By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
The “shop local” mantra must extend to mom-and-pop grocery stores, or one Wisconsin community risks losing its regional food supply chains to conglomerate farming operations.
That is the key takeaway from “Outbroken: A Pandemic’s Effect on Wisconsin’s Food and Farms,” an 8½-minute documentary film and 4,500-word story from Volume One, an Eau Claire-based news outlet that has served the growing Chippewa Valley area for nearly 20 years.
The alternative news publication has long pushed for local pride in Eau Claire, a west-central Wisconsin city of about 70,000 residents.
“We are a very community-focused organization in an area that has seen incredible growth over the past decade,” said Nick Meyer, the owner, publisher and editor for Volume One.
Normally published every other week in print, that operation has scaled back distribution post-COVID-19 to every three weeks, said Meyer, who also served as executive producer of “Outbroken.” The project received first-place recognition in Local Media Association’s 2020 Local Media Digital Innovation Awards for the Best Digital News Project category.
According to Meyer, the project might not have been possible without support from Facebook Journalism Project as well as a regional sponsor, Pablo Food Hub.
“Print is still our biggest piece but also the part that hurt the most in the past year,” Meyer said. “So it was great to get funding during this scary-difficult year.”
The publication recently expanded its video production work, he said, although “Outbroken” represents the most ambitious video story produced by Volume One so far, Meyer said, especially when including the full story and photos that complemented the documentary.
While such video work isn’t new to Volume One, Meyer acknowledges the scope of this project wouldn’t have been possible without grants and sponsorships.
The funding also helped Volume One obtain new video equipment for the project. The project included contributions from the full Volume One editorial team, including a half-dozen core people, Meyer said. In total, the operation includes 18 full-time staffers and another 10 part-timers.
Volume One started in 2002 with a focus on the Eau Claire arts, music and theatre scenes. As the news coverage expanded, so, too, did the publication’s revenue streams. The company started hosting community events before it became widespread industry practice, Meyer said. He also owns The Local Store, a 4,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar retail operation on the ground floor of the publication’s historic downtown office building.
The Local Store was borne out of pride for the community and an effort to promote Eau Claire in a positive light, he said. It also gives loyal readers a chance to contribute to Volume One without being an advertiser or sponsor.
“People wanted to know how they could support us, but we didn’t have a membership program at that point,” Meyer said. “So we had them support us by shopping at a store that happens to be a cool place.”
The store first entered the fold 11-12 years ago before opening at its current location a decade ago. Retail revenue remained strong despite COVID-19, he said.
However, as print revenue declined, the publication embraced direct reader support in the form of a new membership model, which solicited donations ranging from $25 to $500 one-time contributions in exchange for city-branded water bottles, tote bags, and additional store swag and discounts.
Perhaps the biggest pivot during the pandemic, according to Meyer, came in the form of the grant-seeking process. In addition to financial support from Facebook Journalism Project, some regional grants also materialized during the pandemic, he said. Should that support continue to pour in, Meyer anticipates additional ambitious projects similar to “Outboken.”
“We want to do more work like that,” he said. “Maybe a once-a-year project or it could be series-based work.”
Just before the pandemic, his team produced an extensive report forecasting Eau Claire’s growth the next 10 years. There is also an ongoing podcast and video series featuring monologues from local writers. The importance of Volume One’s work cannot be overstated, Meyer said, given its local ownership unique to the market.
“We’re certainly the last independent operation locally,” he said. “I think that’s why we probably have a good-size brand awareness as the main source of information in town.”
Thank you to TownNews for sponsoring the LMA Digital Innovation Awards category Best Digital News Project. Volume One received first place in this category and second place for Best Local Website.