‘The newspaper is the backbone of the community …’
January 13, 2016
Editor sees bright future for Monroe County newspapers
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
When a newspaper is sold, its editor is usually not optimistic about his future there.
But Pat Mulvaney, editor of The Sparta Herald and Monroe County Democrat in Wisconsin, can hardly contain his enthusiasm over the sale of those newspapers to Greg Evans, a local commercial printer and former lead pressman at those very papers that make up Monroe County Publishers.
Mulvaney believes the purchase was one of the best things to happen in his community.
“Greg is an excellent businessman,” Mulvaney said in a recent phone conversation. “He’s community-minded and supportive, and he has brought enthusiasm for the paper.”
The Sparta Herald and Monroe County Democrat, each 157 years old, were folded into Monroe County Publishers in 1930 by T.C Radde and J.P. Rice. Evans was looking to expand his printing business when the newspapers came up for sale last summer. He closed the deal right before Labor Day and moved his entire printing operation to the newspaper building.
In the world of digital media and online everything, Monroe County Publishers is thriving. The job printing side of the business prints nine newspapers in addition to its own, as well as a host of other local publications. And the staff of 22 is looking to continued growth.
“The sale was a shot in the arm for us,” said Mulvaney, who has been with company since 2000. He became editor of The Sparta Herald in 2005 and was named editor of the Democrat when Evans bought the newspapers last summer.
The Sparta Herald and the Monroe County Democrat, essentially the same newspaper with slightly different content, serve a large county in the southwest quadrant of Wisconsin and a population of less than 45,000. The Herald comes out on Mondays, and the Democrat is published on Thursdays. Each newspaper’s circulation about 4,500.
Evans comes from a large family of publishers, printers and designers. His brother, Tim Evans, is general manager of News-Gazette Community Newspapers in Illinois, according to Mulvaney.
Monroe County Publishers launched a new website on Oct. 1, and it features an electronic PDF edition, weather, breaking news, sports scores, obituaries and photo galleries. After offering free access to readers for three months, the newspaper will ring in the New Year with a paywall. Obituaries, breaking news, and classifieds will remain open, along with story snippets and teasers. But if readers want access to the full site, they will need to subscribe to it. The subscription cost for the print edition or the electronic edition alone is $39. Readers can subscribe to both editions for $49.
“Everyone is struggling, and we can’t give our content away for free,” Mulvaney said.
Readers stay engaged through social media, which Mulvaney reports is going “gangbusters.” The Monroe County Publishers’ Facebook page boasts 623 followers.
Human-interest stories make up the newspapers’ bread and butter coverage, and Mulvaney devotes the front page to features and stories about people in the community.
“Names, names and more names,” he said. “Anytime you can get names in the newspaper, you’ll get readers. People love reading about other people, and we load up the paper with names.”
Despite its heavy load of features and human-interest stories, Mulvaney is careful not to neglect local government and hard issues affecting his readers.
“We respect our watchdog role,” he said. “We attend as many school board meetings, county board meetings and city council meetings as possible.”
With just one general assignment reporter and a sports editor making up Mulvaney’s reporting team, they can’t attend all of the meetings. Yet they manage to keep an eye on local government officials through their sources.
“If anything goes on, we’ll find out about it,” he said. “Someone will let us know.”
Monroe County is a rural area, often called “The Cranberry Capital of Wisconsin.” It is also a haven for cyclists and home to the Elroy-Sparta Trail, a granddaddy of bike trails. The 32-mile route was the first rails-to-trails conversion in the U.S., added to the National Bike Trail Route in 1972, according to the website “ExploreWisconsin.com.”
Mulvaney, who grew up in an Air Force family, spent most of his youth in New Mexico. His family moved to Wisconsin when he was a teenager, and he graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Clair, with a journalism degree. He and his family live on a small inactive dairy farm in Monroe County, which they purchased from his wife’s parents.
Despite competition from a Lee Enterprises daily newspaper in Tomah, a town 25 miles away, The Sparta Herald and Monroe County Democrat are looking to expand into other parts of their county.
The newspaper recently completed a successful saturation run, blanketing the market with the largest edition of the year, a 40-page whopper, printed in four sections and crammed full of inserts. Mulvaney hired freelancers to fill the pages with feature stories, and the advertising sales staff sold ads to support it.
At 18,000, the press run was four times its normal press run.
“It was a huge undertaking with all hands on deck,” Mulvaney said.
The editor likes to refer to his newspaper as “that little pebble that makes a ripple in the pond,” using local stories to tie into the tsunamis of the world and placing local faces on national and international events.
“The newspaper is the backbone of the community as well as a reflection of the community,” he said. “It not only records the day-to-day history of the region, it sets the tone, as well.”
Name of newspaper(s): The Sparta Herald and Monroe County Democrat.
Editor: Pat Mulvaney.
How long have you been editor of The Sparta Herald and Monroe County Democrat? I have been editor of the Sparta Herald since 2005 and added the editorship of the Monroe County Democrat in September 2015 after the sale of the paper to Evans Print & Media Group.
What are their circulations? The circulation of each paper is about 4,500.
What are their publication schedules? The Herald is printed on Mondays, and the Democrat is printed on Thursdays.
Do the newspapers have a mission statement or a motto? Our tagline on the masthead is “Serving the Monroe County area for 156 years.” That is soon to become 157 years. The two papers merged under the umbrella of Monroe County Publishers sometime in the early 1900s.
How many people are employed at the newspaper? We have 22 people on staff, but only three work exclusively in the editorial department. There is me, a sports editor and a reporter. Sparta is the county seat, so we cover the courts and local government, including city, county and schools. We try to lean heavily toward human-interest articles and put an emphasis on sports. The business also has a printing plant with an eight-unit web press that runs up to four pages of processed color. We print seven other community newspapers, along with a university student paper, a few dozen union publications (we are a union shop) and quarterly business newsletters for hospitals and nursing homes. We also have a two-salesmen ad department and two designers who work in newspaper and ad production, among their other duties. Three pressmen run the web press, and the remaining employees are engaged in job work for the printing side of the business.
Discuss briefly your stable of freelancers/stringers. Where do you find them, and how do they benefit the newspapers? I have three stringers who I use to cover the outer regions of the county. One is a former newspaper reporter, one is a professional business writer who strings on the side and the other is an inexperienced writer who answered an ad. She shows promise. They almost exclusively write features. They allow us to expand our coverage area and bring us stories we otherwise likely wouldn’t be aware of. We also use two photographers as stringers, one exclusively for sports and the other for a wider variety of events.
What is the most rewarding aspect of editing a weekly newspaper? The most rewarding aspect of editing a community newspaper is putting out a product that no one can get anywhere else and being able to influence its content. I also like that people trust us for information they know has been substantiated, unlike what can be found on social media.
What are your biggest challenges? Our biggest challenge is the same as all newspapers—remaining relevant. We try to accomplish that by giving readers what they can’t get anywhere else—local sports, a spotlight on people making a difference in the community, community events, community organizations, a forum to publish readers’ opinions. And names—lots and lots of names. Local, local, local is our mantra.
What are your top goals for 2016? Our top goals for 2016 are to expand our coverage area, increase subscriptions and ad revenue, improve our website and take full advantage of social media. We also plan to continue taking full advantage of educational opportunities through seminars and webinars so we can respond and adapt to changes in the industry.
What is your newspapers’ most distinguishing characteristic? I think our newspapers’ most distinguishing characteristic is its focus on positive aspects of the community. We try to keep the front page positive. We still cover the bad and the ugly, but those stories are relegated to the inside of the paper unless they are high profile. While politics, controversy and crime will always be reported in the paper, we think the more constructive attributes of the community should be spotlighted—the student environmental club bringing in the nation’s first food digester in a high school or the senior starting a soup kitchen will almost always trump crime. It’s a balancing act, but we tilt toward the positive. It wasn’t always that way. That is the philosophy our new publisher, Greg Evans, insisted on, and it’s surprising how responsive our readers were to it once it was implemented on the pages. People have noticed our new, upbeat outlook, and we’ve received nothing but positive feedback.
How do you view your newspapers’ roles in the communities they serve? The newspaper is the backbone of the community as well as a reflection of the community. It not only records the day-to-day history of the region, it sets the tone for the community. As a community newspaper, we’re not going to muckrake state government, shift paradigms or even really change somebody’s political persuasion, but we can affect our little corner of the globe by focusing on local issues, local deeds and local controversies. We’re that little pebble that makes a ripple in the pond. We use localize stories to tie into the ocean swells and tsunamis of the news world, placing local faces on national and international events. That’s what we are, and I believe that’s what our readers want.