When she enrolled at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Madison Lauterbach wanted to pursue a career in journalism that would allow her to write the kind of stories she was interested in reading.
She loved profiles and news about women and femme-identified people in all-too-often male-dominated cultural industries like street art and tattooing. She craved stories about politics that focused more on the people affected by policy than the same old white men who played pundits. And she longed for an outlet that was politically progressive but also rooted in high journalistic standards.
But even before she'd graduated in December 2019, she had a realization. “I wasn’t going to be able to write the stories that I wanted to unless I made my own news source," she recalls. "It grew out of a frustration of not being able to find one source telling the stories I was interested in.”
Entrepreneurialism was sweeping journalism at the time, with startup outlets like Denverite, the Colorado Sun and others challenging legacy newsrooms with smart, well-reported coverage. But even among these ventures, Lauterbach didn’t see the sort of publication she wanted to be a part of — a publication led by women, femme people and people of color, focusing on the experiences and stories of those too often left out of the dominant news cycle, with a heavy emphasis on the creative industries, arts and culture.
Armed with that vision, an entrepreneurial spirit and some help from her family, Lauterbach decided to create her own online news site.
Early last year, she recruited a crew of fellow writers — mostly women and femme-identified journalists, many of them from Metro — to start Ms. Mayhem. She set up an LLC and, on May 18, launched during a pandemic that had upended the very creative industries she'd planned to write about. While publications around the country were shutting down and local outlets were laying off staff as ad revenue disappeared, Ms. Mayhem was just getting going.
“A week or two after we launched is when the protests started happening,” Lauterbach recalls. “We were out there every single day for the first months. We were getting gassed. I was shot with pepper balls. ... We were working ourselves into the ground."
Through it all, her team of contributors produced strong stories from the streets while continuing to cover emerging artists, activists and musicians around town. They've written about small vigils with groups like Black Hammer and a New Year's Eve noise demonstration in solidarity with anarchist prisoner Eric King, while also profiling women leaders in Denver's parkour scene and community activists like artist Akiala I, who launched a GoFundMe to buy back Five Points one block at a time.
"And I hate to plug one of my own stories, but I was definitely proud of the one I wrote about how COVID-19 was affecting the sex-worker community, especially because it took me forever to gain the trust of these women and convince them to let me source them in the story," Lauterbach says.
"Honestly, I'm incredibly proud of the majority of the stories we've produced," she adds. "We take a lot of time and care on the stories we put out. Are all of them perfect? No, absolutely not. Have some of them been reported on better by larger outlets with more resources? Fuck, yes — definitely. But for a group of mostly inexperienced baby journalists, I think we're doing a pretty good job with what we have."
As a self-funded outlet, Ms. Mayhem does not have a full-time staff. Lauterbach is not paid, and she can't hire enough freelancers to report on everything.
Early on, she tried to apply for Paycheck Protection Program money, but she was told her emerging business wasn’t eligible, since she didn’t have tax records from 2019. At the same time, many of the grants that might have supported a new business like hers were being redirected to rescue already established projects.
“It’s been difficult,” Lauterbach admits. “We’ve gotten a lot of criticism from some people, like more established journalists or editors, that we have too many writers on our team, we have inconsistent posting, or blah, blah, blah. That’s a fair criticism...or it would be much more fair if we had an outlet with people on salary.”
But then, Lauterbach herself often weighs Ms. Mayhem's work against that of much better-funded and older publications. “I think, 'Fuck, we're not doing as well as I want to,'” she admits. “I have that desire for instant gratification. I want things to be what I need now. We’re doing fairly well right now. We’re going to have missteps and days where we don’t publish anything. We have events that we miss. It’s part of who we are right now.”
But the publication also covers a lot of ground.
“I am in a very, very fortunate spot, where my family has the money to allow me to be a job creator and create the job for myself that I want,” Lauterbach explains. “I recognize that’s clearly not an opportunity that everyone has, for sure. But I’m in a fortunate enough spot that I’m able to do that. I do wish we had more sustainable funding and that we had investors and we had whatever, but it’s not how we’re operating.
“We don’t have capacity to pay people to do every job here,” she says. “For the last however many months...I am editor, I am publisher, I am a writer, I do the accounting, I do the merch. I wear like six hats at this job.”
She’s now reassessing Ms. Mayhem and deciding how to proceed. The project is too urgent to abandon, she says, though moving forward won't be easy. At some point, she hopes to collect revenue from a quarterly print edition and also sponsored content. But first, the publication has to survive.
“The decision to keep going has been a difficult one," says Lauterbach. "The reason why we need to keep going is, on a micro level, Denver does need something like this. If you’ve watched, especially after these protests, now every newsroom is attempting to diversify their newsroom, diversify their staff, etc., and make sure they have diversity hires. We built our team with diversity in mind from the ground up. We are not going back to square one and making sure we have that. We’ve always had that.”
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