Jeramey Jannene

Urban Milwaukee Burned, Its Members Made It Rise

Fire could have been the end; instead it was a launchpad. Help us build what's next.

By - Jun 7th, 2021 04:50 am
Milwaukee Fire Department battles Colby-Abbot Building fire on June 7th, 2020. Photo from MFD.

Milwaukee Fire Department battles Colby Abbot Building fire on June 7th, 2020. Photo from MFD.

It would have been easy to throw in the towel on June 7th, 2020.

An early morning fire in our home, the Colby Abbot Building, left our office a charred, wet mess. Our printer became a sculptural piece of melted plastic and metal. Shattered glass was everywhere. Desks were flipped atop one another, with ax marks showing how members of the Milwaukee Fire Department charged through the room.

The three-alarm fire didn’t start in our office, but it was clear our small space had become ground zero to fight the blaze below. It was a big enough fire that MFD uses a picture of its members fighting the blaze as the featured image on its website.

But instead of a day of despair, it was the most inspiring day in the history of the publication.

An outpouring of support from our existing members triggered a wave of signups from new members. It validated why we were working day and night to cover Milwaukee. It also accelerated our growth.

Our members, those that sign up to pay $99 per year or $9 per month — less than 3 cents per story we publish — are the life blood of our publication.

Their dollars pay for people, not profits, writers, not dividends. Every dollar goes to pay for producing an article or improving the website. It funds a sustainable, independent publication.

Our members enabled us to hire Graham Kilmer in a newly-created full-time role shortly after the fire. His position, covering county government and other Milwaukee news, is entirely funded by membership dollars.

Last week we also welcomed two new part-time members to our team, both paid by membership dollars. Angeline Terry and Hope Moses, journalism students at St. Thomas University and Marquette University respectively, will be with us this summer and hopefully well into the future. Their bylines have started to appear on articles already.

We have also increased our freelance budget and are kicking off a process that will continually improve our website.

If we simply relied on advertising dollars Urban Milwaukee would be a much smaller and less important publication. We wouldn’t have been out covering the racial justice protests until the wee hours of the morning. We would cover only the obvious restaurant or business openings, not those by first-time entrepreneurs in oft-overlooked neighborhoods. There is no chance we would have been mentioned in the Donald Trump impeachment trial.

Membership puts our focus on quality, not clicks. It allows us to assign someone to cover a government committee meeting instead of writing a top 10 list. The latter would get more traffic, the former is crucial to a functioning democracy at a time when representative government is under threat across the globe.

Here at Urban Milwaukee, we’re optimistic about the future, while knowing that many challenges lay ahead. One year after the fire, the final repairs to the building are taking place alongside our return to the office. No foul play was found to have caused the fire and no one, fortunately, was injured.

We’re getting ready to bring back member events, the exclusive events that were a key perk of being a member pre-pandemic. Our sister business, Urban Milwaukee: The Store, reopened after also being destroyed in the fire (and provides a 10% discount for Urban Milwaukee members).

But, as we asked the day of the fire, we must not lose sight of why people were marching in the streets and why we cover Milwaukee.

We know we have a long way to go to fully cover the city as it deserves, but the only way we will get there is with your support. Our goal is a trifecta of more local news reporting, better members-only events and a better website. We’re in this for the long haul. And we hope you are too.

Become a member today. Help build a better Milwaukee tomorrow.


One thought on “Urban Milwaukee Burned, Its Members Made It Rise”

  1. B says:

    I had noticed a new reporter byline – glad to see this wonderful and important site grow!

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