Image by Lauren Friedlander
Image by Lauren Friedlander

UpNorthNews launched one year ago to highlight Wisconsin people, places, issues, and all the things that make our state worth caring for.

There’s only one thing more plentiful than the snowflakes that fell across Wisconsin this week, and that’s the number of year-end editorials that remind us what a dumpster fire 2020 turned out to be. 

We will not add to that number today except to note that we mourn those we lost, we pray for those who still face a long recovery, we give thanks for the reminders of what really matters in our lives, and we eagerly await a new chapter in American leadership.

For us, looking back at 2020 also means reflecting on the experience of starting a statewide digital newsroom from scratch, long before the pandemic came along and upended everyone’s plans and dreams. 

We knew America would be looking “up north” for news because of Wisconsin’s swing-state status in the year’s presidential election, and so we endeavored to share stories of Wisconsin’s people—to show how our neighbors and friends have been impacted at the local level by decisions made in places that may be far away but should also feel as close to us as our local voting booth.

We approached this new endeavor with the goal of living up to a frequently used analogy: If one person says it’s cloudy and another person says it’s sunny, it’s not the journalist’s job to report both sides evenly. It’s the journalist’s job to open the damn window and write whether it’s cloudy or sunny. Call it like we see it. And as our very full mailbag attests, we successfully filled a spot on the Wisconsin media landscape overdue for fact-based coverage with perspective, candor, and a little fun.

That’s why, for example, a story we shared early in the pandemic took you back several years to a time when Republican legislators and former Gov. Scott Walker passed a law preventing local governments from mandating paid sick leave from private sector businesses. The unintended consequences became apparent nearly a decade later as employees faced life-or-death decisions about going to work during a pandemic. Death was the outcome in many instances, from Green Bay’s meatpacking plants to a Milwaukee factory and beyond.

Even when the coronavirus outbreak became widespread in our state, some politicians continued to put profits over people. They killed safeguards. They opposed relief for families, farmers, and small businesses. They even used last-minute amendments to relief legislation to attack workers and first responders. 

Stories like these don’t fit neatly in the traditional “both sides” scripts that come out of still-too many newsrooms. It’s disrespectful to readers, viewers or listeners to tell them “Congress” is deadlocked on a relief package, for example, when only one group in Congress is the impediment. Equally disrespectful is stenography such as parroting a politician’s line that they oppose stimulus checks because of “deficit concerns” while leaving out the part about there being no similar concern expressed when a $2 trillion tax bill was debated and passed.

By including that context, does it make a story more agenda-driven than the other? No. One story is more complete than the other. That perspective is what we’ve tried to bring when we illustrate what’s happening with real people whose real needs are being helped, harmed, or ignored by people in power.

Our stories have served as a reminder that Wisconsin’s successes or failings are not determined primarily by Wall Street records, corporate efficiencies, political donations, or short-term outcomes. Wisconsin succeeds or fails based on the fortunes of individual farmers, factory workers, healthcare providers, educators, entrepreneurs, students, parents, and the health of our resources. The big question we cover daily is whether the people in capitol corridors—in Madison and in Washington—are providing opportunities for success or setting up roadblocks.

As managing editor, it would be impossible to provide a right-sized list of the stories our team produced that give me the most pride or even best illustrate the caliber of our work. But let me try to offer a few examples of the news items and the slice-of-life feature stories that got noticed in the past year.

It didn’t take long to realize the coronavirus outbreak was hitting communities of color a lot harder than others. It was also around that time that Americans were horrified to see a real-time police execution. Piloted by Associate Editor Jessica VanEgeren, our team did a series of stories illustrating the existence and impact of systemic racism in the criminal justice system, the healthcare system, and the education system.

Wisconsin farmers received some overdue attention, even before the pandemic struck, because we wanted to illustrate how trade wars and bad legislation and Washington mismanagement were hurting families back home. And rather than lay out just another sad story of a farm auction, we outlined how the Trump administration had changed the very definition of organic farming, allowing big corporate operations to flood the market and price out Wisconsin families who’d found an economic niche.

We put a human face, a Wisconsin face, on the pandemic early on with dispatches from a Hayward-area nurse who volunteered in a Brooklyn hospital. The crushing wave of death was real, and if more of our state’s leaders had paid attention to this reality earlier, maybe they wouldn’t have been in denial about how COVID-19 was more than a New York problem or a Milwaukee problem. As illustrated this week, the waves of death in rural Wisconsin are equally real.

We are blessed to recognize that even in unprecedented times, Wisconsinites can still demonstrate what makes our state special. You were able to see late-night paczki making and early morning paczki consuming on Fat Tuesday. You were given a front row seat at the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison. You were taken to a drive-in theater as the nearly-forgotten relics received new life as a venue for high school graduation ceremonies and other events that provided social distance and fresh air.

We took more than a few day trips to Wisconsin spots featuring great food and drink while winding along the Mississippi, circling Lake Winnebago, descending into a rebranded “wine cave,” and checking in on the many beautiful wedding venues that hope to have a much more active 2021.

And, yes, we covered politics, policy, our first pandemic election, our most unusual presidential election, and court case after court case after court case reaffirming the results, even if some of our own leaders would prefer your votes were doubted or even stripped away.

Even as we all worked to mask up and hunker down, Wisconsin was a busy place in 2020.

The very first story on our website one year ago was a welcome, an invitation to see that “building this newsroom is a labor of love for our team of experienced Wisconsin journalists. We are unabashed in our love of our state’s quality of life, its beautiful resources, and our shared expectations for honesty, kindness, and service.”

That hasn’t changed one bit. And although our first year went almost nothing like what we originally expected, we look forward to continuing this labor of love into 2021 and well beyond. 

Thank you for being a part of it. Happy New Year!