Readers interested in news from some of Milwaukee's often-ignored communities may be getting another information source.
The Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - NNS for short - has begun seeking applicants to staff an online news service planning to launch next March. Its founders want the service to be a professionally written and edited news operation, and they've hired a long-time news and communications professional from Illinois to set it up. But what's particularly unusual is who is sponsoring it.
That would be the United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee - a nonprofit network of neighborhood centers in the city. On the UNCOM website, the agency explains:
The purpose of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (NNS) is to:
• provide objective, fair reporting about under-covered communities, highlighting successes and challenges in implementing neighborhood revitalization efforts;
• bring community stories to the widest possible Milwaukee audience.
To serve as the project's coordinator and editor-in-chief, the neighborhood centers retained Sharon McGowan, who runs Complete Communications in Skokie, Ill. McGowan brings an impressive resume to the assignment. She started her journalism career at the Chicago Reporter, a highly regarded monthly publication that focuses on race relations and related issues in the Windy City. She later moved in to radio and TV, working as managing editor for WBBM Newsradio 78 and as an assignment editor for WBBM TV Channel 2 before leaving to run her own communications business.
The NNS project "is still in development," McGowan says, so much remains to be worked out. Current plans call for the news service to focus first on the Clarke Square, Lindsay Heights and Layton Boulevard West neighborhoods. Over time, it could expand to cover more of the city.
The news service aims to combat under-coverage and negative coverage of Milwaukee neighborhoods. In Lindsay Heights and Clarke Square, for instance, there's a feeling "that their neighborhoods are not perceived accurately by the broader Milwaukee community, that their neighborhoods are under-covered by the media, and when there is coverage, that coverage is often negative," McGowan says.
The program is funded by the Zilber Family Foundation, growing out of the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative, the ambitious revitalization effort created by the late philanthropist Joe Zilber.
The reach of the Neighborhood News Service could extend beyond the 10 neighborhoods targeted by the Zilber project. Outside that territory are yet other groups also working to revitalize their own communities, McGowan says. "They need to know what other organizations are doing. The idea is that they can benefit from learning about the successes and failures of other groups."
In short then, the project has three potential audiences: residents of the target neighborhoods who want news about their community that the media don't report; other people all over the city interested in a more nuanced and broader picture of the city that the NNS hopes to provide; and activists and other insiders in neighborhood groups elsewhere in town.
There's a fourth audience as well: the local established news media. "The stories, articles and broadcast pieces that are going to be created for the Neighborhood News Service are going to be available to other news outlets," McGowan says.
The news service plans to put out regular calendars of events for news outlets to use in planning their coverage - analogous to the wire service "daybook" that circulates in most big cities. It also will make its stories freely available to be picked up and carried by local established media, both print and broadcast.
McGowan acknowledges that the service will have to demonstrate that its work lives up to professional standards for other media to run its stuff, and that's exactly what it plans to do. Staff people will be part time but paid; McGowan says that initial applicants are turning out to have a lot more experience than she had expected.
Marquette University's Diederich College of Communication will be a partner, giving NNS employees training and also providing students who would work with the NNS as part of the university's service learning program, says Diederich Dean Lori Bergen.
The NNS reflects two major media trends: The interest in hyper-local coverage and the emergence of non-media institutions - and, in this case, nonprofit ones - as outlets for professional journalism. And in an era of smaller staffs and diminishing resources, McGowan believes NNS will find a demand for its work even among the mainstream media.
In that sense, the service might be a bit like the old City News Bureau that served Chicago's many news outlets until it closed in 1999.
There's one big difference though: City News primarily covered crime, courts, death and disaster. Milwaukee's Neighborhood News Service will tack the other way.
"The focus of this news service is neighborhood revitalization efforts," McGowan says. "We feel you can know what you pretty much need to know about murders and fires from the existing media. We have no interest in competing on that front."
Listening In: Dan Bice scored a Page 1 story with hisJournal Sentinel report about a union activist's blabbing to a deceptive Scott Walker operative about the union's playbook for the fall political campaign to elect DemocratTom Barrett governor.
Was the story kosher?
Arguably it would have been ethically questionable, at best, for a working journalist to have published a story obtained by lying about his identity and recording John-david Morgan surreptitiously as Morgan blathered on about campaign strategies to hit back at Republican guv candidate Walker.
In this case, a third party did the dirty work, and Bice later was provided a copy of the recording. Bice says he consulted with a lawyer for the paper and with managing editor George Stanley about using the item. In the end, all decided it was fair game.
"We could not use it if someone were recording as part of a criminal act," Bice says. Because the recording was made in a public place, however, no crime appears to have been committed.
Even so, Bice says, he had to do some digging before he could get Walker aide Michael Brickman to 'fess up to being the person who made the recording - and lying about his identity while talking to Morgan. Brickman's identity and his duplicity were an important part of the story, Bice reasons, and so he pointed both out in the seventh paragraph.
And as Bice notes, the rules on journalistic misrepresentation have shades of gray, even for reporters. TV reporters especially engage in undercover camera work, which by its nature involves deception. And it's not uncommon for them to build stories on information collected undercover by third parties, activists and dirty tricksters.
But what if Brickman had refused to go on the record? Would Bice still have run with the story?
"I don't know," Bice says. "Fortunately, it didn't get to that point."
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