Consider the Source… Who’s YOUR Source of Local News in Marathon County?

Written by Brad Karger

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in the 30 years I’ve been working in County government is the decline of the local newspapers and the emergence of unfiltered, direct access to our local residents.

County employees and officials no longer have to rely on traditional media (print, radio, and TV reporters) to publicize the County’s “news and views” regarding local issues. Heck, we now have County websites, eNewsletters, and social media accounts to connect with readers directly — on any topic of our choosing — and all at the click of a button.

The question is:

Is this a GOOD thing?


With all these new communication venues available for public officials to publish exactly what they want exactly when they want to, who would want reporters shoving microphones in their face to get the latest scoop? And if you do take time to talk with the press, why put up with investigative journalists and crusty editors with their fancy journalism degrees taking time to fact-check sources, consider all angles, make connections, and question discrepancies. That takes WAY TOO LONG . . .  {I’m saying this in jest, of course.}

Maybe instead of going through traditional media channels to disseminate public information, we should just write “the news” ourselves and deliver it directly via Twitter or Facebook. Or hire a marketing and advertising guru (like private companies do) to serve as our “spin doctor” and handle all our messaging.

But, wait a minute . . . Is that what YOU want?

Are we talking about your County government reporting to you or manipulating you?

Don’t you want to get your news from someone whose job it is:

  • To ask the questions that matter?
  • To verify facts?
  • To help you understand the bigger picture?
  • To hold government officials — like me — accountable?

News consumers like you should WANT the free press to be your public watchdog.


It seems like only yesterday the traditional media had a virtual monopoly on communications with Marathon County residents:

It had newsgathering personnel.

It had the resources to develop stories.

And it had news-hungry audiences, which was pretty much everybody.

It had a cadre of credible journalists.

And most of all — it had public trust.

But the days are over when most everybody gets their local news from a daily newspaper and/or Melissa Langbehn’s or Jeff Thelen’s evening television news broadcast. There are now countless sources of news and information available. Some are credible, some are not, and many are somewhere in between. And even the best news organizations occasionally get a story or detail wrong.

Social media may be all the rage, but to have an informed (not merely entertained) public, it’s critical that “information consumers” benefit from the skills of a trained journalist, an outside perspective, fact-checking, and context. Well-trained journalists believe it’s their civic obligation to uncover facts to ensure fairness, accuracy, and transparency. And thank goodness they do!

I mean, do you really think you can rely solely on local government officials to expose incompetence or corruption within their own organizations? Or to follow up on promises made by public officials?

For example, Governor Scott Walker recently made a big bet on Foxconn Technology Group to stimulate job development in the southeast corner of Wisconsin. State incentives (to the tune of $4 billion, including the cost of local infrastructure projects like roads, highways, and power lines) were promised to lure Foxconn to Wisconsin. But who are you expecting to monitor the progress of that new partnership:

  • The Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel?
  • The Capital Times?
  • Gannett Wisconsin Media?
  • Facebook?
  • Foxconn itself?

Where will the citizens of Wisconsin get their information from regarding Foxconn’s follow-up of their stated promises?

For me, I want it to come from a trusted media source.

*  *  *

So, if our County government knows it needs to communicate well with our residents, and it knows that the traditional media has to be an important part of our communications strategy . . .

How should we go about it?

Brian Kowalski, a reporter for The City Pages, recommended that we follow these guidelines:

  • Return reporters calls.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Learn to tell our story simply and from the perspective of what readers or viewers might be most interested in (asking, What will impact them?).
  • If bad news is going to come out, it’s generally best to tell it sooner rather than later.
  • Have thick skin and expect to take some heat over issues when in public office.
  • Remember that few people expect perfection from those who run government; what they hope for are leaders who recognize mistakes and then correct and learn from them.

These are great tips for our interactions with traditional media — and for many other types of interactions. They seem more consistent with demonstrating integrity than spin.

That’s a direction I favor.

*  *  *

Now, it is true that several local government units have employed communications professionals to help them manage their messaging, like Wausau Public Schools and North Central Health Care. The City of Wausau has for years talked about the possibility of hiring a communications professional to help with its messaging. And I’ve had this same conversation with a few County Board members and County department heads, too. But it’s usually when something has happened and the County doesn’t look particularly good in the media coverage. So then I ask:

Is the problem our messaging or is it the message?

Many times, the response is that it’s a little of both.

Hiring a communications professional may well be a good idea for the future, I don’t know. There’s certainly an expectation of SO MUCH MORE communication with the public nowadays.

For now, though, I just couldn’t justify the expense.

I believe in the free press to ask questions, analyze data, share information, and guide discourse on public policy issues. One of the best examples of this happening was in 2008 when the County teamed up with the Wisconsin Institute of Public Policy and Service and the Wausau Daily Herald to openly and publicly discuss overcrowding at the Marathon County Jail. After a series of public dialogues, a number of articles were published in the Herald. The dialogues and the press coverage helped many community members understand that the “jail issue” was a lot more than a simple facilities problem; we were talking about crime and punishment and about the ability of our correctional system to correct (i.e., change) behavior.

Prior to the public dialogues, a majority of the County Board members were on record favoring an expansion of jail facilities; afterward, consensus shifted toward jail alternatives for drug and alcohol offenders like Day Reporting, OWI Court, and Drug Court. The estimated cost of the jail renovation was between $40 million and $47 million, with an annual loan repayment amount of $3 million. Whether that was the right decision or not depends on who you talk to. It was, however, a decision openly debated and made by the County Board that was supported by genuine citizen engagement. Constituents voiced their informed opinions to their representatives, establishing the County’s direction and priorities in responding to an emerging problem. Isn’t that how democracy works best?

This monthly eNewsletter was started to further inform our stakeholders about County-level issues, happenings, budgets, ordinances, and other topics of general interest to community leaders and residents of Marathon County. The intent was never to replace traditional media, but rather to augment coverage of County-level happenings.


Even so, County government can and will do an even better job of getting our message out to the public. But we encourage you to also do your part . . .

  • Be sure to take in multiple news sources and then compare and evaluate what you learn.
  • Remember to consider the source before you get too excited — positively or negatively — about information that is shared.
  • If the issue is a matter of public policy being considered by the County, know that your best venue to share your insights, views, and preferences is to contact the County Board Supervisor that represents your district. (If you need help figuring out who that is, email me, call the County Clerk’s Office at 715-261-1500, or simply type your address in at the My Elected Officials page of My Vote Wisconsin.)

I often receive email, Twitter, and Facebook messages regarding pieces I write in this eNewsletter, articles published in the traditional media, and postings on social media. Rest assured such messages come straight to me, your County Administrator, for a response.

No filters.

No public information officer.


I welcome your feedback from all sides of an issue. In fact, I appreciate citizens taking the time to weigh in with me. That’s how a healthy democracy is supposed to function!

The best way to communicate with me is via email:

If you use social media, I might see your posting or I might not. If you send me an email message, it might take a bit for me to respond (I get A LOT of emails), but I will see it and answer if a response is requested.

If you’d like to be part of a public conversation about the role of media, you may wish to register to attend Building Trust: Credibility of Law Enforcement & the Media with presenters Ben Bliven, Shereen Siewert, and Glen Moberg. The event will be held September 12, 2018, at 7:00 p.m. at Northcentral Technical College. Hear from local journalists about how they investigate and report the news. The Wisconsin Institute of Public Policy and Service (WIPPS) is partnering with the Wisconsin Humanities Council on this statewide program.

*  *  *

I used to think that the world agreed with me and that John Lennon was everyone’s favorite Beatle. But thanks to reader feedback on the March edition of our eNewsletter, I now know that Paul McCartney (apparently “the cute one”?) was everyone else’s favorite.

Who knew?

Brad Karger - Marathon County AdministratorBrad Karger

Marathon County Administrator

In his Administrator role, Brad Karger leads an organization with 700+ employees and an annual budget of more than $165 million. Brad has been in leadership positions with Marathon County for the past 30 years. He is known statewide for generating innovative ideas and solutions to problems, openness and transparency, and a commitment to community service that extends well beyond the normal workday.  Email Brad Karger.

Image credits:

Media image by dizer via Pixabay.
Fact checking image by geralt via  Pixabay.

You might also like…

Marathon_County_LogoPlease email our Editorial Board with your comments, suggestions, and article ideas.

And if you spot a typo or an inaccuracy, please contact us so we can fix it. Thanks!