The Kickapoo Free Press knew how to do fun, and community

Anne O'Connor
Anne O'Connor is the former editor and publisher of the Kickapoo Free Press in Viroqua, Wis.
Submitted photo

For the first time in four years, I don't have a major looming deadline. Last month we announced the end of the Kickapoo Free Press, a monthly arts and entertainment newspaper that I edited and published. The May issue was the last.

After hearing from sad and disappointed people for a couple of weeks, I have noticed how quiet my phone and email have become. My mother, who served as my bookkeeper and all-around helper, still goes daily to the post-office box, but it is mostly empty now. We've sent back the remainder of the contracts for ads, scheduled to run through the year. We are no longer calling more advertisers; I'm returning writing submissions unpublished.

The one thing that remains is our weekly edit meeting; we all enjoy our gathering too much to give it up, so we decided to keep the time together and figure out what to talk about next. That's the kind of people I've been able to work with. It was so much fun for us, and our readers could surely tell we liked what we were doing. Still, running a newspaper these days is an expensive habit, and one I needed to kick.

From the beginning, the hope and goal of the paper was to help define this particular region of southwest Wisconsin and to help connect the people living here. It's a task that many papers abandon. In their push for greater audiences and revenues -- heck, in their push to survive -- some newspapers rely on duplicate content, reusing articles in several papers owned by the same company, running wire copy, filling the paper with stories about people and issues that are further and further removed from the readers.

The Kickapoo Free Press quickly became an eagerly anticipated source of local discussion, ideas, humor and fun. And the reason it worked so well is that the entire thing, from beginning to end, from artwork to words and ideas, were all about Viroqua, population 4,300, and the surrounding region.

There are hundreds of sources for Wisconsin news, and thousands of places to find out what's happening nationally. But you won't read stories about this small place in the New York Times or even the Wisconsin State Journal. More aptly, you won't see the stories of my neighbors in the New Yorker or on Salon.

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What made the Kickapoo Free Press a hit among readers is simple: It was about them. It was about their neighbors, their colleagues, their businesses, their conflicts, their successes, their ideas, their lives.

This is the same simple reason that community newspapers everywhere are thriving while their bigger counterparts are dying. Our communities have become global in scope, but our most immediate world -- our neighborhoods¬ -- still demand our immediate attention.

Happily, our town is also served by a more traditional weekly newspaper. And so, unburdened of any need to serve as the paper of record, the Free Press was left to do whatever it wanted. We chose to do well-written pieces that stepped back and took a longer perspective on issues. We wrote about farming: the value of organics, the cost of high-fructose corn syrup and the underground and illegal world of raw milk. We delved into politics: profiles during the hotly contested sheriff's race, an investigation of a sanction against a county board member. We published our own political cartoonist, the only one in the region.

We worked to explain possible threats to the environment, covering controversial subjects like large-scale farming and a potential coal ash dump. We ran columnists with strong opinions, practical tips and witty thinking. And we had fun: We had advice from Dear Prudence (her real name!) and our astrological advice columns. We had "Viroqua: for Real," a completely fictional account of an old-timer's stories about the town.

One of our best-loved bits was the "Sheriff's Report ... in Verse."

Most small town papers carry the actual sheriff's report every week: how many people hit deer this week, the random break-in of someone's truck. As I've said, the weekly local papers covered these, so we didn't have to. Instead, we ran a twist. Such as this, written by Joe Hart:

The Ballad of Tainter Hollow

Construction season begins in June
And lasts well into the harvest moon.
From early dawn to the afternoon,
The work zones pose grave dangers,
Grave dangers, boys, grave dangers.

There's many a tale of a driver who finds
His attention shifts from the yellow line,
And just like that, his fender entwines
With a stranger's,
With a strangers's, boys, a stranger's.

But the story I sing is a turn of events
That some would call a coincidence
And others, weighing the evidence,
Would lay at the door of fate,
Of fate, boys, of fate.

It was Terry Meudt had his hand on the mic
Of a CB radio that he liked
To talk into, as was his right,
When he put his dumptruck in gear,
In gear, boys, in gear.

But just as he's raised the device to his lips
His conversation is quickly eclipsed,
And his heart into his stomach slips
When another dumptruck appears,
Appears, boys, appears.

Now, crashing a dumptruck is nothing new,
But what are the chances of crashing two?
And yet if you doubt my story is true,
Just ask them in Tainter Hollow,
Hollow, boys, hollow.

They'll be telling the story for years to come:
How dumptruck two hit dumptruck one,
And no one was injured! Son of a gun!
I swear it happened just so,
Just so, boys, just so.

We were good at fun. We were good at finding the things that matter: art, love, food, and the good in each other.

Now it's time for me to move on and tend to some of these things, perhaps in a less public way. But I will always be grateful for my time with the people and the places that made up the Kickapoo Free Press. What a great ride.

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Anne O'Connor is the former editor and publisher of the Kickapoo Free Press. Today she will begin a radio talk show, "Life: On the Radio," scheduled to air from 10 a.m. until noon Thursdays on WDRT Viroqua, 91.9 FM, or streaming live at www.wdrt.org.