jump-starting a conversation on homelessness.
In 2019, my longtime friend and fellow journalist, Pat Kreitlow, asked if I would be willing to be part of a new journalism venture in Wisconsin with him. Last January we kicked off UpNorthNews. We are online only, and I have learned new technology and social media skills.
How does journalism survive? How do we stay viable? How do we quit losing so many talented print journalists? How do we convince the public that it’s worth paying for their news? I haven’t figured any of that out, but I do know news is incredibly important to our democracy.
There have been a lot of days the last couple of years when I have questioned being a journalist. It seems like people are so divided into their own camps and increasingly cling to their existing beliefs, even if those beliefs are not based on facts. But I believe objective journalism that is based on facts, and provides meaningful context while holding those in power accountable for their actions, still matters a lot. I think it might even be a way to help unify this country again.
Julian’s story was produced by Catherine Capellaro and is part of Love Wisconsin’s Democracy and the Informed Citizen series. You can read Julian’s 2014 Eau Claire Leader-Telegram two-part series following the stories and challenges of Eau Claire’s homeless here.
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.