By Mickey Schommer
GREEN BAY – Microsoft, in collaboration with the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, have committed another $135,000 to invest in the Northeast Wisconsin (NEW) News Lab journalism initiative, focused on serving the region with information about their communities free of cost in order to mitigate news deserts — areas that are no longer supported with regional newspapers.
The NEW News Lab came together in 2021 after receiving a $900,000 grant from Microsoft.
“One of the big things that Microsoft wanted to see was collaboration with this funding money and so when the money got released, Microsoft picked seven geographical territories in the United State for this minimum three-year grant,” said Press Times General Manager Mike Hollihan. “Green Bay and Northeast Wisconsin was one of the areas that they picked and then when the money got allocated, the initial meeting was ‘Okay, this is how much money’s been allocated. Next Wednesday when we meet again, I want everybody to come to the table with what their stories will be and how much funding they will need out of this lump sum that we have.’”
The Press Times came to the table with the idea to split the funding sum equally, while some newsroom entities came with ideas for videos, podcasts, and graphics which might have divided the funding unequally.
Hollihan understood the desire for those features, but the longevity of the three-year project required a much more strict approach for funding, especially if each newsroom had to negotiate a budget for every story.
He remembered a story that he read several years ago, and recounted it at the meeting.
“In a very poor country, there was a man — a very wealthy man — standing with six kids from six different families and these children’s families were very, very poor,” Hollihan began.
“On the other side of the soccer field layed a box full of money and food to feed one family for over a year. The man encouraged the children to race for the box to see an individual winner, but rather than racing each other, they joined arms, walked to the box hand-in-hand and split the food amongst themselves. It was not individually, but together that they prevailed.
“Everybody could always come to the table and say, ‘We need this for this funding,’ but if we were able to just divide it up equally on a consistent basis, […] we could all plan every time the funding comes out for how we’re going to do and what we’re going to do with it. But knowing each time the money’s released, if we all know what we’re going to get, we can plan how we’re funding our organization. So, everybody agreed with that. Ever since, for those three years, we would just divide it up equally.”
“I believe that’s why our northeast Wisconsin area has been seen by Microsoft to have — from a collaboration standpoint — one of the best ones in all the seven entities [that Microsoft] put together,” Hollihan said. “I partly [say that] because we have good people in all these news organizations and we work well together, but the other part is because we never had to argue over money because we made that decision to divide it up equally right from the get-go.”
Of the six newsroom entities within the collaborative project, The Appleton Post-Crescent, The Green Bay Press Gazette, The Press Times, and FoxValley365 were all able to expand their staff.
The Post-Crescent and Press Gazette used their allocations of the funding to support the salaries of three full-time NEW News Lab reporters — two of whom are core reporters of the collaboration series, “Family Matters.”
The Press Times was able to pay stringers — freelance journalists and photographers — as well as interns to compensate for research and background being completed by staff.
FoxValley365 was able to more than double its full-time reporting staff from two to five in lieu of the funding.
Wisconsin Watch and Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) were able to create the podcast “Open and Shut” as a collaboration, which is estimated to have cost a total of over $300,000, including the salaries of nearly two dozen staff, as well as the cost of production, legal review and travel.
In a report to funders, Andy Hall, the coordinator of NEW News Lab and co-founder of Wisconsin Watch, noted that, “Stories produced since June 1, 2021 by the six NEW News Lab partners have been picked up by more than 125 news organizations nationwide, including more than 75 in Wisconsin, reaching a total estimated audience of more than 23 million people in more than a dozen states.”
Wisconsin Watch CEO George Stanley hopes to maintain grant and donation support for the NEW News Lab initiative in order to cover noteworthy local stories that aren’t as marketable as trending national reports.
“Stories about homelessness and family struggles with senior care don’t get nearly as many page views or draw advertising support like stories about the Packers or Taylor Swift and other celebrities or other topics that draw huge audiences,” said Stanley. “The local commerce business model that supported news outlets for more than 200 years, from our smallest towns to our biggest cities, has been turned on its head. Classified ads, where neighbors sold to one another, disappeared almost overnight to free national platforms that carried enough digital advertising alongside them to profit their owners. Local retailers, who used to be the primary advertisers for local news, continue to suffer — where are Prange’s and ShopKo today? The pandemic exacerbated these trends, as folks shop more and more from places like Amazon and have products delivered to their door rather than from local shops and stores that advertised in local newspapers. We’re seeing local car dealers disappear or consolidate now in a lot of places, as businesses like Carvana continue to grow.”
“So, we have lost so many journalists with this loss of local commerce that we need to collaborate instead of compete, to use the skills we can muster together to tell the stories that matter most to the lives of the people in our communities,” he continued. “And we need the public’s help through subscriptions, memberships and donations. I fear if we don’t get the support needed to provide this kind of reporting, civic participation in our communities will continue to decline, confidence in our institutions to solve problems will continue to drop and political polarization will continue to grow.
“We solve problems in America by bringing them to the public’s attention, along with potential best practices and solutions. Then the public demands better. It’s essential to our democracy, our system of self government. We can’t do that without strong local reporting.”
The NEW News Lab has currently published stories on the lack of affordable housing (Post-Crescent and Press Gazette), generational trauma (The Press Times), has reported on a local church paying a voluntary tax to Indigenous people (FoxValley365), and a podcast exposing the unchecked power of prosecutors (Wisconsin Watch with WPR).
Without funding from Microsoft and Community Foundations, it is unlikely that any of these NEW News Lab partners would have come together to the extent that has been possible.
“We hope [that the funding is] a kickstarter to an effort that the community will now continue to support,” added Stanley.
To view the latest stories from the NEW News Lab, visit www.ggbcf.org/community-initiatives/new-news-lab.
Pass It Forward™ editorial is sponsored by Packers Give Back and Nicolet Bank.