A Q&A with Shereen Siewert, publisher of the Wausau Pilot & Review in WIsconsin.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
The idea for launching Wausau Pilot & Review had been simmering in the back of my mind for nearly a year. Inch by inch, month by month, a vision began to form of an organization that could focus intensely on Wausau, Wisconsin, as a community, one that would cover some of the news gaps we face and do so in an unbiased, nonpartisan, ethical manner. That idea remained just a dream until just a short time ago, when an endowment and several generous donors who believe in supporting local journalism made the project a reality. Our site launched March 13.
Wausau is home to many remarkable, talented journalists, some of whom I have had the good fortune to work with and learn from over the years. But it’s no secret that cuts have decimated the industry, as newsrooms face increased pressure to cut down on staff to minimize costs. Wave after wave of buyouts and layoffs have hit nearly every local newspaper. And the pink slips keep on coming.
The veteran journalists who remain at our daily newspaper are still doing a terrific job at the work they do. They matter to this community in ways that are difficult to overstate. But there is no question that, with fewer journalists on staff, there are gaps in local coverage. And I believe that people care about what happens in their own neighborhoods and in their communities far more than they will ever care about what happens in cities around the state.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I spent one year as news editor of The City Pages, an alt/weekly newspaper in Wausau. Before that, I was an investigative reporter on the USA Today – Wisconsin I-Team, based in central Wisconsin, and spent several years with the Wausau Daily Herald as a public safety reporter.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
WP&R is a 501c3 nonprofit newsroom. I produce much of the content myself, but added sports coverage through a partnership with another independent news organization, Central Wisconsin Sports, and have a handful of contributors I pay for content on a regular basis. I work out of my home. I just developed a media kit to sell advertising, partnering with Broadstreet for ad management. Right now, though, this organization exists because of grants and donations. I am currently writing for a grant to add an opinion editor who will organize and run a community editorial board, something the community hasn't had since Gannett discontinued their Wausau Daily Herald editorial board in 2013. And I'm hoping to hire a former Gannett co-worker to do the job.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
We compete directly with the Wausau Daily Herald, the City Pages, and two local TV stations in our coverage. I try to find ways to fill gaps in coverage rather than duplicate what others are doing.
5. What makes your site unique?
We are covering public safety issues in a way that no other outlet has in years. We have a weekly crime map, publish mugshots associated with felony charges (which I know is controversial), and scour the court system for cases of interest. We are also digging into local government. Another thing that makes us unique is our dedication to remaining local, and publishing the things that will never make it into the daily newspaper now that the publication is down to about 8 pages. Things like students of the month, inductions into National Honor Society, business news, and birth announcements.
6. What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?
I tend to think I can do everything by myself. I wish I had started with a partner, because doing this largely by myself means I am always on duty. Another set of eyes on a major piece before publication would be great, and I can't be everywhere at once.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
Our numbers have vastly exceeded expectations. We started from zero, and with zero – meaning, I didn't do any kind of promotional advertising to announce the project. But about a week after we launched, we had a major tragedy in this city, a shooting spree that left four people dead, including a police officer. It was a rare and terrible event for this community, and I'm proud that we covered that better than any other outlet in town, hands down. By chance, I had a former colleague who had a bird's eye view of what was happening during a four-hour standoff with the suspect, who had photos, video, and critical observations that were important to readers who were trying to figure out if it was safe to leave their homes or to allow their children outside. Because we Tweeted everything out and I have a verified Twitter account, our audience grew exponentially. I'm sorry to say that such a terrible event played a role in our success, but to be honest, it showed our ability to handle breaking news and put us on the map as a trusted news source.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
I have a hard time with the bookeeping side of things, and need help with marketing and selling advertising. But those things will come in time.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
We have some exciting things coming. An app is in development, thanks to a former classmate who is a successful developer. We'll be expanding sports coverage, and are developing a partnership with Wisconsin Public Radio. I'd like to explore relationships with other publications. And eventually, I hope to develop a membership program for readers.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
Being a member of LION not only adds credibility to WP&R, but also offers a platform for exchanging tips and ideas. The Facebook page has been invaluable in learning what works for other members and what doesn't, and has been a great place to network with others.
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