The civic storms are intriguing to Mary Marik, 68, who signed on as the Observer’s first managing editor under the new owners. She served on the island’s Parks Committee and, before retiring, worked as a copy editor at a think tank in Washington, DC. With her spiky silver hair and signature gray glasses, Marik quickly became the face of the paper around town. She had never written for newspapers but loved reading them, and had edited several journalism textbooks. She was fascinated with the principles of newsgathering. “There’s a difference between reading about it and doing it,” Marik says. “But the care and feeding of authors is a lot like keeping in touch with sources up here—talking to people, calling people.”
Marik’s approach to her new job was shaped by one of the first people to embrace the idea of buying the Observer. Rich Shereikis, a professor emeritus of English literature at the University of Illinois-Springfield, had written feature stories and movie reviews and contributed to national magazines (including the Columbia Journalism Review). He and his wife, Judy, purchased their cottage on Washington Island in 1996. Among the new owners, Shereikis became the “journalism with a capital J” guy, and chairman of the editorial committee. “Rich was insistent that we cover town issues so readers could understand what was happening, even if the news might upset people,” Marik recalls. “He said ‘news is news,’ even if it wasn’t comfortable.”
I talked with Shereikis in the summer of 2012 on his breezy screened porch. He had been a newspaper owner for all of six months and was wrestling with the question of how to sensitively cover vexing issues such as the shrinking school population. “I feel torn, as someone who admires real journalism,” he said. “I feel like we should be doing it, but at the same time, it’s different in a small town.”
The new group’s journalism philosophy was shaped by metropolitan dailies in Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York, and by stories on npr. By contrast, the closest media market to Washington Island is Green Bay, and even that small city is a ferry ride and long drive away. Islanders are unaccustomed to blunt, hard-news coverage—the kind that could create lifelong grudges. Dick Purinton, who owns the ferry line and donated money for the Observer purchase, favors a judicious approach. His support of the venture is reassuring to many islanders—they trust Purinton, so they trust the newspaper owners. “You want to be fair and objective, and yet you can’t step on toes continually,” he says. “That’s not going to work and it doesn’t serve a long-term purpose.”
So far, Observer articles have reflected this cautious sensibility. Marik opted for a just-the-facts approach to town business, reporting on agenda items, discussions, and votes. But she also tackled some important stories that were unlikely to offend, such as a comparison of island hotel rates, the record-low Great Lakes water levels, and the US Department of Agriculture’s decision to kill invasive, non-native swans on the island.
The owners recruited dozens of volunteers to write about the Washington Island Music Festival, the Death’s Door Barbecue, and the Lion’s Club Ice Fishing Derby. Pictures of islanders posing with 20-pound salmon are still standard fare in the Observer, but the owners have tried to ratchet up the journalistic scrutiny on some difficult issues, such as the plight of the Washington Island School. With 10 graduates, the class of 2013 was unusually large; there are four seniors in the class of 2014. As young families leave the island for schools with more academic and extracurricular programs, the district loses funding and becomes a bit more vulnerable.