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.
Rich Shereikis was determined to have the Observer cover curricula and funding issues. He wrote about the debate over multi-grade classrooms and the implementation of Common Core State Standards, a controversial effort to standardize the core educational curriculum in every state. The paper ran interviews with school-board candidates, and published a school report card based on statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. “The public needs to be made more aware because the school tries to pass bond issues every year,” Shereikis said. “With little information, it’s hard for the school to make a case for more funding.”
School Superintendent Tim Raymond thinks the Observer coverage helped voters understand what was at stake in an April referendum on school funding that passed by a vote of 214-193. If the measure had failed, the district would have lost a third of its estimated $1.2 million annual budget. “To have that information disseminated in an open, unbiased format is really important,” Raymond says. “They don’t make something into a flower basket that isn’t, nor are they on a witch hunt.”
Readers are responding. Three hundred year-round islanders and 800 off-islanders now subscribe, a 25-percent increase in circulation since the paper changed hands in early 2012. The new owners raised the price of a single copy for the first time in 20 years, from $1 to $2, and say they heard few gripes. The Observer grew to a record 28 pages last summer. “People used to complain that there was nothing in the Observer,” says Orion Mann, whose family opened Mann’s Store, the only grocery on the island, in 1903. “I think that’s changed.”
Another Mann brother has a less sanguine appraisal of the weekly and its owners, and his plaint underscores the nature of the challenge for the Observer. Keith Mann, who runs Mann’s Mercantile, says the newspaper should highlight the volatility of the seasonal economy and its effect on island businesses, many of which are for sale. He cites inherent conflict between the interests of local businesspeople and part-time residents from far-away cities. “They have expectations of having more things here like they had back home,” says Mann. “They’re not really satisfied with our little town as is.”
The conflict is about more than seasonal demand for goat cheese and copies of The New York Times. Summer residents, including the new Observer owners, tend to support economic development initiatives that could attract more tourists to the island but also require substantial investment. A development plan for Detroit Harbor, the aging gateway to Washington Island, is a case in point. In addition to dock upgrades, a consultant’s master plan calls for an inviting visitors center and marina, canoe and kayak launches, and multi-use trails linking the harbor to Main Road businesses.