Dishing out a Slice of Life: An Interview with Louis Fortis
Nonfiction by Emily Jon Tobias
Louis Fortis has had nine solid careers in his 65 years. He has shifted from economics professor and community organizer to state legislator and real estate developer. These days he is firmly rooted in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, where he edits and publishes the liberal and creative newspaper, The Shepherd Express. He has experienced the highs of political success and the lows of plummeting failure. But his rough upbringing in Lawndale, on Chicago’s South Side, taught him to bounce back and fight for what he believes in.
From early on, he made a choice to take risks. Because he did, people can stroll into local coffee shops, bars, and restaurants each week and grab a slice of life that encapsulates Milwaukee culture. The paper embraces literature, arts and entertainment, and politics, and showcases writing that is factual, literary, and advances communal intelligence. Independent print journalism is alive and well in The Shepherd Express.
I’ve never taken a journalism class in my life. I’m not a trained journalist.
The Shepherd is independently owned, correct?
Correct, yes, very independently owned.
How did you come to own The Shepherd Express?
So after I left politics, (growing up in Lawndale, you aren’t looking forward to a big inheritance when you live in neighborhoods like that!) I decided that I needed to just do some economic development for myself. So I rescued some properties out of bankruptcy. Through commercial real estate I made enough money so that I didn’t have to work anymore for a salary. [In the fall of 1997,] I was doing a lot of non-profit work and someone said The Shepherd is in big trouble.
What initially intrigued you about a newspaper like The Shepherd?
I thought they were kind of intellectually interesting in that they were able to deal with more complex and interesting things and had a broad audience. The Shepherd is a smart publication. We are a smarter read. We don’t dumb it down at all.
We try to treat people like they’re smart.
What do you mean by “dumbing it down”?
Take a look at most of the network news on television and it’s dumbed down. They treat people like they’re 12 years old because the market research says that people don’t pay a lot of attention to news and people don’t seem to care so they keep it real simple. And issues are not simple. I certainly learned that when I was in legislature. Politics are not simple. So we try to treat people like they’re smart and it works in the sense that The Shepherd has 253,000 readers. Over a quarter million. So it works. These are people who want intelligent, forward-looking coverage, whether it’s news or arts and entertainment or music or any variety of things.
I came to this whole situation—the newspaper—because of my interest in politics, economics and current affairs. In terms of being able to write and be a journalist, if you write a dissertation, you learn how to write. You learn how to write a book, basically, so that’s not the problem, and when you are on the other side of the microphone as a politician you learn how that all works. So, in a lot of ways, it makes a lot of sense to have someone running a paper, an editor, who has real world experiences in politics, real world experiences in business development, real world experience in actually governing and sharing committees and doing all that.
I think somebody should really try to get a broad liberal arts education, really get out there and do various things and then at least when you become a journalist you know what you are talking about.
How do you reconcile the creative aspects of writing with the decisions you have to make as an editor? If somebody brings you a really creative piece, how do you see it fitting into The Shepherd’s realm?
First of all, if it’s on a topic that we think is interesting, the, we will look into it. It absolutely has to be factually 100% accurate, and we have fact-checkers that check through everything. If somebody writes something and submits it and the fact-checker then finds ten things that were not accurate, then the next time you are not going to deal with that person because it’s like, whoa, there is too much risk here; this person is sloppy in their work and they’re not taking it seriously.
Can you elaborate on The Shepherd’s point of view and how it relates to European journalism?
Yeah, [in Europe] different political parties have their own newspapers. And Milwaukee used to have that. The Milwaukee Journal was the afternoon paper when the blue collar workers would come home from work and they would read the paper. The Sentinel was the morning paper and that was for the executives who would read it at work. So you had a Democratic [paper] and a Republican paper. When they merged, you now have a hybrid that really is a right-winged paper, but it claims that it isn’t, where back in the old days it was pretty clear. As a journalist, if you are working for a right-winged paper, you know that if there is an issue, you are going to talk to management more than labor and if you work for a liberal Democratic paper, you are going to talk to labor a little more than management. There are a lot of little decisions that go into writing an article and there is really no such thing as objective journalism. I mean, everything is biased because somebody is writing it and when they’re writing it, they have points of view, and they manifest that point of view not by being factually inaccurate but by quoting various people.
I know there are a lot of different facets of The Shepherd. I remember when I was 16 I used to religiously pick up The Shepherd for its take on culture, arts, music, entertainment and so on. So how does Milwaukee culture actually affect The Shepherd?
First of all, for a city our size, we have A LOT of cultural events. I mean, we have a lot of music, we have a lot of theater, live theater, we have a festival every weekend in the summertime, the ethnic festivals. The music scene has really developed over the last, say, 10 years. So there’s a lot of stuff to cover. Far too much. We have to pick and choose and it’s hard. It’s kind of like Sophie’s Choice, to choose between this article and that topic versus another.
You have had many careers in your life. So are you passionate about staying with The Shepherd or do you see something else for yourself in the future?
I certainly plan to stay with The Shepherd. It’s a tough business these days, a very tough business, but The Shepherd will be around and I definitely plan to be involved. Might I cut back at some point? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t have a general manager or something like that and that doesn’t mean that I won’t be involved in the bigger policy issues at The Shepherd.
I am a student of creative writing who loves poetry and fiction—and I want to work! Can you give me or somebody in my shoes some advice on how to get my feet wet in this type of business?
There are always a couple choices. You can take your poetry and that aspect in your life and have it as your avocation and have a “day job.” Or you can try to work at some publication like The Shepherd where as you develop currency there and you get more involved, you can start to argue for the pieces you want to write creatively. A woman that worked for me was an assistant arts and entertainment editor and she wanted to do a short story contest so she argued it well and convinced us. I think she was sorry, because we ended up getting 100 and some entries! She was the main person, the first person reviewing the stories so she really, really put a ton of time in but she loved it. It was something she cared about deeply. So that’s one way to do it. To get a foot in and then once you’re in, have an influence on what’s going on.
The weak ones might fall out of the picture, but smart publications learn to adapt.
Do you think print media will survive given all of our other influences? What makes The Shepherd survive?
We have a good readership. We have a good, loyal readership, number one. 253,000 readers. Number two is that radio didn’t put newspapers out of business. It kind of shook out and the newspaper found its new role. Television didn’t put radio or newspapers out of business. There was a shake-up and a shake-down and they all found their roles. And that’s gonna happen again. The weak ones might fall out of the picture, but smart publications learn to adapt.