Wisconsin State Capitol
To follow the state budget debate
this spring, you might have turned to your local newspaper, switched on public
radio, or hunted up AP wire stories online. But for the full story – the really full story – you’d have to pick none of the
Instead, you’d go to Wisconsin Eye, a non-partisan,
nonprofit, and privately funded service aired on cable TV and accessible on the
Internet that boasts gavel-to-gavel coverage of state government in all its
Since its inception 14 years ago, Wisconsin Eye has been likened to a
state version of C-Span. That’s close, says Jon Henkes, co-founder and current CEO, but it falls short. C-Span,
also a nonprofit, was created and funded by the cable TV industry. Wisconsin Eye was started and by Henkes
and former broadcaster Jeff Roberts of
the Wisconsin Radio Network as an independent organization to promote civic
awareness of state government.
“We’re proud of what we’ve
accomplished in our core mission,” says Henkes. During the 2012 election year,
“We had in excess of 200 interviews in the general and primary elections in the
state Senate, state Assembly and at statewide office levels. There’s no other
media entity in the state that conducted that many statewide interviews.”
Wisconsin Eye also covered 37
appearances by the Democratic and Republican candidates for president and vice
president and their spouses.
Recognition came last month when
the Milwaukee Press Club named Steve
Walters, Wisconsin Eye’s senior producer and former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Madison bureau chief, “journalist of the
year.” “We’re proud of that accomplishment,” Henke says. “It reflects Steve’s
hard work, but it also reflects our core mission.”
Similar operations in other states are either direct offspring of
the cable TV industry, state-funded institutions or some combination of the
two. “What’s unique about Wisconsin Eye in the country is that we receive no
funding from the state,” Henkes says.
The network does get some support
from two cable networks. But it also takes donations from a wide range of
individuals and foundations and offers a premium access that gives buyers a leg
up in researching and making use of the free archives. Those all help to defray
a $1.4 million annual budget for staff, equipment and ongoing production costs.
All it gets from the state is the
access to the legislature to hang its cameras for floor debates and committee
sessions. Wisconsin Eye also televises oral arguments before the state Supreme
Court. Viewing through the networks’ streaming video site online spikes when
there’s a big case, Henkes says. During the budget deliberations, particularly
Joint Finance Committee hearings, viewing and traffic fluctuated dramatically
with the change in topics being debated.
Chances are, most viewers have
already seen Wisconsin Eye, whether they know it or not. The network routinely
offers commercial stations a clean feed for sound bites from legislative
debates, press conferences and other events it covers; usually the material punctuates
a typical 90-second news piece. (Commercial stations are supposed to credit the
service for its footage.) But streaming the network’s feed over commercial
channels as it’s happening isn’t allowed.
The premium service, called “My
Wisconsin Eye,” is aimed at “public policy professionals,” Henkes says.
Although Wisconsin Eye holds copyright to its material, enabling it to control
its reuse, the archives are public. Premium subscribers who pay the hefty
$1,295 a year or $795 for six months subscription fees are able to more
efficiently search out specific video they want and compile files from which
they can extract clips. Henkes says users include lawyers, lobbyists and
lawmakers. “It’s certainly of value to elected officials to build video clips
and send them off to their home districts,” he points out.
One use isn’t permitted: Wisconsin
Eye footage isn’t allowed in any communication or advertising at election time
– not even campaign bait in the form of the incumbent’s inspiring rhetoric from
the legislature floor (or golden gaffes from an opponent). And “not permitted”
means not in ads and not even by uploading a clip to YouTube and sending the
URL to voters or supporters: “Within 60 days of a general or primary election,
according to our agreement, you can’t put it out there.”
Even requests from partisan
documentarians are turned down. “Our intent is to put it out there for citizens
to become informed,” Henkes says – implying that goal is perhaps not actually
served by campaign advertising. The network has never had to act against
violators, through it has sent letters turning down requests because the
requesters were thought to have a partisan agenda.
For Wisconsin Eye, funding “is both a challenge and an
opportunity,” Henkes says. “The sustainability question is the No. 1 issue in
front of the network moving forward.”
Two years ago, the network turned
down the Legislature’s offer to let Wisconsin Eye borrow money through the
Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA). “The board said thank you but no thank you,”
says Henkes. The deal didn’t pass “the test of not having a financial
relationship with the state.”
Not long after that decision, some
funders – who are arrayed across the political spectrum from the conservative
Bradley Foundation to the liberal Evjue Foundation in Madison – met with and
congratulated the board for standing firm. “Their commitment to the network
was, ‘We’ll support you if you’re independent of state funding,’” says Henkes,
who went from a newspaper career to working as the state Republican Party’s
communications director in the mid-1980s, then as press secretary in the first
term of Gov. Tommy Thompson. From
1990 until Wisconsin Eye’s founding in 1999, Henkes worked for the University
of Wisconsin in various capacities.
Of course, the network’s vow of
chastity doesn’t prevent transactions such as selling a premium My Wisconsin
Eye account to, say, a state legislator’s office. But the fundraisers work hard
to avoid partisan imbalances. If a big
grant comes from one side of the opinion spectrum, they’ll go out and try to solicit
groups on the other side, Henkes says.
Among cable TV providers the
biggest supporter is Charter Cable, which serves the Madison area as well as
communities in the western region of the state. Wisconsin Eye gets a small cut
for every Charter subscriber in the state.
Time Warner, the principal cable
provider in Milwaukee and Southeastern Wisconsin, provides channel space for
Wisconsin Eye. AT&T’s U-verse still doesn’t. Henkes says that is in
deference to Charter, which faces competition from U-verse in some markets.
While “there are conversations ongoing with AT&T,” he continues, any deal
with U-verse can’t undercut the network’s commitment to Charter.
The only audience data Wisconsin
Eye has collected is its online traffic. “We have not tried to analyze what our
cable distribution viewership is,” Henkes says. “We know it’s a small number.”
But the 2011 Capitol protests over Act 10 produced a surge of viewers big
enough to affect other station’s ratings. “We heard it from other broadcasters,
but I don’t have any data.”
He calculates the potential
audience is bigger, though. “There are a lot of folks in Wisconsin who we
believe would be interested if they knew about us.”
That theory will get tested soon. This fall, a statewide marketing
campaign will launch “reintroducing Wisconsin Eye to the state,” Henke says.
The brand-building exercise will be the first for the network since it was
founded. “We know that we are one of the
best-kept secrets in Wisconsin.”
Along with that, Wisconsin Eye is
getting ready to raise $2 million by the end of 2014 from corporations and
individuals in the Milwaukee area, with Time Warner providing active support.
The network also is seeking contributions to raise another quarter million
dollars to pay for technology upgrades, replacing videotape equipment with
digital technology and investing in other equipment.
A site tailored for smartphones and
tablets is under consideration and could be unveiled in the fall as well. It’s
possible that would come with a fee that would generate some additional
The network also expects to bring
out some new programming in designated time slots that will build on its core
mission of reporting on the activities of state government. A series about will
spotlight innovation in the state and will have three objectives: “generating
audience, generating sponsorship and generating enthusiasm.”
Meanwhile, the network seeks to
deepen its longer-term resources. “We’d like to be in the position five years
from now where we have a $10 million endowment in place,” Henkes says.
Henkes isn’t shy about promoting the role the network plays in
today’s fractured media landscape.
Though he became a politician’s
press secretary, he never lost touch with the idealism of his print journalism
days at the Racine Journal Times and
the Janesville Gazette.
was a damn good reporter; I loved what I did; and I felt there was a mission
and a purpose and a need” for the craft of reporting, he says. “Newspapers then
were largely doing well. In those days, in the mid-1980s, the Capitol pressroom
was a beehive of activity.”
was also so crowded that visiting reporters from out of town could barely find
space there to work.
changed dramatically – but what hasn’t is the importance of “freedom of
information and citizen access to what is going on,” Henkes says. “If it’s
never going to be the same again, you’ve got to create a space where that can
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(Capitol photo via Shutterstock)