Shereen Siewert had compiled a long, award-winning, and sometimes tumultuous time in broadcast, print, and digital media, when, in the winter of 2017, she came to her biggest career crossroads. Her 20 years of experience included a long stint as an on-air radio personality, nearly four years as an investigative reporter for Gannett in Wisconsin and, most recently, one year as news editor at a well-established print-only alt-weekly in Wausau, the medium-sized city in Central Wisconsin where she grew up and raised a family.
Siewert had taken her job at the Wausau weekly to return to her first journalistic love—local news. At her previous employer, Gannett Wisconsin Media—a group of small- and medium-size dailies where she had been on the investigative team—Siewert had lived with the pain of successive rounds of newsroom cuts and a strategic shift away from local to more cost-effective regional news at the chain’s seven dailies.
“This is the way to go,” Siewert told herself and her husband, Darren. But it wasn’t long before she knew she was on the wrong career path. She found she wasn’t happy with the weekly’s menu of “light news and entertainment.”
“This was not the kind of news I was used to covering,” she said. “I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied. Finally, my husband said, ‘Why don’t you start your own newspaper?’”
In this Q&A, Siewert talks about the biggest move in her career—an exciting but risky gamble in which she would give up the security of a weekly paycheck to strike out on her own as an entrepreneurial, independent publisher.
How did you react to your husband’s suggestion?
At first, I thought it was completely undo-able. But then I started to do some research. If I wanted to start my own online-only publication, what would it take? Would it be a for-profit or nonprofit? How would I pay for things?
After a lot of research, I decided to go for it. I knew it was a risk, a big one, but I also felt strongly that local news coverage was suffering in Wausau and there was a real, marketable gap to be filled. I chose the nonprofit model and applied for nonprofit status. And then I got to work, building the site on my own. I watched a ton of videos and experimented a lot with different WordPress themes, then found one I liked and customized it, bit by bit.
I did all this in my spare time while I was still working at the weekly. Once I had things relatively in place, I had to figure out how I was going to fund it. First, I put together a business plan and went to a longtime friend for a loan. It was a big ask, and I wasn’t at all sure he was going to say yes. We talked for a few hours, and then he said he wasn’t going to give me the loan. Instead, he was going to give me the money as a grant through his family’s private foundation—enough to fund my operation for two full years. I was stunned.
With this financial cushion, I decided, “I’m going to do it.” I gave a one-month notice at the weekly, and, as soon as I walked out the door, I started working on this thing full force.
I anticipated I would ease into launching Wausau Pilot & Review, a name taken from the city’s first two newspapers in the 1800s, a little bit gradually. But the local Chamber of Commerce, which I had just joined, decided to put out a news release saying we were up and running. I wasn’t live yet, but the new release forced my hand and I had to launch a week earlier that I intended. We went live on March 11, 2017.
What happened during that unscheduled launch?
Shortly after our launch, there was a significant multiple homicide in Wausau. Four people were killed at different locations. One was a police officer. There was a long standoff, and the suspect was shot and he died a short time later.
This action went on for hours. I sat at my desk with my scanner and updated the story constantly through the day. I have had a lot of experience covering breaking news, especially crime and public safety, so I was able to handle this pretty well. My husband took off in his car to get photos and a former journalist and friend of mine who lived near the standoff sent me eyewitness accounts and videos.
Our coverage attracted an enormous amount of attention. I hate to say we benefitted from such an awful tragedy, but that event certainly put us on the map.
Did this affect how you now sized up your big career gamble?
I now knew this project was not only getting to be viable but it was also going to be important. People in the community recognized that, and word started to spread. We were attracting more and more readers and Facebook followers, and the site took off from there.
Shortly after that, we launched an investigation into some local government activities regarding a multi-million-dollar redevelopment project, and that drew a lot of attention as well and gave us a reputation for excellent and hard journalism that focused on local news—which had been missing in the community for some time.
With the Pilot & Review now getting wide attention, did you move to capitalize on this for your publication as a business?
I stayed totally involved on the editorial side. I had the two years of funding, and my expectation was that I wouldn’t start selling ads on the site for about a year from my March 2017 launch. But people started coming to us and asking how they could advertise.
At about the six-month mark, we starting taking ads. I had to work hard to think like a business person rather than a journalist, and it was all new to me—how to price the ads, how to sell them and how to design them. That was something completely out of my comfort zone. It was a whole new challenge.
We slowly started selling ads, but we weren’t reaching out to merchants and saying we can spread the word about your business. We were just taking what came in the door.
How about business like payroll and staffing?
I didn’t pay myself a lot, but I did pay myself something, which I think is important. Selling ads allowed me to grow the business by hiring an editorial assistant who works three days a week. We now have someone who reviews food videos. We’ve hired a team of local sports journalists to cover high school athletics. We have a group of “citizen documenters” who basically cover government meetings and other local events.
We don’t call them journalists because they come from a variety of backgrounds and aren’t degreed journalists, per se. We train the documenters to know what to look for when they go to a meeting. We pay them. We make sure they have an understanding of what they are going to document. We make it very clear to readers what the documenters produce.
My husband was able to leave his job and handle ad sales full time. If I had to hire an ad person with a salary and commissions, it probably wouldn’t have worked. Seventy-five percent of the advertising on the site right now has been what Darren has been able to sell in the past two months.
Your “siren” coverage of crime news includes an extensive gallery of mug shots of defendants. What’s behind that?
We publish these galleries weekly with the cooperation of the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department. I know these mug shots can be controversial. But we feel strongly and law enforcement feels strongly that these mug shots are a tool they can use against crime. They alert the public to criminal behavior in their neighborhoods. They can also help prevent crime and are considered a deterrent. In some cases, mugshot galleries have helped victims identify scam artists who were trying to defraud them and child abusers who were watching their children. The gallery is not meant to shed a negative light on the Wausau area, but to keep residents informed and stimulate conversation about critical issues the community faces.
What kind of news coverage is No. 1 with your readers?
Our “siren” stories get the most pageviews, but the most important stories for our readers are the ones about local government. A week ago, we sent to readers our annual survey and asked them to name the most important story for the year so far. Hands down, it was our coverage about a developer who had a significant criminal background, including being accused of being involved in a $8 million Ponzi scheme. The developer was part of a team getting public funds from the City of Wausau through a public-private partnership for a multi-million-dollar mixed-used redevelopment project, Riverlife Village, on the Wisconsin River in the downtown area.
As a result of that story, anyone who applies for that kind of public-private project now has to go through background and credit checks before they get any public funding. It was a significant change in the way Wausau protects taxpayers and something that wouldn’t have come to light without our reporting.
After a little more than a year and a half of operation, how is the Pilot & Review doing in readership?
We’re at about 500,000 pageviews a month and 200,000 visitors. That’s in a city of 40,000 and a county of 250,000.
You’ve got a membership program with fees ranging from $9 to $20 to $25 a month for the “silver, gold and platinum” levels and a “patron” level that is $300 annually. Any results yet?
We just launched this initiative and it is in its early stages, with about 25 people signed up so far. I don’t think it will be our prime source of revenue. Ad sales are our biggest chunk of revenue right now.
What about grant funding? Do you receive any of that?
We regularly apply for grant funding and have been successful in receiving it. We received $4,000 from the Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin to help fund our documenters program, for example. We also received a $2,500 grant from the Solutions Journalism Network to document efforts of a grassroots environmental group here. And we’re working on a project to highlight the people of Wausau in a project funded in part by the B.A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation.
Based on your experience making the big jump from being a journalist depending on a paycheck to becoming an independent entrepreneurial publisher, what advice do you have for other journalists who come to a similar career crossroads?
Look for the gaps in the industry and fill them in. You have to know how you’re going to fund it. You have to pay yourself something and you have to be able to sustain your operation, and that requires a plan. Otherwise it won’t work.