By Brandi Makuski
It was sometime in the summer of 2014 when our newsroom became overwhelmed with requests to offer a print edition.
The City Times was born over a meal of Hamburger Helper and cold Budweiser in the fall of 2010. We started out as a cheesy-looking news website, which we updated weekly. Readers didn’t seem to mind our immature electronic digs, but they clamored for more, so we soon changed our format to a daily online publication. Little by little, we planted our feet in a local news market almost entirely monopolized by a single chain company.
Soon — and somehow — we wound up on media lists from all over the county, and eventually, the nation. We were being included, accepted, by local organizations and municipal governments as a legitimate sources of news. Emails, cards and letters of support came pouring in; the readers — you — loved the service we were providing. Those messages meant far more than the number of website visits our analytics program was giving us, and they still do.
Our decision to move into print was, in hindsight, a ridiculous idea. We had no idea what we were getting into, but the demand was simply too high for a physical print publication.
Our first print issue hit local newsstands on Sunday, May 4, 2014. It wasn’t without risk. There were dozens of tiny little details we had to decide relating to layout, color, font, insurance, subscription fees (or lack thereof), advertising rates, distribution, and so on. To save money, we drove a 2007 Ford Focus to our printing facility in Waupaca around midnight each Saturday to pick up each week’s 5,000 copies, then spent the next five hours bagging or bundling each paper to prepare for distribution.
It was ridiculously makeshift. We were completely in over our heads — we weren’t entrepreneurs; we were just a bunch of news reporters, for crying out loud.
As with most small businesses, our first employees were friends and family, and we relied heavily on the goodwill of others. We employed a pool of eight young men and women — we called them “newsies” — to personally hand out copies of the City Times every Sunday morning. In the rain, sun and freezing cold, those junior high students (who, at first, worked for donuts, chocolate milk and tips) were our public face for weekly shoppers at Copps and Trigs.
We have the managers of those three stores to thank for part of our success, as each gave us their blessing to be there. We also have the organizers of Celebrate Plover to thank, as in 2014 they gave us a free vendor spot to promote and handout print copies. Then there’s Nancy Zavadsky, a retired English teacher from St. Peter’s Middle School; Steve Hill, a professor who teaches journalism at UWSP who provided some essential insight; Chris Randazzo, who, while writing for the Portage Co. Gazette, would provide the distraction of Hangman bouts during particularly long monologues of the school board; Jeff Williams, editor for the now-defunct VOICE of Wisconsin Rapids, who gave irreplaceable advice; former Stevens Point Journal reporter Patrick Thornton, an Irishman whose “never back down” attitude was more of an inspiration than he’ll ever know; City Times co-founders Joey Hetzel and B.J. Hiorns, the great Gene Kemmeter from the Portage County Gazette; the late, great journalist George Rogers…
Honestly, the list is too long. So many were inspirational, or provided some form of support — it really “took a village” to grow this newspaper, and the list of those we need to thank is ever-growing.
As with all things, time changes a business model. Now teenagers, those eight newsies grew tired of waking up at 5 AM on Sundays, and our newspaper was having a hard time finding qualified salespeople to keep the ad revenue flowing. That revenue was essential, because — holy cow — printing anything on a weekly basis in very expensive.
In November of 2014, we sold the City Times to Multi Media Channels LLC, a family-run company based in Green Bay. They’ve allowed us to continue editorial operations, and continue our unapologetic, hard-hitting coverage of city government and the local community.
Over the past seven years our staff has witnessed firsthand the real lack of accountability in some elected and appointed positions. But we’ve also seen the other side of that coin, when some honest officials in city, school district and county governments curb their frustration as they publicly deal with coworkers who feel they are above reproach.
Our reporters have been on the receiving end of bullying, harassment and threats, which at one point rose to the level of slashed tires; a home invasion; and a frivolous, public lawsuit via two elected officials caught doing something they shouldn’t have been.
It’s hard to believe it’s only been three years in print. Sometimes it feels like 30, but it’s been a great ride so far.
So, as we blow of the candles of our third birthday cake, we’ll coin a term from Bartles and Jaymes:
“Thank you for your support.”