Subscribers fight Wisconsin governor’s plan to axe natural resources magazine

By Cassandra Willyard, Columbia Journalism Review

WISCONSIN GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER’S recent budget proposal took aim at an unlikely opponent—a nearly century-old state magazine that covers the state’s resources and outdoor recreation. In February, Walker recommended axing Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, a publication put out by the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and fully funded by its more than 80,000 subscribers. Walker and his allies argue that the move will allow the agency to focus on its core mission. “It is not the government’s role to produce magazines that duplicate what is available in the private market,” said Walker’s spokesperson Tom Evenson in a statement to reporters.

But critics of the proposal don’t buy that argument. Public outreach and public involvement has always been part of DNR’s mission, says David Sperling, who served as the magazine’s editor from 1987 until 2011. And because the magazine delves into conservation initiatives and policy decisions happening at the DNR, it provides content that isn’t duplicated elsewhere.

Some see the proposal to eliminate the magazine as the latest move to stifle science and hamper outreach at the DNR. “It just seems to be one more example of the agency lacking transparency and not valuing the importance of communication and education,” says Natasha Kassulke, a journalist who edited the magazine after Sperling left. “That should be a core value of a natural resource agency.”

WHEN KASSULKE JOINED THE MAGAZINE as editor in 2011, she viewed it as a dream job. It seemed like the perfect way to marry her background in biology and her decade of experience working as a reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal.

At first, Kassulke had license to pick and choose her stories. In 2013, however, she published an insert on climate change funded by the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

In fact, the insert on climate change was the last time the magazine mentioned the issue. A search for ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ turns up zero hits after 2013.

That insert caught the attention of the agency’s leaders, she says, and sparked a dramatic change in the editorial process. Kassulke had always submitted a list of the stories she planned to run to the agency’s communications director. But soon after the insert came out, agency leaders told her that she would need to submit the full text of all stories to the entire leadership team for review.

The leadership team (which included the secretary, deputy secretary, and division administrators) decided to scrap several stories, including some that, at first blush, didn’t seem all that controversial. One piece focused on efforts to bring back the American marten, an endangered species in Wisconsin. The story included a map of the animal’s habitat, Kassulke says, which overlapped a proposed iron mine site in Northern Wisconsin. “So that story was killed,” Kassulke says.

Agency leaders also prohibited stories on frac sand mining, privatization of groundwater, and climate change, Kassulke says. And they told her she could no longer use the terms “global warming” and “climate change.” In fact, the 2013 insert on climate change was the last time the magazine mentioned the issue. A search for “climate change” or “global warming” turns up zero hits after 2013.

“I really at that point felt I had lost editorial control. I felt like we were no longer able to cover some of the most critical environmental issues in our state,” Kassulke says. In 2016, she resigned.

DNR spokesperson Jim Dick didn’t address any of Kassulke’s allegations directly, but he noted that the proposal to terminate the magazine was a business decision, not an editorial one.

The state estimates that eliminating the magazine would save nearly $545,000 a year. That’s just 0.001 percent of the state’s $45 billion annual budget. And that money doesn’t come from taxpayers. The magazine is fully funded by its subscribers. About 48,000 people pay the $8.97 annual subscription fee, and another 40,000 receive the magazine as a perk when they purchase a premium hunting and fishing license. Content comes from non-profits, unpaid freelance writers and photographers, and DNR staff.

Cutting the magazine was never about saving money, says George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former DNR secretary. “They don’t value providing information to the public. They don’t see the public as people they work for.” When Meyer served as secretary, DNR employees could freely speak with the media. Now “they’re basically gagged,” he says.

Many critics see eliminating the magazine as simply another way for the administration to further hobble an agency focused on science and the environment. Walker’s 2015 budget cut 66 DNR staff positions, including 18 staff scientists—nearly a third of the agency’s science bureau staff—and 11 educators. That same year, fines collected from polluters plummeted to the lowest levels in 30 years. Last December, the DNR altered climate change language on its website, striking mention of the role of human activities and carbon dioxide. The revised language implies “that changes in climate are natural, mysterious, and driven by causes that still stir debate among climate scientists,” wrote a group of University of Wisconsin faculty members.

DESPITE INCREASED EDITORIAL INTERFERENCE, Kassulke believes Wisconsin Natural Resources is worth saving. The publication has a rich history of covering complex and sometimes contentious topics. Sperling ran stories on manure management and runoff, shoreland development, and the Clean Water Act. While the magazine now rarely covers those kinds of issues, it still provides an important home for articles about invasive species removal, hunter safety, wildlife monitoring, and more. And there’s always the possibility that the magazine might regain some of its editorial independence under future secretaries. “What I’m hoping is not just to save the magazine, but that there would be some more flexibility in editorial content and some of these more critical issues could be addressed,” Kassulke says.

Supporters have found another way to protest too. Subscriptions to the magazine are up.

Soon after Walker released his budget proposal, Kassulke started talking with Sperling, Meyer, and former communications director Laurel Steffes. “We knew that the subscribers would be dramatically opposed to this,” Meyer says. However, they weren’t sure how to alert them to the threat. Wisconsin has an open records law, but the team suspected that a request for the full list of subscribers would be denied. Then Kassulke remembered that subscribers could opt in to receive the magazine’s email newsletter. The team requested that list, and two days later they had it in hand—46,000 email addresses. The team divvied up the list and began methodically contacting subscribers. So far they’ve sent more than 17,000 emails.

That effort has paid off. “The emails just poured in to the joint finance committee,” Meyer says. Letters also started piling up in Gov. Walker’s office. An open records request by The Progressive revealed that between mid-February, when the proposal was released, and mid-March, the Governor’s office received more than 150 emails, letters, and postcards, all in favor of keeping the magazine.

“I do not understand why you think this informative, educational, and beautiful publication should be eliminated,” wrote one 20-year subscriber. “The less people know about the role of the DNR in resource management, the less they will understand and support the crucial work the DNR does for Wisconsin’s plants, wildlife, and environments.”

Katrina Shankland, a state representative who serves on the Joint Committee on Finance, says that she hears about the magazine more than almost any other issue. And it’s not just constituents writing in. Shankland has received letters from number of out-of-state subscribers as well. “At any given time of day somebody is emailing me about the DNR magazine. That’s not true for every issue,” she says.

Supporters have found another way to protest too. Subscriptions to the magazine are up. Between mid-February and mid-March, the DNR received 2,300 additional subscriptions, an increase of three percent. Another 350 subscribers renewed.

AT A BUDGET BRIEFING ON MARCH 30, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp pointed out that the magazine wouldn’t necessarily have to die. “I think there’s tremendous opportunity for someone in the private sector to take this over,” she told lawmakers.

That’s what happened in neighboring Michigan. That state’s Department of Natural Resources decided to privatize its natural resources magazine in 1993. By 1998 the publisher had stopped making payments, and a year later it had halted publication.

Shankland notes that Wisconsin subscribers don’t want a private magazine. “They not only cherish what’s offered to them in the magazine, but they support the concept of the DNR being the one to publish it,” she says. While a private magazine might have greater editorial independence, the content would undoubtedly change. Subscribers “have respected the publication as a voice of authority coming from the agency that they trusted to manage the state’s natural resources,” Kassulke says.

The magazine’s fate depends on what happens in the next couple of months in the 16-member Joint Committee on Finance. Shankland says that if no one introduces a motion to strike the proposal from the budget, she will. The motion would need support from at least nine members of the committee. Shankland doesn’t have firm commitments of support yet, but she says the comments she heard from other committee members at the budget briefing were encouraging. “I think public engagement has certainly helped move the needle on this issue,” she says.

Stepp, the DNR secretary, has argued that the agency can more effectively communicate with the public through digital platforms. “Our social media and digital distribution reach is far greater than our print magazine subscriptions,” she wrote in testimony for the budget briefings.

But that argument doesn’t sway Kassulke, who served as the agency’s Twitter administrator. The DNR’s social media feeds are a place for good news, not complex, multi-faceted environmental topics. “These aren’t stories you can tell in 140 characters or less,” she says.