Milton Courier Editor Debilzen sees self as 'community guide'

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, January 5, 2014

MILTON—At 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday, Milton Courier Editor James Debilzen rounds up his news staff and heads behind a vinyl curtain into the break room in the back of the small newspaper office.

At The Courier, the break room is where The Courier staff makes the gravy—the place where the weekly newspaper's workers mull, vet and earmark Milton's latest stories during their once-weekly news meeting.

Debilzen lays out a week's worth of news story ideas on a small Formica folding table that seats the weekly paper's four-person news desk: himself, his two reporters, Michael Gouvion and intern Brandon Feivor, and the paper's page designer, Susan Angell.

All told, the meeting takes about 25 minutes. It's brief in part because it's chilly; in the dead of winter, the cinderblock walled break room must be about 15 degrees colder than the newsroom up front.

But the meeting also is short because after Debilzen outlines what he would like to see in next week's newspaper's next edition, he gets out of the way. He opens the floor to his reporters to discuss stories they have been working on, gives some gentle direction and then lets his staff and the flow of the small city's news do their respective thing.   

“I don't feel like a figurehead, and I'm not one,” Deblizen said in an interview with The Gazette. “The newspaper belongs to the community as a whole. My role is only to guide that and make sure it is getting out to people.”

Debilzen's understated, almost unassuming nature belies more than a decade of hard work that has earned him recognition from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association as a “Future Headliner.” He is one of four Wisconsin journalists the WNA selected in December as emerging leaders in news media who are under the age of 30.

Debilzen, who is 28, lives in Milton with his wife, Tara, a teacher at St. Patrick Elementary in Janesville, and his children Amelia, 5, Roland, 3, and newborn son Ezra. He has been The Courier's editor since Aug. 2012.

In his short tenure, Debilzen has led big changes at the little newspaper. He oversaw a major redesign of the paper's look last year; The Courier went from a tabloid layout—a magazine-style format—to a broadsheet newspaper. He has also supervised the paper's launch of a new website and spearheaded The Courier's emerging presence on social networking sites Twitter and Facebook.

This after taking the helm of the community's paper after the departure of Doug Welch, who spent 21 years as the paper's editor.

Debilzen, a 2007 UW-Whitewater print journalism graduate, got his start in journalism at age 16, stuffing advertising inserts and later proofreading and typing up copy at a newspaper in his hometown of Oregon.

He has worked as a beat reporter at the Daily Jefferson County Union newspaper in Fort Atkinson, and was an editor at two weekly papers in the Madison area. Debilzen decided he would be a journalist after a high school teacher tagged one of his term papers with a note that suggested he would make a good news reporter.

That's all it took.

“The only other job I've really had I worked in a grocery store in college for a summer, stocking shelves. That's my other skill. So, for me, it's journalism. I don't plan to do anything else,” Debilzen said.

At The Courier, Debilzen handles dozens of duties, including editing, page layout, photography, writing news, attending community functions as the public face of the paper and even handling human resources details. He also posts stories on the web and breaks news for The Courier on social media outlets.

Deblizen's had weeks when he and a reporter have rushed to a late-night restaurant fire in pajamas. One week, when he got the stomach flu in the middle of The Courier's Tuesday print deadline, Debilzen spread out a laptop and newspaper proof pages on his living room floor at home.

When they open The Courier, readers aren't aware of the lengths a small-town journalist sometimes has to go to get the paper out. Debilzen believes it doesn't matter.

"I've seen a reporter who was finishing up stories while she was in early labor. It's crazy. But that's just what you do," he said.

Debilzen's diverse set of work duties, which he says can take 50 to 60 hours during a slow news week, are not uncommon among weekly newspaper editors. News industry analysts predict that reporters of the future, even at major metropolitan papers, will someday have to handle many of those responsibilities.

On Debilzen's newsroom desk are two computers, two smartphones and a wireless tablet—but also an old Smith Corona typewriter and an antique camera his grandmother gave to him.

Those disparate tools could be a metaphor for how Debilzen views himself: a human clutch that is caught between old-school, ink-stained print reporters, and newly minted journalists more attuned to the blips and beeps of the digital media age.

Debilzen knows how to blast out Twitter messages and Facebook postings on a breaking news story that might otherwise have to wait a week to get in print at The Courier, but he believes his main business is still in selling printed newspapers.

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association plans over the next year to probe Debilzen and its four other Future Headliners on how they cultivate readers.

Debilzen said he has already told WNA officials in meetings that he believes newspapers, especially small weeklies, don't spend enough time focusing on improving page design to make printed newspapers more attractive and easier to read.

But perhaps the greatest challenge Debilzen believes, is finding ways to get younger adults to read newspapers.

Debilzen's neighborhood in Milton is mostly people in their 30s. He estimates there are about 50 school-age children who live on his street. Debilzen said he remembers his next-door neighbor being astounded to learn Debilzen was The Courier's editor. The neighbor didn't even know Milton had a paper.

Debilzen wasn't surprised.

“I know that younger readers aren't reading the newspaper. It's just a fact. But I want to change that. The younger demographic is who we need to be reaching. We need to put an emphasis on education reporting—the schools, and what the kids are doing,” Debilzen said.

New models in digital news media, which include independent, hyper-local community pages produced by local residents, offer proof that people continue to want an inside track on everyday life in their hometown. 

Debilzen believes local newspapers will always find a way to deliver those stories best.

“I never get tired of the feeling when I take a kid or even an adult's photo. They're excited. They're going to be in the newspaper. Especially in a small town, there's real cultural power in that,” Debilzen said. “That's why I still find hope in what we do, and it's why I do it. I think we still have a future.”

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