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. Ron’s story is part of a series that illustrates why local journalism matters and why we need journalists to confront our urgent local issues.
Ron Smith | Milwaukee, WI
My mom always told me that I should either be an FBI agent or a journalist so I could get paid to ask these intrusive questions that no one else can ask.
Honestly, that’s how I started off, just being inquisitive about the world until I was 16. I applied to work at a paper in Chicago called New Expression, written by and for Chicago teenagers. I didn’t want to work at McDonald’s for the summer.
For my first writing assignment, the editor, a nun named Sister Ann, sent me to a press conference to ask the mayor, Harold Washington, what he was going to do to help kids stay safe and engaged during a teachers’ strike. I went to the press conference in my little suit. I was there with the Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times and all the TV stations.
I asked, “Mr. Mayor, how does it feel to be the first Black mayor of Chicago?” After I filed, Sister Ann looked at me. She said “Why would you ask such a stupid-ass question? He’s been mayor for two years. We know he’s Black. Who cares? We want to know for our readers what he’s going to do for students. Go back and get the story.”
I did what any 16-year-old would do. I went home and didn’t come back to New Expression, until one day I heard my mom on the phone, saying, “Yes, Sister Ann. He will get that done, Sister Ann, for sure.”
This was before cell phones. I was calling the mayor’s office from the cafeteria, from the principal’s office, everywhere. I must’ve left 15 or 16 messages. Finally, one Friday night at 10 p.m. I got a phone call. I heard my father go up the stairs and he says, “Ron, it’s the mayor.” I got my interview with Mayor Washington.
I was hooked on journalism. I’ve been blessed to do that for my whole life, including now, at the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a ten-year-old nonprofit newsroom that’s housed at Marquette University. We serve 18 low-income neighborhoods in the central city. Our mission is to tell the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary things and to act as their watchdog, especially the Latinx and African American communities.
I worked for 14 years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; then I became managing editor for news at USA Today. I’ve worked at the L.A. Times, Newsday, The Oregonian, and a whole bunch of newsrooms, from small weeklies to a large national, international newsroom. But I feel like I’m at the best job right now because I’m training the next generation of journalists.
Milwaukee has so many positives, but also has its share of problems as well. At the root of it is systemic racism. We have the highest incarceration rate, one of the highest rates of poverty, low educational attainment. As journalists, we have to figure out how we can make a dent, and get our news to people who maybe don’t know us, don’t trust us, or both.
We divide our content into three areas. The first is celebration — telling the stories of people who you wouldn’t meet anywhere else. It could be the woman who starts a business baking cookies because she is helping people during the pandemic.
Education is the second part of our strategy; we want to connect our readers with resources that they may not know exist. They want to know about food insecurity, where to find free meals on the holidays, about housing and eviction, jobs, unemployment, and debt.
We also do the watchdog reporting. One of our reporters won a national award for best Solutions Journalism Project from the Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) for a series where she traveled to New York to look at that state’s juvenile justice system and what Milwaukee can learn from it.
Especially this summer, when every news organization was talking about this “racial reckoning,” I just looked around in our newsroom and thought we are lucky. It’s not actually luck; it was intentional. Seventy percent of our staff are people of color. They’re from Milwaukee. They get the mission. When you have diverse voices, you get diverse stories that no one else will get.
I always tell people we are the A team and the B team: we’re going to be there first, but we’re going to be there after everyone else leaves as well. We don’t parachute in. We are part of the community. It used to be the only time the media would come into our neighborhoods was when something went bad, when there was a drug deal, or someone died or there was a car crash. They didn’t come in to do the story on the lady who bakes cookies.
It’s been more overt the last four years, where people don’t feel safe and don’t trust the media. We’ve got to continue to regain that trust by telling stories that need to be told, but also we have to go into the communities: urban, rural, blue-collar. We’ve got to try. We all know that local news is in crisis. There are many communities that don’t have a news outlet that covers what residents need to know. Without information, there is an absence of accountability. And that’s not good for democracy.
Doing journalism matters at this point in time, where we had the three P’s: the pandemic, protests, and the presidential race. 2020 was a year like no other, but wow, we got through it. There was great journalism done in all corners. Local news is so important. It’s the glue that connects us.
Ron’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.