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.
In June, Marik covered a tense town meeting about the proposed improvements that drew more than 40 people, including some who derided what they view as an exorbitant price tag— upwards of $9 million. Others argued that the enhancements would draw more tourists and jobs to Washington Island. “A lot of people who have grown up here want to keep the island as it always has been,” says Rich Walker, a retired Chicago banker and Observer investor. “I think change is inevitable no matter what community you live in, and change ought to be managed.”
The next step in the Detroit Harbor plan is for the town to seek state and federal funding. Marik intends to keep covering the story, and she resigned from the Parks Committee, which required her to voice an opinion on the harbor plan. After settling into the role of reporter, she no longer was comfortable working for the government. “I feel more free to cover stories on the island,” Marik says.