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INN Midwest Collaborations Editor Sharon McGowan retires this week

January 4, 2022

Sharon McGowan, INN’s Midwest collaborations editor, is retiring this week after nearly three years at INN and nine years before that at INN member Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.

Sharon McGowan helped jumpstart INN’s Amplify News Project in 2019, after a career as a journalist and journalism professor.

McGowan came to INN in early 2019 to help jumpstart the Amplify News Project and launch new experiments in editorial collaboration — all in a less-than-half-time position. She succeeded — leading about 10 collaborations uniting dozens of INN members in doing journalism that made a positive change in their communities.

“The best part of this job was the opportunity to work with an extraordinary staff as well as with the leaders of many INN members and other editorial partners. I’m very proud of the work that they produced,” she said. 

McGowan started at INN the same day as INN Chief Network Officer Jonathan Kealing, who was her supervisor. In that time, they’ve worked closely on various collaborations that ultimately paved the way for INN to deepen and expand its work on collaborations nationally.

“Sharon is a terrific journalist and has the right combination of determination, tact and a nose for a good story that made her extremely effective as our Midwest collaborations editor,” said Kealing. “More than that, though, she was just a terrific person to work with. I enjoyed our weekly Zooms and the times we got to meet in person.”

Because of her role working on collaborations, she interacted with editors from many different INN newsrooms. Among them is Ron Smith, who succeeded her at NNS in 2019. McGowan was the founding editor at NNS and helped the organization navigate through tough situations before leaving it in good shape with Smith. Since that time, it’s continued to grow and strengthen, including with a recent infusion of support from the American Journalism Project. 

“Sharon always carries with her a spirit of excellence. And one of resilience,” he said. “I remember when I first met her while she was the founding editor of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. She had a razor-like focus on serving her readers and her staff. I don’t think she knew what the word ‘can’t’ meant as she outmaneuvered any obstacle placed before her.”

In addition to her time at INN and Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, McGowan spent decades working at print and broadcast news organizations around Chicago, and teaching at Northwestern University and Marquette University. While McGowan says she’s retiring to be able to spend more time with her two (and soon-to-be three) grandchildren, she says she hopes to still take on the occasional editing project.

Of the collaborations McGowan worked on, two, Tapped Out and Broken Ladder, just finished publishing late last month. This was the second phase of Tapped Out, which examined critical water issues across the West. The project was named one of the best collaborations of 2021 by the Center for Cooperative Media and two participants received the Journalism Partnership of the Year Nonprofit News Award. 

As part of the project, she worked with Lois Henry, the founder and editor of SJV Water, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to reporting on California’s San Joaquin Valley water issues. Henry credits McGowan for helping her tackle and land a major story that was published in partnership with the New York Times.

“Sharon had never met me and yet after our first conversation, she somehow believed that I could pull off that Boswell/Corcoran story,” Henry explained. “She was the one who pitched it to the New York Times. Her confidence in me and the story was so solid, she made me think I could actually do it.”

McGowan was also instrumental in identifying the strength of the INN network on rural issues, which led to the decision last year to launch the Rural News Network. That came in part from work on two projects — Seeking a Cure and Lesson Plans — that took a critical look at factors buffeting rural communities.

Former IowaWatch executive director Lyle Muller credits McGowan with bringing national attention to the Seeking a Cure project.

“Sharon assembled a team of Midwest INN members, with IowaWatch in the lead, and kept the group together and on task,” he said. “She guided the team while letting members do the journalism and provided support while using what she was learning to develop a framework for future Amplify collaborations.”

Dee Hall, editor at Wisconsin Watch, worked with McGowan on Seeking a Cure, as well as Lesson Plans and Broken Ladder.

“When leading collaborations, Sharon has a knack for gently but firmly keeping everyone on track,” she said. “That is no small feat when dealing with multiple newsrooms with their own priorities and staffing challenges. I wish her well in taking some well-deserved time to herself.”

McGowan’s last day at INN is Thursday, Jan. 6. INN will be posting a new position on the collaborations team later this month. In the meantime, if you have Midwest-related collaborations or questions about the new position, please contact Jonathan Kealing or INN Member Collaborations Editor Bridget Thoreson.

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