by JOSEPH W. KNAAPEN
Thanks to Dick Egan for his comments in the June 23 edition of the Peninsula Pulse (“Guest Column: Presidential Politics Don’t Define Us”). Not only did he pry open the Pandora’s box labeled “corporate journalism,” but he also honored the warriors of local community journalism.
Egan squarely blasted parachute journalists who drop in, armed only with their personal biases and corporate instructions, to a usually unreported or undercovered community to inflict their judgments. I’ll grant you that the Washington Post has some local connections in northeastern Wisconsin, but Egan nails it when he writes that visiting journalists look for “the usual suspects.” They ought to be looking at history and facts.
Out here on the limestone life raft, we are blessed with the Pulse, a community-interest medium that maintains the nexus between residents/consumers, economics and government. (A similar argument can be made for the hometown WDOR, but that’s another column.)
Egan described how the Pulse helps build community awareness and volunteerism. When it comes to politics, he scores again when he points out that the most important issues in Door County are local.
Since the 1880s, the county has honed a reputation and behaviors that solidly fit the Republican mold, even as the policies and platforms of both parties have changed incrementally over time.
The GOP format mostly hinged on the role of Edward S. Minor, who earned his spurs for honesty and integrity during the U.S. Civil War, then answered Door County’s call to serve on the county board and in the Wisconsin legislature, and was the only Door County resident ever elected to Congress. He helped to finish the Sturgeon Bay ship canal and made sure the state kept land available to join what are now Highways 42 and 57 in Southern Door – and on and on. Minor remained popular in Congress from 1894 to 1907, but his stamp remained on local governance for decades.
The GOP took a hit in 1960 when the candidacy of John F. Kennedy, like that of Alf Landon in 1936, drew division between the Catholics (primarily Belgians) and Protestants (primarily Norwegians and Germans). But the real change in Door County demographics came with the growing permanency of tourists and owners of summer homes – folks who visited the Cape Cod of the North for more than 100 years before National Geographic touted its charms in 1961.
When outsiders came looking for diversity, Door County had barely stumbled away from early prejudices against Jews to an understanding of race and gender. The real diversity, for better or worse, has been the steady transplanting of newcomers who were ingrained with the habit of voting for Democrats – habitual visitors from Illinois, Missouri and Minnesota.
By the 1990s, the Democrats who were new to the county appeared to outnumber the older residents who were more inclined to vote Republican. And again, Egan has it right that the party labels seem to ring loudest for national races than for the folks elected to oversee schools, fill potholes and regulate zoning and building – the issues that can spell progress or failure.
Politics aside, the real change has been the isolation of the Peninsula Pulse as the only local medium (again with bows to WDOR) to keep track of local news. The shadow of the Door County Advocate now prints mostly restructured stories from outlets in Green Bay and Milwaukee, with decisions on business and publication made in Des Moines and Louisville, and who knows where else.
The impact of corporate greed on the journalism industry rings loudest and local-est in Richard McCord’s The Chain Gang: One Newspaper versus the Gannett Empire. McCord, who edited the Advocate for a year, describes how corporate giants like the one that owns the Advocate and most newspapers in Wisconsin use big dollars to force out competition, corner advertising markets and cover events in ways and for topics that fit their agenda – decisions made by executives in the hunt for diamonds rather than community standards.
Indeed, Door County is fortunate to have the Pulse, and the courage of its owners and staff. By contrast, the Advocate – and community newspapers like it across the U.S. – have become simply a money source rather than a voice of the community. At one time, the peninsula boasted four newspapers; today, it has just one newspaper and one corporate outlet.
Joseph W. Knaapen, a Door County native, was a news reporter and editor for the Door County Advocate from 1988 to 2008. He lives in Brussels.