Journalists Mark Doremus & Karen Slattery—Using Stories as Gateways, Part 2

Nothing is more bittersweet than meeting wonderful new people who were mutual friends of somebody you lost.

In the spring of 2019, I had the distinct honor of interviewing my dear friend and neighbor Judith Williams for the purpose of sharing her life story on my blog. My four posts comprised Judith’s unique eighty-year journey while Imagining a Better World of peace and social justice.

Having known Judith for almost seventeen years, I thought I knew a lot about her. But as story after story unfolded, I gained new appreciation—not just for her endeavors but for the unique person she was. 

From the get-go, her stories grabbed me. Stories of risk-taking and peace activism that landed her in jail. Tales of soothing wounded hearts with music therapy. Narratives of changing policies for alcohol offenders in Waukesha and starting a school in Nicaragua. Anecdotes of daily life and her whimsical animal friends.  

In January 2020, when she unexpectedly passed away, she left a big hole in our neighborhood and the entire Waukesha community. After all, Judith had still been active in a weekly peace vigil at the library (since 2001), in hosting monthly meetings, teaching piano lessons, leading church services at the jail, and serving on various boards, including the catholic Workers (small c intended).  

In the weeks after her passing (before COVID hit), I had the pleasure of getting to know her two daughters who lived out of town and came weekly to the house. They opened the house to everyone who knew and loved Judith—neighbors, piano students, board members, and more. As I mingled at the house and tried to help in various ways, I met several of these people either in person, by phone, or by email.

Two of those people are Mark Doremus and Karen Slattery.

Like Judith, they, too, are storytellers and proponents of social justice—through decades of journalism and recent documentaries. They brought to life the all but forgotten stories of Milwaukee’s black community of the 1940s and ‘50s through the film Remembering Bronzeville

“Stories are so powerful
because they’re a gateway to radical empathy
and that’s really what stories serve to humanity. . . .
The best stories are catalysts for action.”
—Bryce Dallas Howard

Besides Remembering Bronzeville, Mark and Karen have co-produced another film. This one is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and features residents dismayed over a proposed mine that has the potential to swallow their land. 

Mark Doremus and Karen Slattery in her office at Marquette University. Photo by Elena Fiegan, courtesy Marquette Wire.

Join me for more Q & A today with Mark and Karen.

What inspired you to produce the Back Forty film?

Mark: My wife’s side of the family has owned property for decades in Menominee County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the Back Forty open-pit mine is proposed to be located. Several years ago, Karen and I started seeing “Stop the Mine” yard signs all over the area and we decided to investigate.

We discovered there was widespread public opposition to the mine, which would be situated literally on the bank of the Menominee River in a pristine area west of Stephenson. Hundreds of people were protest-marching, and testifying at meetings and regulatory hearings, to express their concerns about the potential environmental damage the mine would inflict on their part of the UP. We felt compelled to tell the story of their campaign to stop the project, which is still going on to this day.

Marchers express their opposition to the proposed Back Forty project, a 750-foot-deep open pit mine to be located next to the wild and scenic Menominee River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Photo by Mark.

What was involved in producing the film?

Mark: Between us, Karen and I shot all the video, wrote the script, produced the graphics and edited the final film. It has been shown at film festivals and events in Upper Michigan and in Wisconsin. The story is still unfolding, so we plan to follow up on the prospecting company’s continued efforts to get the mine into operation.

What led you to the field of journalism?

Mark: My mother may have put it in my head that I should be a journalist. After World War Two she was a notetaker for an entertainment writer in Los Angles. He’d interview movie stars and she’d take shorthand. Many years later when I was a kid, she’d always put the Green Sheet of the San Francisco Chronicle in front of me and she’d encourage me to read Herb Caen’s gossip column, which probably reminded her of her brush with fame and the famous in L.A.

The high school newspaper and an obsession with photography followed. I spent most of my senior year in the photo lab, or on the street shooting pictures. After that it was four years in the Navy as a radio and television journalist. Then, in 1979, my first real news job.

Mark Doremus. Photo by Karen.

Karen: I majored in English Literature and Education as an undergraduate, but I didn’t want to teach high school English right of college at the age of 21. There weren’t a lot of other professional job options for women at the time.

Journalism seemed like something an English major could do as an alternative to teaching. So, I enrolled in the School of Journalism at UW-Madison as a grad student. I loved the idea of telling true stories with words, pictures and film. This was before digital photography. Back then you made prints on light-sensitive photo paper in a darkroom. I remember making my first print and seeing the image gradually appear in the tray full of developer. It was magic, and I was hooked.

Karen Slattery ca. 1981, helping with the WFRV-TV nightly news by “ripping wire copy.” Back then, wire service stories were printed out of the teletype machine on long rolls of paper. Stories had to be separated and sorted for possible use in the newscast. Photo by Mark.

How did know journalism was the right profession for you?

Mark: I knew I was in the right profession a few months into that job covering the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for WFRV-TV in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I was standing in the boiler room of an old, steam-powered railroad ferry called the Chief Wawatam. I was filming sweaty guys in dirty tee-shirts shoveling coal by hand in the boiler room, illuminated by the flames and flickering overhead lamps, as the old ship chuffed its way from St. Ignace to Mackinaw City.

There was no way I’d be there, filming that,
if wasn’t for that news job.
I was witness to a small but vivid bit of history:
the end of an era of steamboats
on the Great Lakes. —Mark

Karen: I knew TV journalism was right for me because I couldn’t wait to get to work every day. I loved the people, the storytelling, and the challenges. It just felt right.”

How did you meet?

Mark: We met in the newsroom at WFRV-TV. I remember Karen as clever and serious about the field of journalism. 

Karen: Mark was driven to do good work and already had a lot of hard-won experience, even though he was still pretty young.

I expected I would do intern things when I got to WFRV. But the station was short-handed, and they put me into field reporting right away. Gave me three days to prepare – and then I was on the air.

I loved the job because it put me in contact with so many remarkable people. My fellow journalists were irreverent, funny, and smart; and I met people and went places I never would have seen in any other job.

I moved over to WBAY-TV in Green Bay, where I worked for nine years while Mark wandered off to graduate school in Madison and jobs in TV news and public television there. We married in 1983.

What did you accomplish as a journalist?

As a journalist,
I wanted to tell other people’s stories
as honestly as I could
and give voice to what they were saying.
I was able to do that as a reporter.
–Karen

Karen: Later, I produced nightly newscasts at Channel Two. As a producer, you make hundreds of decisions preparing the show on deadline and then dozens more in split seconds helping to get the show on the air live. When you get it right, and the show goes well, it’s exhilarating. It takes energy and concentration to pull it off. I really enjoyed the challenge.

Karen’s press pass from the 1984 presidential campaign.

I finished my doctorate while working full time at Channel Two. Mark helped out with data analysis by feeding punch cards into a university mainframe computer (the first step in analyzing data).

That paid off when I was hired as an assistant journalism professor at Marquette University in 1989. I retired as full professor in May after 30 years at the university.

I went from doing journalism to teaching it, and now I’m back to doing it again, creating documentaries when I can.

I think truth matters.
We have to know the truth to find our way in the world
and maintain a democracy. — Karen

Mark: I really didn’t have any grand plan going in. 

For me, photojournalism is a game of skill, a treasure hunt.
You look with your eyes and your heart,
and you put yourself in the right place at the right time
to capture something real and, hopefully, meaningful.
A moment that resonates with your audience.
— Mark

How did you meet Judith? What was your role in the catholic Worker?

Mark: I met Judith through my work with SOPHIA, a peace and justice organization made up of churches and faith communities. I remember sitting at a card table on the sidewalk in downtown Waukesha with Judith, doing a voter registration drive. I was struck by her serenity and her faith commitment, and her dedication to social justice. I went home and told Karen, “This is someone you really need to meet.”

Karen: Judith and I became friends. Then I joined book groups and study sessions that she hosted at the catholic Worker House. I truly enjoyed being in her company; she was such an inspiration.

Judith Williams at home, Spring 2019. Besides her involvement in peace vigils, the catholic Worker House, and SOPHIA, she played her guitar for music therapy and weekly church services at the jail. Picture courtesy of former neighbor Nancy Anderson.

What social justice issues and organizations are you involved with?

Karen: I’m on the board of directors of the Plowshare Center. It’s a non-profit that aims to create a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world. It runs a fair-trade store in downtown Waukesha that sells the work of artists living in developing countries. Plowshare also creates educational programs that promote global peace. I’m on the education committee, which puts together those outreach events.

Mark: I continue to serve on the board of directors of the Waukesha catholic Worker House, as we seek a new direction after the death of Judith Williams, the president and founder of the House. It’s been very rewarding to help with the organization’s local efforts to promote social justice.

Karen, which class at Marquette did you most enjoy teaching?

Karen: I loved teaching journalism and media ethics. We all face moral dilemmas, which I’ve always found fascinating, and the opportunity to explore them in a professional journalism context was always engaging. I enjoyed hearing what the students had to say. It was extremely rewarding to mentor them as they grappled with ethics questions and deepened their understanding of moral values.

Marquette University is a Jesuit institution with a social justice mission, and that makes for an environment where students are expected to embrace moral decision-making and are receptive to the task.

How is teaching college different from when you started?

Karen: Information technology revolutionized higher education over the course of my career. As educators, we’ve had to learn new teaching strategies – it’s not enough to stand in front of a class and lecture.  Students expect engagement; they want to see, hear, and experience course content in a multi-sensory way. The classroom is much more interactive. It is a much richer learning environment than I knew as a college student.

What is the most challenging part of teaching journalism and media studies?

Karen: Along with its impact in the classroom, technology has revolutionized journalism. When I started as a journalist, digital media was just in its infancy. Now, everything is computer based, from content creation to delivery. It’s been challenging to remain up to date with cameras and recording devices, computer software and new presentation formats. Contributing news stories to Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and working on documentaries has helped me do that.

What’s the most rewarding part of teaching journalism?

Karen: It’s helping students learn the craft, sharing their disappointments and achievements, and seeing some of them rise to the top of their profession. When I see reports from one of my former students on national media, or hear that someone’s taken a leadership role in a major news organization, that makes me proud of their work, and pleased to know I might have had a little bit to do with their success.

Mark, what led you to return to school for a law degree and take a new career direction?

My decision to exit television news for a career based in law was entirely practical. My wife and I had a one-year-old son, and she had just taken a tenure-track faculty position at Marquette, which was very demanding of her time. Retooling got me out of journalism—where you have to move around the country to move up in the profession—and gave us the stability we needed to raise our son.

My law-related job, negotiating research grants and contracts for two University of Wisconsin campuses, was predictable and nine-to-five, and that’s what we needed at the time. Now I’m retired, and I’m blessed with the energy and resources to return to journalism and documentary filmmaking as a free-lancer. So, the professional detour I made for the sake of my family worked out fine.

Do you have ideas for future documentaries?

Mark: We’re hunkered down for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. It has limited our ability to get out and produce new content. However, I do have an idea for a project that’s been swimming around in my head for many years: the post-war history of Waukesha County, and how suburbanization shaped the political and social character it has today.

Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?

Karen: I’m most proud, as a college professor, of the academic research I’ve published. I enjoyed that part of my teaching career and, though I am now retired, I continue to work on research projects with colleagues. 

Mark: Honestly, I feel everything I’ve done professionally is just a warm-up. I’m on the hunt for more great stories, and compelling characters, to document in the years ahead.

Check these out:

Bio:

Karen Slattery recently retired as a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Before joining the university, she was a television news reporter and producer. She has been a summer reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio and a contributor to Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. She has co-produced two feature-length documentary films with her husband, Mark. Karen holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Mark Doremus is a journalist and multimedia storyteller. He worked for several years as a television news reporter and photographer, a producer of training films and interactive media, and as the editor of a corporate newspaper before receiving a law degree from the University of Wisconsin and starting a second career in higher education, negotiating grants and contracts for UW System schools. He also holds a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Do you know of any real life stories that need to be explored in film? What would you like to see a documentary about?

Also, please add other comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,

Laura

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6 thoughts on “Journalists Mark Doremus & Karen Slattery—Using Stories as Gateways, Part 2

  1. Laura, I love to read your stories about good people who have lived such interesting and engaged lives. Reading about Mark and Karen’s early journalism careers made me wish I had gone into journalism! And it’s always a pleasure to read about Judith. She was an amazing combination of strength and courage along with gentleness and kindness.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Nancy. And yes, at first I wondered if I missed my calling, too! But I ended up in education and that was the right profession for me.

  2. I love that Karen looked for something other than teaching, but then ended up teaching after all 🙂 I’m guessing her experience in journalism really enriched the courses she taught. I also love her statement that truth matters and that we have to know that truth to find our way in the world. Unfortunately, the world can be very loud—and truth can be twisted. Her class in media ethics must have been fascinating.
    And Mark’s statement about looking with your eyes and your heart… and hoping to meaningfully resonate with your audience. Ahh, a true artist’s words.
    Thanks for introducing us to this couple!

    1. Yes, experience in any given field definitely enhances teaching. And it seems that teaching media ethics would just get more complicated with each generation.

  3. Both Mark and Karen had my dream jobs. Not certain I would have had the grit to make any of their several professions work like they did, but it is interesting to read about their journey! I love picturing the world of a newsroom pre-super-technology days.
    Thanks for sharing their stories and I hope we are soon in a post-Covid age when they can pursue their projects.

    1. So glad you enjoyed learning about their journeys. It’s fascinating to think about how technology over the past few decades changed the nature and methods of so many careers, in this case journalism.

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