Twenty Years with a ‘Pulse’: Part 3 – The History of the Peninsula Pulse

In parts one and two of this series on the first 20 years of the Peninsula Pulse we looked at how the newspaper was started by two liberal arts graduates, up until 2001 when one of the founders, Thomas McKenzie, moved to Los Angeles. We take up this final installment with a new business partner and a new direction for the publication.

When David Eliot’s business partner Thomas McKenzie left the Peninsula Pulse in 2001, five years after it started, it only made him more determined to see the upstart publication succeed.

“It was more stubbornness that kept it going,” he said. “I wasn’t looking at numbers. I wasn’t analyzing the publication from a financial standpoint. Some people said I couldn’t do it. That’s when I dug my heels in.”

Unwittingly, McKenzie developed a connection with an adventurous young woman named Madeline Johnson, who was introduced to Door County as a child by her parents.

“My dad used to come here as a kid and my parents honeymooned here in 1968,” she said. “My parents were workaholic types when we were young. They decided when we were little, they would come to Door County religiously once a month, a six-hour drive each way. Most of our family time was in the car coming up to Door County. We would come up for a week or two in the summer. Door County always felt like home to me.”

The summer of 1998, before starting her senior year in college, she came to Door County to work.

“I taught sailing and did some other odd jobs, and I was bitten by the Door County bug,” she said. “That first summer I worked at the Ephraim sailing center, and worked with Tom McKenzie. Tom and I became buddies right away. Tom being Tom, he was always, ‘Hey, can I borrow your car to deliver some newspapers?’”

It soon went from Tom borrowing Madeline’s car to Madeline and her friend delivering the Pulse on Fridays.

“That’s kind of how I got started,” she said. “Shortly after that, Tom had pushed me into doing a little bit of writing. The next summer I started writing a little more, helped deliver papers and started doing the events calendar. I think that made up a lot of actual content.”

She stayed through the fall that second year, and then headed west before returning to Door County for a summer/fall/winter before going to South America for a year.

Which brings us to 2002. The year after Tom McKenzie left to pursue his dreams in California, Madeline returned to Door County.

“I used to joke that Door County has a magnetic field and it kept sucking me back,” she said.

Meanwhile, Dave Eliot had taken a marketing job with John Nelson’s Open Door Communications.

“He was fine with me doing this [the Pulse] on the side. It kind of coincided,” Eliot said.

Recognizing the valuable organizational and business skills Madeline could bring to the Pulse operation but knowing that he could not afford her, he got her a job with Nelson’s company.

“John Nelson said, ‘If you pay half of Madeline’s salary I’ll pay the other half,’” Eliot said. “I took half of what I made and gave it to Madeline so she would work for me.”

“I wanted to do it,” Madeline said. “I knew it was not a get-rich-quick scheme, but it was a cool thing to be doing. I was 24, 25 at that point and I thought, this has a lot more heart and soul than any other thing I could be doing.”

This also marked another major turning point for the organization — managing a payroll.

“It was all contributors until early 2002 when Madeline and Roger Kuhns joined,” Eliot said.

Today Roger Kuhns is well known as a speaker and writer on topics that include the environment and the Niagara Escarpment. He’s also a musician, entertainer and thoroughly genial character. But Dave Eliot describes him better.

Madeline Johnson (now Harrison) and Roger Kuhns at Leroy’s Water St. Coffee, a Pulse hangout.

Madeline Johnson (now Harrison) and Roger Kuhns at Leroy’s Water St. Coffee, a Pulse hangout.

“And then Roger Kuhns came in as this Indiana Jones guy, been all over the world, done all these things, had a great education. He used to do presentations that would have made some rock concerts seem small. He had a cult following.

“Roger drew up this big business plan,” Eliot continued, “then Roger got elected to the county board and the newspaper started having these conflicts of interest questions. The county board called us into question — if somebody is on the county board and writing about it, that’s a violation of ethics.”

Kuhns recalls a Frank Capra-esque moment, with Eliot using the ethics accusation as a lesson in democracy.

“Dave Eliot said, ‘This seems to restrict public dialogue, which is the foundation of a democracy, and for creative ideas for solving our world’s growing problems,’” Kuhns said. “Dave was great. He and I sat side by side in the Administrative Committee meeting, and he held his ground.”

While Kuhns and Eliot were setting a course for the Pulse as a news source, Madeline, who had been willing to do whatever needed to be done, including delivering the pages to the printer in Kenosha, saw a new way to pitch in.

“By spring of 2002 it was pretty clear I needed to go out and sell ads and get involved in the business side of things to help keep things moving. We had to wear a lot of hats,” she said.

Selling was new to her, but she jumped right in.

“My dad’s a really great salesperson. I think I take after him a lot. I’m an assertive personality,” she said. “What Tom and Dave started, they got it from absolutely nothing to the point where I came in. I don’t want to diminish that hard work. I guess there was a certain desperation, too. I wanted to get paid. We all needed to get paid. The printer had to be paid. We had to keep the lights on. I felt there wasn’t really a choice about it, but I think I had some natural personality traits that helped make it work. That was fun, too. I actually enjoyed a lot of that. You get to meet all the Door County characters. A lot of those first customers from those first years are my best customers. They’ve really stopped being customers and have become friends.”

Kuhns eventually left for a job that offered more money, “but I do miss working with that great team,” he said, adding, “From me, a huge thank you to the Pulse, especially for Dave’s vision and Madeline’s incredible work, and everyone else from those days up to now.”

Kuhns’ departure left a newswriting gap at the Pulse, but an industrious young Egg Harbor man who had become a fan of the newspaper in the beginning soon would make his mark on the Pulse.

“One day I came across the first issue of the Pulse,” said Myles Dannhausen, Jr. “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. As a young kid and local, I thought this actually sounds like the community I know. Even though it was just an eight-page flyer, it connected with me more than anything else I’d been seeing.”

At the time, Dannhausen and his brother were running a pizza place in Egg Harbor. He called the owners of the Pulse and said he would like to have them drop them off at the pizza place for their customers.

“Tom and Dave came down. I told them we’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 pizza to Dave and Tom. 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?’”

But Dannhausen, whose first ambition had been to become a sports writer like the guys he read regularly in his grandmother’s copy of The Chicago Tribune, loved what they were doing.  

“All these guys trying to crank out a little paper on crappy old computers. The office was just a mess because everyone was working one or two other jobs,” he said. “At some point, Dave asked if I would want to write a sports column. I was always late anyways, missing deadlines, setting a precedent for the rest of my time at the Pulse. It started a long tradition of Dave hounding me for stuff.”

Eventually they started offering Dannhausen money to write a couple of news stories or a feature or something on music or nightlife.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to these things anyway and they’re going to pay me,’” Dannhausen said.

But he wasn’t making enough money to live on, and he felt the world calling. He decided to take a break and head out west.

“I spent three months just driving around the west, trying to figure out the next step,” Dannhausen said, adding that he was considering moving west to attend college and pursue a political science degree. Then he heard from Dave Eliot with a proposition for him.

“They cobbled enough different roles together where I could come back and say this is an opportunity. If they hadn’t done that, I would have stayed out west. I’m glad they did that.”

Myles Dannhausen, Jr., leaving the Pulse office in Baileys Harbor to cover a story.

Myles Dannhausen, Jr., leaving the Pulse office in Baileys Harbor to cover a story.

Dannhausen dug in and started reporting news, but often found himself having to explain the Pulse to people.

“The Advocate was the paper. And the Pulse was an artsy-fartsy kind of thing. That’s what most people would say,” Dannhausen said. “So when I started calling people up about news, say for a zoning issue and stuff, it was hard to get people to call back because a lot of people didn’t know what the Pulse was. I’d go to a meeting and they wouldn’t acknowledge me, but then someone from the Advocate would come in and they’d say, ‘Oh, good, we’ve got the paper here.’ So that was hard.”

But, suddenly, as he kept plugging away at hard news, people started calling back.

“There came a time, too, people started reaching out to me with story ideas, town board members, concerned citizens, village presidents, seeing us as the ones to take on an issue or tell the story,” he said. “Suddenly people are saying, you should write about this news topic.”

Dannhausen recalls another big turning point, when he took a call from well-known Door County naturalist Roy Lukes.

“He told me that he was looking at leaving the Advocate because he didn’t like Gannett and was wondering if he could come to the Pulse and would we be interested,” Dannhausen said. “You would always see his picture in the paper. He was part of old guard, respected Door County. I got off the phone and was excited and thought, we must be legit if people want to leave Gannett and come to write for us. It was great that we were seen as an alternative.”

From 2003 to 2011 Dannhausen made his mark on Door County with stories that appeared in the Peninsula Pulse and Door County Living (the monthly magazine was added to the fold in the 21st century, but that is a story for another time).

“What was good, it’s great to work for people who have your back,” Dannhausen said. “Dave and Madeline always gave you the benefit of the doubt and had my back. If they didn’t, maybe I would have been afraid to write certain things. Knowing that they would take your side from the get-go, it gives you a lot more confidence to keep taking stabs at it.”

In 2012, Dannhausen moved to Chicago where so many of his Door County friends had moved and where his sister and nieces and nephews were.

“I thought I would sever ties with the Pulse, or I thought I might write things but not at the level I still do,” he said. “Those guys are hard to sever. My parents are still there. I still have a lot of friends there. I feel there are so many stories in my head that I still want to write about up there, I still care so much about the community. Sometimes I wish I could let it go more, but I haven’t been able to.”

In 2004 a recent college graduate with a degree in English and philosophy snagged a summer internship with the Pulse that turned into a full-time job.

“This is one of those stories about how in Door County we get to play by different rules. It’s not the same atmosphere that corporate newspapers face in big cities,” said Allison Vroman, who began as a Pulse summer intern in 2004 and advanced to editor before leaving in 2012. “Dave and Madeline were looking for ways to grow the paper and they took a smart approach through planning to do that. Not biting off too much, taking things incrementally. Increasing year to year, rather than trying to make the leap in one fell swoop. I think they were very wise in how they moved forward.”

Vroman’s first experience was copywriting and writing a column as an intern. After that season, she spent the winter in Colorado, and was then hired by the Pulse as a staff writer, eventually progressing to editor, and seeing the Pulse become a more professional newspaper along the way.

“Thinking back to my first staff meeting to my last, the ways in which they were able to fine tune the process without losing any authenticity is what I was most impressed with,” she said. “The paper really has paid attention to its audience over the years and the growth of that audience has allowed the paper to grow. The original intent was an alternative news and entertainment source. Over the years, the community was really looking for someone to fill more of the mainstream niche. I think the Pulse was able to fill that void without losing its identify or its independence or original unique flavor of what Door County is or what it should be.”

Office dog Otto on the Peninsula Pulse “P” table.

Office dog Otto on the Peninsula Pulse “P” table.

People have come and gone in the first 20 years of the Peninsula Pulse, but the mission to provide news and entertainment for the people of Door County remains the same.

“I could never anticipated any of this,” Eliot said. “The path started and I just followed it. This is what I do now. We choose to take certain steps in our lives and it’s really hard to change the path. I don’t regret any of the steps I’ve taken and I look forward to what’s coming up. I have been introduced to all sorts of interesting people and I always think there is a way we can be better as a newspaper, as a website, as a delivery company, and as a contributor and participant in our community. To me it’s satisfying and fun to serve our community. I was raised on the idea that it’s not about how much money you make, it’s what you contribute and give back to your community. That is what Door County is all about, a community that takes care of one another. It’s what keeps people coming here. It is an honor to be a part of it.”


The Next Chapter

In the last 20 years the Peninsula Pulse has seen many incredible people on its pages. It continues to be a pleasure to work beside so many talented people. Many great memories have been brought back sorting through old photographs while reflecting on the history of the publication.

It was and continues to be an adventure we look forward to every day.

The Door County community took a little while to warm up to our little rag of a newspaper in 1996 and we had our growing pains. When Tom McKenzie and I first dreamed up the idea of a publication, we never imagined what it is today. All the people that have passed in and out of the Pulse’s pages and through the office doors have taught me so much and we owe so much of the business’s growth and personal growth to them. We are deeply grateful to each and every individual who at one time or another contributed to the publication.

Over the last 15 years there has been one constant in the operations, growth and emergence of the Peninsula Pulse — Madeline Harrison. She started delivering papers, went on to manage the events calendar, write articles and then became my business partner in 2003. She and I have puzzled through some tough challenges and weathered a few storms. It has been an honor to work with her and the paper has grown exponentially under our collective watch.

2017, however, will be the beginning of a new chapter of the publication. Madeline Harrison is leaving the Pulse to pursue her next adventure. She is looking forward to what the world will offer beyond the editing and deadlines. It is hard to imagine the office without Madeline in it, but we wish her the best and owe her a great debt of gratitude.

Madeline has helped build a strong foundation for the Pulse and as the page turns to the next chapter we will continue to grow and evolve and find even more ways to deliver the news, events, and stories of Door County to the community that we love.

Thanks for reading.

David Eliot

Publisher, Peninsula Pulse


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