“Land ho!” shouts a redheaded boy, finger pointing over the guardrail of the ferryboat’s upper deck. His mother holds onto him with a handful of T-shirt as the 90-ton ferry churns toward the dock at Detroit Harbor. The family will spend a typical June day on Washington Island: skipping stones, eating cheese curds, and passing by the wooden storefront on Main Road with the hand-painted Washington Island Observer sign.
A few miles east of the ferry dock, the Observer’s editorial board gathers in the chairwoman’s family room. Tall picture windows overlook a rugged Lake Michigan shore. With coffee and lemon scones on the kitchen counter, it feels like a chatty book club until the group launches into earnest debate on a range of touchy questions: Should the paper report on an islander charged with sexual assault? Review local plays when cast members are neighbors? Respond to impassioned bird watchers who insist that “robin” and “cardinal” are proper nouns, AP style be damned?
The board members’ résumés are diverse and include the owner of the ferry line, a French teacher from Princeton, NJ, and a retired nasa engineer. But everyone in the room has one thing in common: no journalism experience. Most have summer homes on the island. They agree the weekly paper is an essential, if tattered, piece of the local fabric. “We have a strong belief that community newspapers are still a very good way to disseminate the news,” says Marsha Williams, the Observer’s treasurer, who has held top financial posts at Orbitz and Crate & Barrel in Chicago.
The 27 families that pitched in nearly $60,000 to buy the Observer (and cover three part-time staffers and first-year expenses), are getting a crash-course in journalism; and not just any journalism—small-town journalism, which, as the new owners are learning, can be a funny and frustrating thing. They had clear goals when they closed the deal 18 months ago: preserve the newspaper’s homespun vibe, but also report on threats to the island’s fragile economy, its overburdened town government, and its shrinking school; with 60 students K-12, Washington Island is Wisconsin’s smallest school district.
The experiment’s catalyst is 73-year-old Lucia Petrie. Casually stylish and politely blunt, Petrie is known for raising big money. She helped lead a $100-million campaign for the soaring Milwaukee Art Museum addition, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The museum is now a progressive symbol of possibility in a city working to shed its rust-belt image.
Petrie and her husband, Pete, a retired management consultant, first visited Washington Island 42 years ago, tent camping on a rainy night. Decades later their bright, modern home on Hemlock Drive is a family hub. Over dinner and wine two summers ago, the Petries and a few friends ruminated on the fate of the Observer, which had declined in quality and was up for sale. The owners, Gail and Robert Toerpe, lived several hours away in Milwaukee; instead of tackling local issues, they published musings on their grandchildren’s island visits. The Observer had languished on the market for three years. “The conversation moved quickly to what a shame it would be to see that paper go,” recalls Petrie, “and if we bought it, what we would do to make it better.”
Today, Petrie is president of Washington Island Community News LLC, and its door-to-door ad saleswoman. Pete oversees the business side. They did not need years of journalism experience to understand the challenges: boost circulation, attract new advertisers, and earn the trust of 700 year-round residents who brave the frozen quiet in winter—the “real islanders” who often roll their eyes at big-city ideas.
Tornado watch The Observer’s new owners try to balance ‘real journalism’ with the reality of life in a small town. (Jane Hampden)
Washington Island is far from city life in both miles and mindset—“above the tension line,” as boosters like to say. On a map of the Midwest, it is a 35-square-mile dot in the expanse of the Great Lakes. The drive to the tip of Door County leads travelers through a hilly peninsula of cherry tree orchards and idyllic harbor towns overlooking Lake Michigan to the east, and the Bay of Green Bay to the west. At the tip, choppy waters converge in a dicey passage called Death’s Door for its toll on the wooden ships of yesteryear. The ticket booth for the Washington Island Ferry Line is five-and-a-half hours north of Chicago, but in high season vehicles with New York and California license plates line up to board, joining bicyclists and wanderers for the half-hour boat ride. The island population swells to nearly 3,000 in summer.