The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel became the latest publication to swoop into Rock County and deliver a bleak assessment about the region.
The opening scene of Monday’s story sets the tone for the whole piece: A recovering heroin addict is walking along a Janesville street and talking about the friends he’s lost to drugs when another recovering addict greets him from a passing car. Adding to the dismalness is a front-page photo using the shuttered GM plant (what else?) as a backdrop.
If one didn’t live here and know better, you’d think the streets of Janesville were filled with addicts and recovering ones.
This is the sort of one-dimensional portrayal of the region we’ve come to expect from outsiders (Mother Jones magazine did the same thing in 2009). It’s a cliché to characterize Janesville in a downward spiral since the closing of the GM plant nearly a decade ago. It’s a cliché, too, to dismiss the expansions of other manufacturers, the region’s surging tax base and downtown Janesville revitalization efforts.
To be sure, this region has many challenges—heroin being one of them—but these gloomy narratives emerge only by their authors ignoring positive developments.
Here’s a sample of some expansions over the past couple years:
- W.W. Grainger on Janesville’s east side has hired hundreds of employees over the past two years and recently began in-house leadership training programs to help employees advance in the company.
- Dollar General’s distribution warehouse has hired hundreds of workers, and while it doesn’t pay GM union levels, workers average $16 to $17 an hour to start, according to company hiring fliers.
- Plastics company GOEX is in the process of expanding its warehousing and clean room facilities on the city’s north side to meet booming demand in markets it serves.
- In southern Rock County, Pratt Industries opened a $52 million box plant this year.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation remains committed to the Interstate 90/39 expansion project, even as the agency has shelved other Interstate projects (including in the Journal Sentinel’s own backyard). Officials have made I-90/39 a top priority because they recognize the corridor’s and this region’s economic importance.
The Journal Sentinel offers a litany of statistics to buttress its story line while making sure positive data don’t interfere. The story manages to put a negative spin on Rock County’s extraordinarily low unemployment rate, even noting the rate “doesn’t count those in jail.” Perhaps the message is that Rock County’s unemployment rate would be much higher if not for an excessive number of incarcerated drug addicts. But Rock County’s incarceration rate of 450 per 100,000 residents is comparable to neighboring Walworth, Racine and Kenosha counties and far less than outliers, such as Forest County at 1,073 per 100,000, according to data from the nonprofit Vera Institute for Justice.
Rock County has problems similar to many other counties, and we’re not denying them or their severity, but this region is not an extreme example of economic and societal dysfunction often portrayed by parachuting journalists.
We refuse to allow pockets of instability to define us. The Journal Sentinel piece is a reminder that we as a community must take responsibility for telling our own story, especially if outsiders seem bent on casting this region as a failure.