In part 1 of this three-part series on 20 years of the Peninsula Pulse, we looked at how two liberal arts college graduates, Thomas McKenzie and David Eliot, decided to start a newspaper in Door County. We left them during the severe winter of 1996, working service industry jobs and planning their newspaper in a remote Ellison Bay garage-turned-living quarters, with a St. Bernard named Charley.
The first thing you need when you start a newspaper is a name that people will remember, like The Times-Picayune or The Toledo Blade.
Or the Peninsula Pulse.
“The name was a long conversation,” said Tom McKenzie. “We really liked the alliteration and we liked the possibility with the graphics. We actually made a coffee table that was a double P, out of plywood and iron pipe. At the end of the day, we had a list of a dozen names. I have no idea what those other ones were. This one made us laugh and smile the most and stuck in our brains the most.”
After the long winter of plotting their publishing future, Eliot and McKenzie launched Volume 1, Issue 1 of the Peninsula Pulse on May 24, 1996. It was an eight-page edition with five ads. It promised “a comprehensive entertainment section, along with features, opinions, sports and a forum for a wide variety of artists.”
That first issue included a column titled “Subway Evangelism,” written by Don “Cheeks” Jones, whose column mug showed him in mortarboard and gown; a kayaking column called “Wet Exit” by Phil Arnold; a golf column called “Greener Side” by Chris “Fuzzy” Hanaway, in which Fuzzy “reviews the door’s pesticide ridden golf courses”; a featured band of the week (The Brooker Band); four poems; a short story; and a review of Tom Robbins’ novel Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas.
“Poetry in a newspaper? What is that doing there?” Eliot said. “The point was, why limit yourself on entry points to the publication? The point is to get as many people to pick it up as possible. If they identify with one thing, hopefully it will draw their eyes to the 30 other things in there. We had Ellen Kort [the late Wisconsin Poet Laureate from Appleton] writing poetry in the beginning. We had really good poets right away.
“We thought the literariness of it would grow,” Eliot continued. “The more people got their hands on the Pulse, the bigger it got. That’s what we thought, if you find a way to just keep presenting an ideal, people love other people’s stories. You find attachments to different pieces of other people’s lives and the commonality that links you together. How can we connect with all that stuff? It was, ‘Hey, we think we can find voices people will connect with.’”
“The paper was founded on the entertainment section being a thing,” McKenzie said. “We were publishing the philosophical musings of our college friends in the first few issues. It was all really fun to read. The entertainment listings are what people wanted. ‘I’m here for the weekend and I want to have the best time possible.’ When we moved from that to the gallery guide, I think we matured into connecting with a broader cultural community.”
Eliot will be the first to tell you that neither he nor McKenzie were business minded.
“None of us had a business background. All we knew, we had to balance a checkbook,” he said. “OK, if we can keep enough coming in to pay for this and maybe pay our rent. The money we make at our other jobs allows us to experience this place and tell those stories. The idea of a business plan, something was put together but it became more a fly as high as you can, but don’t get your wings get clipped. We never wanted to get in so much debt that we couldn’t get out of it, but we wanted to push the boundaries as much as we can. Both of us were working at other jobs 40 to 60 hours a week and putting out a newspaper on the side. You can say we were young and dumb, but we were young and had energy. Some of our days could be 20 hours long and it was OK. The excitement we got out of that kept us going.”
The first issue contained five small ads.
“The Peninsula Players advertised with us right away because of the family connection [to Tom McKenzie; see Part 1 for details], but I’ll never forget people like Jacinda Duffin and her family,” Eliot said. “She and her sisters owned the Village Café [in Egg Harbor] and were one of the first advertisers. They worked really hard in the restaurant, and they were part of the service industry. They understood we were trying something new together.”
“All the logistics was cultivating relationships we already had with the restaurateurs, barkeeps and small business owners we knew from being up there, and the cultural community I knew,” McKenzie said. “We built up from that, trying to get to know everybody else who was trying to make their mark in the tourist market. If we got to know them and we liked their product, we could help them communicate to the audience.”
And they could do that through the desktop publishing model of newspapering.
“We were offering free layout and design and a pretty low-cost ad. You could get a small, designed ad in the paper for a nominal fee,” McKenzie said. “‘Hey, just give it a try.’ That allowed us to build. We weren’t going after the big fish. We inverted the model. We worked with as many people as we could at as small a level as they were comfortable with. The bigger advertisers will come when they see the infrastructure is in place.”
‘We Need Food’
One of those early advertisers went on to play a significant role in the newspaper’s history. On page 18 in the August 15, 1997, issue — year two of the Pulse — a full-color ad for Dano’s Peninsula Pizza appeared.
“My brother [Daniel] and I started a restaurant when I was 16 to help us pay for college,” said Myles Dannhausen, Jr. “It was growing and growing. One day I came across the Pulse. I picked one up and thought, somebody’s doing this thing in Door County that is kind of funny with local inside jokes, a bunch of young guys. I called them and said, ‘I’d love you to drop these off at our pizza place.’ As a young kid and local, I thought this actually sounds like the community I know. It connected with me more than anything else I’d been seeing.”
One fateful day, Dave Eliot and Tom McKenzie showed up at Dano’s.
“I said I’d like to advertise, but we didn’t have an advertising budget,” Dannhausen said. “So they said, ‘We need food. How about if we trade an ad for pizzas?’ So that’s what we did. I would deliver pizzas to them. It was like five days a week they would be getting pizzas. That’s when my brother said, ‘I wonder if this trade is working out for us?’”
Little did the two newspaper entrepreneurs know they were making a connection that continues to this day.
Dannhausen grew up getting off the school bus to dig into his grandmother’s Chicago Tribune sports pages.
“I always saw myself becoming a writer, a sports writer,” he said. “At some point, Dave asked if I would want to write a sports column. It was always late, always missing deadlines, setting a precedent for the rest of my time at the Pulse.”
After attending Madison to become a sportswriter, and then being around actual sportswriters, Dannhausen decided it was not how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. But he wasn’t done with writing or the Pulse. [We’ll catch up with Myles in Part 3.]
The Wonderful World of Color
Right from the start, the Pulse added color to its world, with color front pages, inside photos and ads.
“That was a radical step,” McKenzie said. “I credit Dave for that. It invited you to grab it first before anything else on the counter.”
“It wasn’t perfect in those early days. You can look at it and the plates didn’t line up,” Eliot said. “But we were one of the first to bring color to Door County and showed that it could be done.”
The first cover of the second year, on May 23, 1997, not only featured a color photo, but it began a relationship with photographer Dan Eggert. Like McKenzie, Eggert was from Appleton. The pair met in junior high school.
Eggert made his first trip to Door County in 1996 during a camping trip to Rock Island. McKenzie knew about Eggert’s interest in photography, so asked for some of Eggert’s photos of his Rock Island visit.
“Next thing I know, the Pulse comes out and there’s me on the cover from the Rock Island trip,” Eggert said. “It was pretty funny. That was kind of the start of it for me. Things just rolled from there.”
The next year, Eggert was asked to be the Pulse photographer.
“He took photos and became a dear friend,” Eliot said. “He was self-educated in photography and I was somewhat self-educated in newspapers. Let’s take this common interest and keep doing what you’re doing.”
“They couldn’t afford to pay me,” Eggert recalls. “We had a trade out with Peninsula Photo Imaging. I would get three rolls of film and free developing for each issue. That was my payment at the time.”
That situation eventually changed during Eggert’s 14 years with the Pulse, but there were other benefits of the job that he is grateful for.
“It really helped develop my photography skills,” he said. “It gave me the freedom to go out and get photos. It really developed my eye. And when it came to Door County, I got to meet everybody. I met all the artists and business owners, either through photography or delivery. That was probably the biggest benefit. This is home to me.
“It was a great experience,” Eggert continued. “The Pulse is what made me who I am today when it comes to photography. Without that, I would probably be an amateur photographer doing it for a hobby. If it wasn’t for the Pulse, I wouldn’t be in galleries right now. The gallery owners know me from that. It was such a big part of my life.”
Although Eggert considers Door County home, it is only his summer home. For the past dozen years he has spent the winter in Lake Tahoe. At one point, he was considering moving to Lake Tahoe year round. After 14 years with the Pulse, Eggert decided to move on and recommended fellow Door County photographer Len Villano to replace him.
“I was ready to move on,” Eggert said. “It helped me build where I am today, so I’m very grateful for everything that happened. It was time after 14 years to move on.”
Exit Tom McKenzie
Incrementally, issue by issue, as McKenzie was out delivering the newspaper or gathering ads, he felt credibility growing for the young publication.
“We were growing on instinct and perceived demand, and a real ambitiousness that paid off,” he said. “Every issue was bigger than the last. And those first five years, every year we did something bigger than the last year. I’m not sure when we reached 10,000 copies, but that was a milestone. We were probably doing that by year two or certainly by year three. That became a major milestone. It seemed like an ambitious push and almost frightening, but one that paid off. I credit Dave for pushing that ambitious target and having the vision for it.”
Another milestone McKenzie mentions is deciding to have an annual literary contest of poetry and short stories.
“I always wanted to figure out how we could run more literary work, like you would see in the old Saturday Evening Post, when they would put in a chapter from an emerging novelist’s work,” McKenzie said. “Both Dave and I wanted to figure out how to frame that. The literary contest was a way to do that.”
Both McKenzie and Eliot had come to know Hal Grutzmacher through his then endeavor as owner of Passtimes Books in Sister Bay. But Grutzmacher was also a respected English professor and academician.
“When the Pulse was getting started, Tom McKenzie would come and visit my dad or I to pick our brains and bounce ideas off us,” recalled Hal’s son, Steve Grutzmacher. “When Tom delivered the paper, he would hang out and find out what we thought of it.”
When Hal died in 1998, McKenzie asked the Grutzmacher family if the Pulse could run a literary contest named for Hal, and that year the Hal Grutzmacher Prize was born (now known simply as the Hal Prize).
“The Hal Grutzmacher literary contest was a major milestone for us,” McKenzie said. “No. 1, his death was an event in the community, and I connected with Hal at the store a lot. We were able to recognize a community legend and give readers and all the contributors something really exciting. We found a lot of voices that maybe were never going to be seen or heard by anybody else.”
Around the turn of the century, Eliot began thinking about the next big push for the Pulse — going year round.
“It was always something we were going to do,” he said. “We both decided to make a living with this. It wasn’t just going to be a hobby.”
“Dave decided the next push for the paper was to go year round, which was bold,” McKenzie said. “That turned conversation into turning the editorial position and outreach from a tourist market to the community at large. Right about this time, The Advocate was bought up by Gannett. We hadn’t even grasped the ramifications of that, but it did set up the Peninsula Pulse to be the locally owned and operated publication of Door County. And it opened up something to what Dave and I talked about for a long time, attending town meetings and real community journalism. We just didn’t have the resources in the beginning.”
“I was opening a coffee shop in the morning and waiting tables at night, so how could I do an in-depth story?” Eliot said. “Tom was doing the same exact thing. If we decided to go into that kind of journalism, it wasn’t sustainable at that time. It was trying to find the right people to do it. It had to be people with the same passion because we didn’t have the resources.”
Meanwhile, people were growing up and thinking about their circumstances.
“It was a little club for a while. It didn’t matter if we stayed up all night to put it together and then drive it to get printed and then go to work. You didn’t get crabby at anybody, because it was fun,” Eliot said. “But as you grow up, people are pulling you in different directions. That put other outside stresses on this thing. In 2001, we both started to feel those pulls. We said, this is the year we’re going to make a go of it.”
But at the end of the 2001 season in Door County, McKenzie packed up his pickup truck, attended a friend’s wedding in Florida and then drove cross-country to Los Angeles where his girlfriend Jill, a Sturgeon Bay native, was attending art school.
“I remember thinking I might be back next summer. But I wasn’t fixed in my mind either way,” McKenzie said. “I had a lot to deal with when I got here and I didn’t have a set plan other than to stoke the flames of this relationship with Jill and just survive, but knowing that I would be happy to go back to Door County if it doesn’t work out.”
But it did work out. Fifteen years after leaving Door County, Tom and Jill are married and he works as a development manager for the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.
“As soon as he said he’s leaving, I said, I’ve got to get serious,” Eliot said. “There was a mutual understanding that if I’m working, I’m going to get paid and you’re not, but it’s here if you want it. I never viewed it as, Tom’s leaving and it’s mine now. There was always the idea that he might be back.”
While McKenzie said he misses the Pulse, he’s also happy with his life and proud of what the Pulse has become.
“The thing I’m most proud of at the Pulse, it’s providing a good livelihood for people in the community and telling a good story about the community. Now it’s a shop that employs a lot of people, and people who formerly did have careers in the older model,” he said. “I love the Pulse and I’m very proud of it.”
In the third and final chapter of this series about the first 20 years of the Peninsula Pulse, Dave Eliot gets a new business partner and adds news reporting to the publication. Read it in the winter issue of Door County Living.