The Weekly Newspaper of the Year

This week’s Ripon Commonwealth Press has most impressive news:

Commonwealth judged best weekly paper in Wisconsin

After a 10-year hiatus, the Ripon Commonwealth Press once again has been named the best weekly newspaper in Wisconsin.

After being judged against the 190 other weekly publications across the state, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association named it the Weekly Newspaper of the Year Friday night.

The Commonwealth Press won 13 first-place awards, 11 second-place awards and nine third-place awards in competition against other weekly newspapers in the state.

Publisher Tim Lyke told his fellow newspaper publishers that “We are fortunate in Ripon to have readers and advertisers who expect and deserve a newspaper that strives every week to live up to the excellence of the community we serve.”

As one of his readers (and an occasional advertiser through our church) who doubles as an ink-stained wretch who used to do the sort of things the Commonwealth Press editorial staff does and still sends them news releases, I have to publicly congratulate the Commonwealth Press for its superior journalism in an increasingly difficult journalistic and business environment for superior journalism.

Editor Ian Stepleton credits the Commonwealth Press’ readers:

I have a different perspective on this “victory,” largely because I know why we won.
You.
As I’ve discovered over the almost 18 years I’ve lived here, Ripon is one special, unique place.
… And that is why we won Newspaper of the Year.
… Where else, all in one spot, can you find:
* People so engaged — for the past 150-plus years — that they not only have changed their community, but the nation (and arguably the world as well)
* A top-notch college that is so closely tied to its community
* Such technological innovation from which local names have become household brands
* Residents so motivated that nothing can hold them back, such as the late Jeanne Bice (the ultimate Quacker herself), Trent Baalke (49ers general manager), Harrison Ford (actor), Al Jarreau (jazz musician), etc.
As has sometimes been said, all roads lead to Ripon — even in a metaphorical sense, it seems.
It just goes to show this community has many, many reasons to be proud.
We at the Commonwealth are just lucky enough to be here to chronicle them.

Having exited the weekly newspaper world nearly two decades ago (while still getting occasional urges to go back — the first sign of  recovery from addiction is admitting your addiction, right?), I’m a bit envious of the Commonwealth Press. I won two WNA first-place awards for sports writing, and the newspaper we co-owned, the Tri-County Press in Cuba City, won a Most Improved Newspaper award. We did really good work at the Grant County Herald Independent in Lancaster (including for the murder trial I covered), but we won neither a General Excellence award nor a Newspaper of the Year award in my three years in Lancaster.

Of course, the purpose of journalism is not to win awards for yourself or your media outlet. The purpose of journalism is to report what’s going on so that your readers, listeners and viewers are better informed. If you want to know what’s happening in Ripon, you have to read the Commonwealth Press. (Not everything, of course, because one obligation of journalists is to report the provable truth.)

Perhaps the most impressive thing is the number of first- and second-place awards for the Commonwealth Press’ coverage of the Ripon area’s interesting (as in the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times”) news year. That includes the recall election of state Sen. Luther Olsen (R–Ripon), the problems with the Boca Grande downtown redevelopment project, the controversy over the Rosendale Dairy megafarm and its effect on area groundwater, and the often-dysfunctional relationships in Green Lake city government.

This is despite the fact that the Commonwealth Press doesn’t really have news media competition. That is not a comment about the staff at the local radio station, which at least does some local news coverage. That is a comment about the owner of said local radio station, who needs to devote his own resources (some of which come from our church, which is why I get to write this paragraph) to local news coverage, such as having his staff attend city council and school board meetings to report thereupon. One of the Commonwealth Press’ supposed daily newspaper competition is well known (to which I can personally attest) for being unable to be bothered to cover events that occur weekdays after 5 p.m. or on weekends.

As an opinionmonger (who also blogs on the Commonwealth Press’ website), I particularly applaud the first-place award for the Commonwealth Press’ opinion pages. A lot of newspapers think printing letters to the editor suffices as an opinion section. It doesn’t. A lot of newspapers think printing controversial opinions will make advertisers angry enough to stop advertising, and readers angry enough to cancel their subscriptions. They might. Neither is an insignificant concern,  given that readers’ eyeballs are what compel advertisers to advertise, and given the diminishing small-town newspaper advertising base.

Economic pressures are making weekly journalism difficult. Print journalism is still trying to figure out how to use the Internet to get people to pay for their product instead of putting it online for free. The traditional advertiser base for small-town newspapers, local retail businesses, is being eroded by the growth of big-box and online retailers. If your two biggest revenue sources are readers’ subscriptions and advertising, and both are eroding for demographic and economic reasons, well, you can see the challenge.

One solution is for a company to purchase and operate several newspapers. (When I started in Grant County in 1988, my employer owned two newspapers and one shopper. By the time I left in 1994, he was up to five newspapers and two shoppers. He was then bought out by a company that now owns nine southwest Wisconsin newspapers, including most of our former print competitors. Another former employer owns not just the state’s largest newspaper, but many weekly newspapers as well. The nation’s largest newspaper owner, Gannett, owns 10 Wisconsin daily newspapers.

Whether chain ownership is a good thing or not depends on who the owner is. Chain ownership allows such production functions as printing, accounting and circulation to be done centrally, which, in the case of good owners, allows more resources to be devoted to the editorial product. On the other hand, Gannett owns the aforementioned 9-to-5 newspaper.

The Commonwealth Press is a throwback in that the Commonwealth Press is Ripon Community Printers’ only newspaper. (I’ve suggested to the publisher more than once, in fact, that their brand of journalism could serve other communities too.) Ripon Community Printers is one of the state’s largest printing companies and one of Ripon’s largest employers, with a worldwide customer base. (Including, of all things, Polish-language Chicago phone books.)

The Commonwealth Press is not perfect. (I used to repeat the old saw that if I ever published a mistake-free issue, that would be my last day in print journalism.) My four years on the Ripon Plan Commission included two run-ins with the Commonwealth Press where the newspaper mischaracterized things I said during Plan Commission meetings. (Part of that was my forgetting or ignoring the indisputable fact that anything you say at a public meeting can and may be used by the news media present.) In one instance the Commonwealth Press commented negatively on something I said at a meeting that no one from the Commonwealth Press attended. The following week’s Commonwealth Press included a pointed letter from the wrongly criticized Plan Commission member, which they printed.

Some claim the Commonwealth Press is excessively deferential to the powers-that-be in Ripon. (That’s a common complaint of weekly newspapers, and sometimes valid, sometimes not.) The Commonwealth Press’ sports coverage well covers the local teams, but has a strange habit of not mentioning their opponents by player names. (It’s the print equivalent of the late Ripon sports announcer Jack Arnold, who sounded as if he was calling a game featuring an Asian team, given that every opponent’s name was “He.”) And one of the newspapers’ readers is known in the office for sending emails when he sees prominent typographical errors. (The Commonwealth Press has a habit of dropping the second E from the word “eyeing.”)

These past two paragraphs are an example of the life of a weekly newspaper. Every Wednesday afternoon the newspaper gets delivered to the front door. Every Wednesday evening my wife and I read it. Fifty-two issues a year are 52 opportunities to mess up something, inaccurately or incompletely report something, or make someone angry at you. In my year and a half as an editor and co-publisher, I often felt as though the power structure of our home  community was against me, until I learned after we left that I had become a comparative paragon of weekly journalism. My former boss and business partner used to say that our subscribers liked to hate the newspaper, and if “hated” meant nitpicking beyond reason and attributing motives and agendas where none existed, he was right.

If you do anything for public consumption 52 times a year, you’re going to be criticized for something. Whether they get it right in every instance (and no journalist ever does), the Commonwealth Press is a must-read for those who care about what’s happening in Ripon. That’s more important than getting a Newspaper of the Year award, as I suspect the Commonwealth Press staff would tell you. Nevertheless, the Commonwealth Press deserves congratulations for publishing a newspaper worthy of Ripon.

3 thoughts on “The Weekly Newspaper of the Year

  1. Thanks for all your comments, Steve — all constructive. As for being deferential to the establishment, we’re probably guilty of that, too, although I could tell you stories about “establishment” folks who have canceled their subscriptions because something we wrote rubbed them the wrong way. And yet others view us as a shill for city/school officials. Go figure. I guess when you can’t make anyone happy, you probably are fair and better be accurate.

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