Dear Patch: I am not your enemy.
I read your Evanston site regularly, and appreciate finding out what’s happened to my favorite places when they suddenly go dark. I even like your “what’s happening with this vacant storefront” idea. I’ve been bugging your competitor, the Evanston Review, to find out if it’s true that the vacant Blockbuster building up the street from me is going to become a Trader Joe’s. (They haven’t published anything about it yet, so the story is all yours!)
I really am a big fan of hyperlocal.
In fact, I was hyperlocal nearly two decades before you launched.
In 1992, I started a biweekly paper in Milwaukee called The Public Record. The concept of the four-page publication was simple: One big feature (or photo-essay), and a list of every burglary and armed robbery on Milwaukee’s “trendy” east side and downtown.
The paper was a hit from the start.
I’d go to coffee houses and hear people talk about burglaries in their neighborhood that they’d read about in The Public Record. I’d get calls from retailers who wanted larger drops because they quickly ran out of the paper and customers were asking for it. (I also got calls from store owners who didn’t want “that crime sheet” anywhere near their establishment.)
Putting the paper together was fairly simple: I went to Milwaukee Police Headquarters a few times a week and picked up the daily crime sheets for police districts #1 and #5, which were my coverage areas. (I believe I paid a dime for each page.) I went home and typed brief summaries on my Mac SE. They’d go something like this:
1400 block of N. Prospect Ave.
Jan. 14, between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. intruder broke kitchen window and stole jewelry, VCR, stereo and purse containing $75. No suspect.
There were over 100 of these agate crime summaries that ran in the margins of every issue, next to “the big feature.” Those stories — some written by friends — ran about 1,500 to 2,000 words. There were pieces about art-school nude models, a huge tattoo convention, a quirky artist colony and a shady mayoral candidate. One of my Public Record writers interviewed four young people about what it’s like to suffer a nervous breakdown. My upstairs tenant heard about the project and told me for the first time about his history of mental illness; he was included in the package.
I thought the stories were interesting, but I knew that people picked the paper up for the crimes. (“Not to scare, but to make aware” was The Public Record slogan.)
The Public Record slogan
Every other Wednesday night I’d take my Mac floppy disk to the Milwaukee Magazine offices (I was a “semi-retired” senior editor at the time) and — with the publisher’s permission — designed the newspaper on a “Super Mac.” I’d usually wrap things up at about 3 or 4 in the morning, then drive the finished pages to the printer in Hartland, about 35 miles away. I’d put the four 11-by-17 pages into a drop-box, then head home and crawl into bed at about 5:30 or 6 a.m. Four hours later the printer’s courier would drop the 5,000 newspapers on my porch, and I’d call my distributor and put him to work.
The distributor — a medical student who dropped out of school after bit too much LSD experimentation — was paid $20 for leaving papers at about 35 outlets. (I met the guy while working on a feature about an apartment building occupied by grave-robbers, witches, prostitutes and, well …. other people like that.) My writers were friends who loved seeing their words in print for the first time and didn’t expect to get paid. What was missing was an ad salesperson; I had some $1 classifieds, but no display ads. I wasn’t in this for the money and the $185 per issue printing bill was manageable.
I ended up folding The Public Record after a few months for a few reasons. My volunteers’ enthusiasm started to wane, and I was getting tired of fetching police reports from MPD headquarters every other day or so. I also caught myself nodding off at the wheel a few times during my 4 or 5 a.m. drives back from the printer. My only regret is not saving some issues for my archives. Only the Wisconsin Historical Society, and my archivist-photographer friend Julie Lindemann still have copies. (She and John Shimon [NSFW photo] scanned the images you see here.)
So, Patch people, I believe in hyperlocal, too — as does my source for yesterday’s story that you’re all attacking. I know that editor-in-chief Brian Farnham sent out an email last night calling this person “a gutless asshole.” I disagree with that assessment; I think the source is merely a concerned employee. So how about knocking off the “witch hunt” that I hear is going on?