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The Paper
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George Zens: Guru of the Sustainable Times
In comparing his former and current homes, Zens says that Dane County residents are 'more conscious of the need to use more sustainable practices in all areas of society than people in Luxembourg.'
In comparing his former and current homes, Zens says that Dane County residents are 'more conscious of the need to use more sustainable practices in all areas of society than people in Luxembourg.'
Credit:George Zens

George Zens is finally breaking even. It only took three years, but that's not too bad. The newspaper industry has seen massive consolidation on the national level in recent years. Regional news sources, those going "local, local, local," have actually been doing all right. Some, like the Sustainable Times, are even growing. This past October, George Zens' personal media creation generated enough ad revenue to put a little extra in the bank. It is finally sustainable.

Zens, 45, is a career journalist and a native of Luxembourg, a small country in central Western Europe. But, as an exchange student, he graduated from Madison's West High School in 1980. Tammy Baldwin was the valedictorian of his graduating class. After living and working in Europe through the 1980s and '90s, he moved to Wisconsin in 2000 with his wife, a Middleton native, and their two oldest children. In spring 2004, prompted by a trip to the busy Dane County Farmers' Market, a light bulb suddenly flickered inside the editor's head. No doubt it was a compact fluorescent.

"It occurred to me," Zens recalls of his epiphany, "there was no publication in the area that consistently covered anything that had to do with sustainability." So he did some research. His idea struck a favorable chord with the chorus of vendors at the farmers' market so, he adds with a wry smile, "I drew up a business plan on a coaster, and that was it."

The first issue of the Sustainable Times was 16 pages and had only a couple dozen advertisers. The most recent issue has over 150 advertisers and fills 36 pages. With a circulation of 12,000 copies a month, it will break 40 pages by next spring, the publisher predicts.

Even though his main challenges have been economic, Zens is determined to keep the paper free. "The point of my newspaper is to get it out there and to get the information out there that I want people to have," he says with emphasis, and a clear Germanic accent. "That is why it is free, and that is why I make it available as much as I can. I don't publish a newspaper to keep it secret."

And of course, it is intensely local: local foods, retail, beer, and plenty of local people. Zens has little interest in covering big-box stores or chain restaurants, nor does he generally accept their advertising dollars. One notable exception is Whole Foods.

"That is the exception confirming the rule," he says. Whole Foods also happens to be one of his paper's top distribution points. Patrons there pick up about 2,000 copies a month. Willy St. Co-op and the Middleton Public Library are other sustainability hot spots. Distribution has grown into Jefferson County and several small towns outside of the Madison/Middleton nexus, including Mount Horeb and Roxbury.

"Right now I'm trying to balance my print runs with those businesses and institutions that want to be pick-up locations," says Zens of growing demand. "I actually have a backlog of places that want to get the paper, but I can't give them as many as they want because I don't have them." He and his distribution manager closely manage the numbers in an effort to reach as broad a geographic range as possible.

Soon, an upgraded website will exponentially increase potential readership. In January will transform from its current and cumbersome PDF-based format. The new site will essentially be a daily version of the monthly print edition, says Zens. It will have more news and ongoing development of current stories. This will be a refreshing turn for readers, as the current site has not been updated since April.

Zens graduated from the Free University of Brussels with a journalism degree, minoring in economics. He worked as a foreign correspondent for a Luxembourg paper and was the environmental and agriculture editor for a regional weekly there. Terms like "national" and "local" news exist on a slightly different scale in Luxembourg. The whole country is only a thousand square miles, smaller than Dane County.

In comparing his former and current homes, Zens says that Dane County residents are "more conscious of the need to use more sustainable practices in all areas of society than people in Luxembourg." They are also more active in trying to implement them, he notes. "In Luxembourg, as in the rest of Europe, people tend to wait for the government to lead the way," he says. In the Madison area, at least as far sustainability is concerned, he continues, government follows, albeit timidly.

"Dane County," writes Zens via email, "is far ahead of Luxembourg (and other European countries) as far as awareness for sustainably grown and artisanal local food products is concerned. Farmers' markets and CSA farms, to name but these, are much better here than in most European countries."

In contrast, he states, two areas where Luxembourg and most other Western and Northern European countries are far ahead of us here in the Midwest are energy conservation, particularly in buildings, and the widespread use of public transportation.

Zens works out of his modest Middleton home. The basement office, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and the faint scent of pipe tobacco, entertains Goethe and Shakespeare among a mingling of German-language serials and volumes of visual imagery. A low-hanging poster of Einstein is half obscured by a dusty printer. From the vantage point of a comfortable leather parlor chair, there's not a work of fiction in sight. It's cluttered but organized and could easily serve as a reference library for world political theory, economics, agriculture, philosophy, mathematics and, of course, sustainability.

But this is not where he gets his inspiration. His leisure reading gives background and depth, but day-to-day happenings embed it in local context. Local stories require local experience.

"When I go to the grocery store, I get article ideas. When I'm driving around, I get ideas, and when I'm talking to people... I think it's a way of looking at things," he says reflectively. "When I first started out as a freelance journalist, 25 or so years ago, my biggest problem was finding article ideas to submit to my editors," he continues.

"Meanwhile, over the years, and that might happen to every journalist, I think, you develop a way at looking at... everything." And his readers can tell. His articles are succinct and well informed. His editorials push limits at times, but all in the name of progressive sustainability.

"Judging from the feedback that I get and from the way the paper has grown in numbers of pick-up locations and in numbers of advertisers, obviously," he concludes, "there was a need for it." Perhaps more business plans should be drawn up on coasters.

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