Activist blog champions stories of ordinary folks
New Richmond resident Heidi Herron founded WIvoices.org in May 2011.
“WIvoices.org sprang out of frustration at not being able to hear how regular people were affected by policy choices,” Herron said. “This felt like something that I could do to help add to the public discussion about what was going on.”
Herron’s organization has applied for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status but in the meantime has benefited from the fiscal sponsorship of the St. Croix Valley Foundation.
“They’re really connected and respected, so for us it was a really big deal. Jane (Hetland Stevenson) and Jill (Shannon), the whole crew, they’ve been absolutely incredible and supportive,” Herron said.
Herron, who acts as executive director as well as interviewer and producer, has a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and is a certified teacher in broad field social studies, including political science, economics, history, psychology, geography and sociology. She’s joined by award-winning videographer Art Juchno, a semi-retired senior producer/director for Wisconsin Public Television, and Ramona Gunter, a researcher for UW-River Falls with degrees in mathematics, physics, cultural anthropology, and educational policy studies.
Backed by a board comprised of equally accomplished professionals, Herron sees education as the common thread.
“Everyone in our organization has worked in education in some capacity,” she said.
Herron’s organization is distinct from other news blogs in that they allow the people they interview to approve their stories before they are posted to the Internet.
“For me that was instrumental,” Herron said. “I would not want to do what we’re doing unless the people understand that by giving us their story we will give it back to them and make sure it is exactly what they meant to say.”
WIvoices.org staff qualify themselves as citizen journalists.
“We want to make sure people know that we are not credentialed journalists,” Herron said.
However, that does not mean a lower bar when it comes to professionalism.
“It’s very important to me to maintain a high level of integrity,” Herron said.
When faced with journalistic issues she is unfamiliar with she seeks advice from several outside sources with more experience.
Even though they’ve only been around since 2011, WIvoices.org has already conducted more than 30 in-depth interviews enabling them to build credibility and establish trust within the communities in which they work.
“By and large, most people are so appreciative of being able to look at their stories before they go up, they don’t ask for any change at all. It’s a very positive interaction,” Herron said.
“Our board is really the heart and soul of our organization. They are instrumental in suggesting stories. They are heavily involved in the community and their churches. They have their ears to the ground, and they know the pulse of the community. They suggest issues that are affecting people that aren’t making the news,” Herron said.
Herron also monitors mainstream media outlets as well keeping an eye out for policy changes at any level of government that might affect local people. She’s currently monitoring legislation related to the weakening of groundwater standards. An issue such as frac sand mining can bring multiple issues into play from groundwater contamination and aquifer depletion to underfunding of the Department of Natural Resources, to public policies in Washington emphasizing stateside drilling.
Because WIvoices.org has successfully begun to build a reputation, Herron receives plenty of potential story ideas from ordinary citizens via email and voicemail. Stories are declined “if we don’t see a clear connection of how we can tie the story into public policy,” Herron said.
Herron feels the most impactful story WIvoices.org has reported to date was a four-part series based on her interview with Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggens Jr. examining the implications of Gogebic Taconite’s proposed $1.5 billion open pit mine in the Penokee Mountains upstream from the Bad River Reservation. Wiggens walked readers through the impact of mining from the perspectives of science, tribal treaty rights, tourism and its environmental impact on land and water including Lake Superior. The story was up picked up by numerous news organizations both local and national. Its reach was reflected in financial donations as well, which came in from “all over the state and other parts of the world,” Herron said.
Herron’s clear about who WIvoices.org represents.
“We tell stories from the underdog’s point of view,” she said. “For people out there who don’t have a forum, we would like to offer one. We do not tell stories from the legislative point of view because that power structure already has their voice out there (mainstream media). They can purchase a forum.”
One aspect of the job Herron especially enjoys is constructing the interview. A successful interview depends on establishing a rapport and making the interviewee feel comfortable. Herron points out that, often times despite organizing questions ahead of time, answers don’t always follow the outline. As she prepares a story for posting online, Herron meditates on the interview trying to determine key aspects.
“What’s the true spirit of what they’re trying to say?,” she said.
She’ll frequently moves segments from the verbal interview around so the written version makes more sense and has more impact.
“It kind of feels like an art. I think that’s where my creativity and writing comes into it,” Herron said.
A good interview also depends on backside education. Policy issues are typically complicated. Herron’s an avid reader but she also relies on her team and specifically on the research provided by Gunter to enable her to ask intelligent questions and expose the detrimental impact of poorly conceived policy.
Because they are a small volunteer staff, WIvoices.org’s goal is to produce one story a month. Herron says they prefer to produce fresh stories but in certain situations, as in the case of the frac sand mine in Glenwood City, the close proximity and the comprehensive nature of the issue prompted WIvoices.org to continue its coverage. Herron sees it as an opportunity to document an ongoing process from rumor to its yet-to-be-determined conclusion.
“It’s such a dynamic issue. There’s public policy all along the way from the local, state and national levels that are effecting this one community,” Herron said. “Every member of our organization is interested in it as well.”
Herron loves what she does, but says she’s still learning “to get better at setting the boundary of keeping some time for myself and my family.”
She’d love to see WIvoices.org be able to keep doing what they’re doing.
“It’s a heckuva lot of fun and to feel useful in your life, there’s not a bigger gift than that,” Herron said.