or: bad organization is bad, but that’s an editorial and not a news story
There is a difference between an editorial and a news story. There is a difference between taking a position and impartially presenting others’ positions. In an editorial, we believe our community is best served by a common sense position being taken that inspires action and fosters solutions. In a news story, it’s our duty to report on the actions that are taken, without inserting position or bias.
Many publications, especially community publications, now shy away from stories and editorials that are controversial. We believe this is a disservice to our community.
We believe that we can present facts and information—in a news story, and that our readers are intelligent and able to take that information and form their own opinions.
We believe that we can present our own perspectives (hopefully, with a fresh insight or two) where they might be valuable—in an editorial, and that our readers are intelligent, discerning and able to engage respectfully and constructively with the position taken, even if they don’t agree.
Our goal will never be to form our readers’ opinions for them through our reporting, we simply want to give them the pieces, or a darn good start, on aggregating information they can use to better inform themselves. We will seldom be more than a starting point for those readers with a deep interest in the issue covered.
In our inaugural edition, we published a story about Rep. Todd Novak being presented the “Outstanding Water Legislator of the Year Award” by the Wisconsin Water Alliance (WWA) for his “commitment to advancing sound water policy.”
Novak’s receipt of the award was a topic worthy of coverage. On the surface, it would appear a meaningful accomplishment. Even though there was a good argument to the contrary, the award was being publicized, so it would be useful to readers who might hear of the award to have the facts to put it in context.
The story was intended to cover Novak receiving the award—while acknowledging that the timing of which some might say is controversial and influential considering its proximity to a contentious election—the story was not meant to take a deep dive into the larger background, policies and members of the WWA. It would be a disservice to distill three or four years of often contentious history into one short news story.
While we wrote the article regarding Novak, we wanted to be sure—again, with an election on the horizon—that his opponent, Kriss Marion, a Democrat and Lafayette county supervisor from Blanchardville, had an equal chance to share her thoughts on this award. So we sent questions to Novak and Marion, and reported on what we received in the print publication.
But in writing the story, we made the seemingly fatal flaw of mentioning Marion in the headline and not in the lede of the story (which is a legitimate oversight and a fair critique, sorry Marion—we’ll follow inverted pyramid next time) and the additional seemingly devious, intentional, biased (and, in reality, completely coincidental) choice to jump the article, to page 8, before Marion’s statement.
This, apparently, was too much. We received a very harsh critique that seemed to strongly imply that our readers couldn’t possibly be trusted to follow the story all the way to page 8.
It’s been an interesting week, running the gamut from being accused of being shills for Novak, to being in the bag for Marion. Suffice it to say, we must be doing something right.
To be clear, a vast and overwhelming majority of our feedback has been positive, welcoming and has reinforced our belief in this community. Election season is but a season, and our community has so much more depth to offer and to celebrate.
Where critique is justified, we will be the first to admit it. As we said in our introductory column, we’ll surely make mistakes as we go, but we’ll learn from them if given the chance.
But we won’t ever take kindly to insinuations that our readers can be easily manipulated or misled. We want to ensure that it’s clear, no matter what side of the fence you’re on, that we won’t kowtow to pressure to frame our stories one way or another. (And while we’re at it, why are there only two sides to the fence? Perhaps it’s time to retire that metaphor and the two-party system represented in it? But that’s a different editorial.)
Basically, we won’t take direction from any powers that be or special interests, but we will listen to our community and use that feedback to better inform how we do things.
Without getting into the weeds, let’s take a quick look at the WWA.
On the WWA’s website, the organization states that it is a non-partisan group dedicated to improving water resources throughout the state.
Claiming to be non-partisan could be viewed as maybe, possibly, perhaps suspicious, considering a couple of things: 1.) All five of the legislators that received this newly-created award are members of the Republican party and are currently running for re-election, 2.) The current president of the WWA is Michael Huebsch, a former Republican Assembly speaker, Department of Administration secretary and Public Service commissioner. Huebsch has been in the news recently regarding alleged conflicts of interest uncovered in texts while he was making decisions as a commissioner.
Huebsch was a Public Service commissioner in 2019, when the regulatory board voted to approve the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line project that would place large high-voltage transmission lines on a roughly 100 mile route through the heart of the Driftless Area.
Since being founded in 2017, the WWA has advocated for “reasonable” regulations for water resources and quality in the state. “Reasonable” could be considered by some as maybe, possibly, perhaps a signal that the organization supports the ability of businesses to pollute with wanton disregard and without concern for being held accountable. The group has been largely involved in opposing policies that would regulate high capacity wells, feedlots and limit chemicals such as PFAS and phosphorus in groundwater.
It doesn’t take a reasonable person to notice that these very things have the ability to threaten to negatively impact water quality and safety in Wisconsin.
The WWA’s motives are questionable at best, considering two current board members have been fined and are embroiled in lawsuits for doing the exact opposite of protecting water quality.
WWA board member TJ Tuls, a manager at Emerald Sky Dairy in St. Croix County, has been fined $80,000 for a manure spill in 2017, which plaintiffs in that case claimed was responsible for the contamination of multiple nearby wells.
Louis Wysocki, another WWA board member and owner of Golden Sands Dairy in Juneau County, is currently involved in at least one lawsuit that claims pollution from the dairy persisted for over a decade and was responsible for contaminating nearly 200 wells of nearby homes.
The lawsuit started after a child in the area died from nitrate poisoning, which can be caused by well contamination.
The nearly 300 people in the lawsuit are asking for compensation to purchase treatment systems for their contaminated wells, purchasing bottled water or for compensation of damage to property value due to contaminated water. Some are seeking compensation for damages to their health due to nitrate contamination, like cancer or miscarriages.
It’s maybe, possibly, perhaps problematic to be accepting an award from this group of obviously upstanding water conservationists led by Huebsch. We trust our readers understand sarcasm.
We get that people don’t like red tape—we just started a business, after all—but the wheels of our state economy will not cease to turn if we enact and strengthen protections for our water.
We asked both Novak’s office and his campaign for specific policy positions on high capacity wells, concentrated animal feeding operations, and PFAS. We did not get specific responses. If that changes before election day, we will ensure that our website is updated with them.
However, when an elected representative accepts an award from a group with clearly stated policy positions, it is reasonable to ask if the representative supports those positions as well. It’s our belief that the community deserves to know what those positions are before election day.
Both of the candidates’ full responses are linked within the original WWA story on our website, http://www.valleysentinelnews.com. We trust our readers to be able to evaluate both candidates based on the topics that matter most to them and the information each campaign has provided throughout the election cycle.
We will always work to report on major issues—impartially—because we believe that our readers can take the information and form their own opinions and do their own research on a major political topic before heading to the polls, and not make decisions based solely on what appears on our front page.
While it might be easy for us, or anyone, to assume that no one rushed to cast their early ballot based on half of an article on the first page of Valley Sentinel last week, we still fully understand the position of responsibility we are in. In good faith, we updated last week’s story where the critiques were justified, added Marion to the lede and added context that should provoke independent inquiry without taking a stance. It’s an article, not an editorial, and—unlike some—we believe in you… and that you’ll read page 8.
The good stuff is always on page 8.