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They decipher Town Meeting so you don't have to

Orleans journalists Emily Miller and Martha Sherrill research and write the independent publication EXIT 89.
Will Powers
Orleans journalists Emily Miller and Martha Sherrill research and write the independent publication EXIT 89.

Two Orleans journalists cover the inner workings of the Cape's outer elbow for their newsletter, EXIT 89.

ORLEANS—If you’ve ever struggled to make sense of a Town Meeting warrant, two journalists have you covered.

Former Washington Post journalist Martha Sherrill and novelist Emily Miller live in Orleans where for years they have covered town government and issues such as affordable housing for their online publication, EXIT 89.

The team works with the guidance of two local advisers, Lynn Bruneau and Elaine Baird, to inspire more Orleans residents to understand their town—and to vote.

Patrick Flanary You're not a newspaper. You're not a blog. What is EXIT 89?

Martha Sherrill We spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to communicate issues to Orleans voters and residents. And we decided that breaking news wasn't what we needed to do. What we felt we needed to do was explain the town to town residents. Living in a small town you're constantly mystified because, unless you're serving in Town Hall and working in government, you are literally in the dark. So really, that's it. Our mission is to make sense of Orleans to Orleans residents.

Emily Miller What we are is an e-newsletter. We put out issues before and after Town Meeting, summarizing what we think are the most interesting and important issues that are going on there. And then we do a couple of what we're calling deep dives a year that are bigger issues going on in town that we notice people are talking about or that seem really important and interesting to people.

Martha Sherrill I know the people writing the warrant of articles that we're voting on think they are producing a really transparent, sensible piece of information for voters, but...

Emily Miller But it's very hard to understand.

Patrick Flanary I'm glad I am not alone in trying to understand a Town Meeting warrant.

Emily Miller It's not something that is easy for people to understand, especially if they don't have a lot of time. We are trying to fill that gap of being every man or woman saying, "Wait, this doesn't make sense to me. How can I understand this?"

Patrick Flanary What sort of deadlines do you set for yourselves right now?

Martha Sherrill I think that our skillset as journalists is we know how to explain things. And I think having lived elsewhere, we also can still look at the town with fresh eyes and remember what a new person needs to be told. You know, our mission really is to get more people to come to Town Meeting, to get more people engaged with the town. Orleans is facing a lot of extremely urgent decisions on climate change, preparedness, infrastructure.

Emily Miller The biggest issue being housing and affordability. Those are what we found ourselves focusing on.

Martha Sherrill The town is facing these really urgent issues. But residents have no way to really understand those things—or know how to vote.

Patrick Flanary Do you write for the tourists at all, or is it mainly just for folks who live here?

Emily Miller We definitely write for everybody who has any interest in Orleans. Last summer we did a deep dive on shoreline access. And that got a lot of interest from people who live here and people who own property. We're are hoping to do a big issue on rentals and the state of short-term rentals and long-term rentals. And I think that's going to be super-relevant to visitors and year-round people.

Patrick Flanary How do you sustain this financially? I know you've got two advisors, but how do you keep something like this up and running?

Martha Sherrill We have a tiny budget. We're hoping to grow and we're talking about how to grow and what would it cost to do that.

Emily Miller It's basically a labor of love.

Martha Sherrill It's a labor of love. It's a lot of volunteer hours. We do eight or ten issues a year.

Emily Miller It's squeezed in around our regular writing jobs, so we just make it happen. But it's also really fun. We have a good time.

Patrick Flanary And where are the regular writing jobs? Are you freelancing?

Emily Miller We both freelance. I'm a novelist and do other contract work. And Martha writes books also.

Martha Sherrill I write books, I help other people write books. That's sort of what I've been doing for the last 10 years or so.

Patrick Flanary Emily, what is Martha's greatest strength?

Emily Miller There are so many. Martha's greatest strength is humor, and she is very direct in her writing. She will often go right out on a limb and say a point incredibly directly. But she's definitely going to be the one who's out there saying what needs to be said.

Patrick Flanary And Martha, what have you learned from Emily?

Martha Sherrill Well, first of all, she has unfailingly good judgment, which I don't have. What I've learned and I wish other people could see, is not only that they can participate, but how fun it is to be a part of your town's future. I mean, we all really love living here. I think people on the Cape in particular really tend to love their towns. It makes it even richer when you are a part of how that town makes decisions and how it faces the future.

The independent online publication EXIT 89 is free to subscribe.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.