By Miles Maguire
On Monday, Sept. 30, the Oshkosh Northwestern devoted more than half of its front page to what it must have considered a really big story: the news that the city was considering an annual recycling fee.
But it wasn’t much of a scoop—the story had been out on the Internet for a week, thanks to a part-time journalist who keeps a pretty close eye on City Hall.
Something similar happened to WBAY, the local ABC affiliate, at the end of October. The station reported then that Sawdust Days, the annual midsummer celebration in Menominee Park, was behind on its payments to the city for police services, owing roughly half of its $20,000 bill.
Given all the controversy that the event has attracted, as well as ongoing concerns about how Event City handles special events, that was another good story. But by the time the TV station got to it, it was a little stale.
That story had also been around for days and had even made it onto the Web thanks to the same journalist who broke the news about the recycling fee.
In early November, that identical writer was at it again, in this case coming out with a report on the city’s credit rating. It was negative news since the rating may be heading south in part because of the defense industry contraction hitting Oshkosh Corp., the city’s largest employer.
In all fairness to the region’s full-time, professional journalists, it must be pointed out that this Oshkosh scoopmeister, the one who broke the stories of recycling fees and unpaid assessments and credit concerns, does have an inside advantage in his reporting and a uniquely close relationship with City Manager Mark Rohloff.
That’s because he is Mark Rohloff.
Continuing a practice that was started in the mid-1970s by then City Manager William Frueh, Rohloff carves out a piece of his time most weeks to write a newsletter, three or more pages of his own reporting and sometimes including many more pages of attachments.
Want to know why a shortage of city snowplow operators could be a problem this winter? Or what’s going on with a new economic development initiative? Or which groups in town have been recipients of community development grants? Read all about it in the “Weekly Newsletter,” just a click away from the city’s homepage.
It’s not unusual for communities like Oshkosh to publish newsletters. Both Frueh and Rohloff said that they published newsletters in their previous jobs as city managers before they arrived in Oshkosh. But the Oshkosh newsletter is different in two respects from the newsletters that are available from nearby cities, such as Fond du Lac or Neenah.
The first difference is that the Oshkosh publication contains real news, not just routine announcements, restatements of the obvious or reminders to homeowners to rake their leaves and shovel their sidewalks. For decades the city manager’s newsletter has been the authoritative source for what’s happening at City Hall.
The second difference is that the newsletter, which was started primarily so the city manager could alert the Common Council to emerging issues, has become available to anyone with an Internet connection.
The content of the newsletter falls somewhere between “insider knowledge” and “common knowledge,” Rohloff said. “It’s that in-between stuff, and it’s amazing what can get out there these days.”
Writing in a style that mimics that of the Washington-based Kiplinger Letter, Rohloff said he sometimes uses the Oshkosh newsletter as a way to “smoke out” opposition or pave the way for discussion of policy recommendations. This is what happened, he said, in the case of the recycling fee.
Wary of the controversy that sank a garbage collection charge proposed by the previous city manager, Rohloff purposely highlighted the recycling fee in the newsletter. He did so because he wanted the idea of the recycling fee to come out before the budget was formally submitted, a strategy that put most of the financial focus on other issues, such as staffing levels in the Fire Department.
“You want to be the first one to talk about it,” Rohloff said. “A better educated citizenry,” he added, “makes for a stronger community.”
He also acknowledges that there have been times when he has not used the newsletter to the best effect, noting that he could have done a better of explaining the argument for providing $1.1 million in public funding for a private developer to put up an apartment building on the riverfront. The staff recommendation was approved Nov. 12, but misgivings on the Common Council were obvious.
Readership of the newsletter is, admittedly, limited. But every once in a while Rohloff hears a citizen repeat an arcane phrase that he has used in his newsletter articles. Then he knows that his message is getting through.
Frueh, the former city manager, said he no longer keeps up by reading the newsletter that he started. But he does have some advice for the current editor. “Today, I would use email or Facebook.”
Copyright 2013 Miles Maguire.
Miles Maguire has worked on newspapers, magazines and newsletters in a variety of cities, including Baltimore, Milwaukee, New York and Washington. He lives in Oshkosh, where he is working on a biography of journalist Thomas Whiteside.