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Saving Grace
How Milwaukee Magazine was rescued, and lived happily – for the most part – ever after. by the Editors

Attempts to create a citymagazine for Milwaukee go back at least to the 1870s, when a spunky publication called Milwaukee Monthly Magazine wrote commentary condemning such deplorable local practices as throwing objects at defenseless cats and using the sidewalks as spittoons.

In 1956, businessman and literature lover Frederick Schmidt launched a publication called Let’s See that became Milwaukee in 1965. With the latter title, the magazine had a new partner, billing itself as the “Official Publication of the Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce.”

It was a tricky alliance, as Schmidt was committed to serious journalism, running a May 1968 cover story on “Black & White Power” that looked frankly at racial problems and a February 1970 story on urban sprawl. Schmidt sold the magazine in 1972, and it quickly died.

The direct forerunner of today’s magazine was a monthly pamphlet that radio station WFMR-FM sent to listeners listing its classical music offerings. With added stories about the city, the pamphlet became Milwaukee Magazine in April 1979. Its owner, the late Doug Cofrin, was an eccentric, motorcycle-riding millionaire (and an heir to the family that owned Fort Howard Paper Company) who often used the publication for self-promotion. Cofrin also wrote brief reviews of pizza parlors and fish fries under the pseudonym “G.W. Walker.”

After blowing $1.4 million on a disastrous campaign for U.S. Senate in 1980, Cofrin wanted to dump the money-losing magazine. In the summer of 1981, City Magazines Inc. of Cleveland, which owned that city’s magazine and two others, made a lowball offer to the desperate Cofrin, and he took it. “It was five and 20 blackbirds,” Cofrin later lamented to this magazine – $5,000 down and $20,000 more at a later date.

The new owner installed Cleveland Magazine staffer Frank Kuznik as editor of Milwaukee Magazine, and he wasted no time announcing his brash new style. The first three issues sold sex hard, with such cover stories as “Cruising the Singles Bars” (October 1981), “Why Are Milwaukee’s Most Beautiful Women Leaving Milwaukee?” (November 1981; the not-so-dramatic answer was they could make more money as models in other cities), and “Is Milwaukee Ready for Sex Therapy?” (December 1981).

In case the message of change wasn’t clear, Kuznik’s first issue also ran a cheeky obituary for G.W. Walker, the “noted authority… on pizza crust and fish.”

Kuznik’s style was outrageous, but he was a talented editor who quickly transformed the magazine. He created much of its basic format, including the Pressroom column, Endgame, Outfront and strong narrative features. He brought credibility to the magazine by hiring away Charlie Sykes and James Romenesko, two of the Milwaukee Journal’s best-known bylines.

But City Magazines Inc. expanded too fast and soon decided to sell its publications in Tampa and Milwaukee. The company said it had lost $600,000 running Milwaukee Magazine. But no buyers arose, and in December of 1982, Kuznik announced the magazine was shutting down. In response, a group of community-minded Milwaukeeans gathered to discuss whether the magazine could be saved.

The group’s organizer, longtime parks activist Mary Kamps, invited Betty Quadracci to the meeting, and she invited her husband, Harry Quadracci, chief executive of Quad/Graphics, to also come. The company had a national reputation as the printer of such well-known titles as People, Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.

The group was well-intentioned but a tad unrealistic. “People at the meeting were saying each of them could put in some money, maybe a thousand each,” Betty Quadracci recalls. “Harry and I looked at each other and said that’s crazy.”

The issue was less the cost of purchase (City Magazines ultimately agreed to sell its dormant magazine to Quad/Graphics for an estimated $50,000) than the operational costs. The Quadraccis agreed to print and oversee the magazine, on a short-term basis, if Kuznik and his staff would stay. “I would like to get the magazine to the profit-making point and then spin it off,” Harry Quadracci told the media.

The first issue, January-February 1983, combined two months, and art director Sharon Nelson, continuing the lean style favored by its previous owner, designed an issue heavy on black-and-white pages. After publication, she got a call from Harry Quadracci.

“What did you do to my magazine?” he asked, as Nelson recalls. “What do you mean?” she responded. “We resurrected this magazine from the dead,” Quadracci said. “You think when Christ rose from the grave he came out in black and white?”

Harry saw the magazine as a showcase for his printing company and wanted state-of-the-art, glossy color pages. Quad/Graphics would pump some $500,000 into the magazine over the next several years, Betty Quadracci estimated.

Though the Quadraccis had not intended to run the magazine, it soon became clear there were problems. Sales and circulation were lackluster, and staff members were squabbling. Betty Quadracci was asked by one staffer to attend a meeting as a kind of referee, and she concluded the magazine badly needed restructuring. She asked Harry to move from her job with Quad/Graphics to one overseeing the magazine’s business side.

“Harry said absolutely not, it would never work,” Betty recalls. “I really begged him to let me. I was an English major; I loved business; I thought it would be right for me.” Eventually, Harry relented.

The Quadraccis both wanted strong editorial, but a less “in-your-face” style. Kuznik decided the approach was not for him and resigned in May 1983. Sykes succeeded him as editor.

“Sykes wanted to make the magazine more sophisticated,” Romenesko recalls. “While Frank may have seen the well-dressed bar-hopper as his reader, Sykes went for young politicians and lawyers. He loved to shake things up, but didn’t offend just for the sake of offending.”

Sykes created the model for Endgame as a tangy political essay. Under his leadership, the magazine began a long history of winning journalism awards. Meanwhile, magazine sales began to climb under Betty Quadracci’s guidance as publisher.

The magazine’s fortunes continued to rise until 1987, when a crisis erupted. Sykes decided to publish an investigative story by Bruce Murphy and John Pawasarat that, among other things, argued the Medical College of Wisconsin was an unnecessary creation and a waste of state funds. As it happened, Harry Quadracci had been appointed to the college’s board by Gov. Tony Earl. It was the only civic position Quadracci held. Sykes would later tell the press he felt he had the freedom to publish stories as he saw fit, while Harry said Sykes was expected to alert the owner of any story that might embarrass him and instead had tried to “sneak-publish” the story. Harry fired Sykes. (Later stories suggested Sykes had tried to undermine Betty Quadracci’s authority, and this had contributed to the firing.)

The controversy generated considerable media attention, creating doubts whether the magazine would continue to do tough journalism. Into this situation stepped Judith Woodburn, then 27, who became the magazine’s first (and so far only) female editor. She had already spent six years with the magazine, including three as managing editor. “I did feel pressure to restore public confidence in the magazine,” she recalls.

Under her watch, the magazine soon won statewide headlines. An August 1987 investigative story by Paul Rix proved that lobbyists were paying for meals, lodging and travel for legislators, prompting a state investigation. Ten legislators and several lobbyists paid civil forfeitures, state Sen. Richard Shoemaker was convicted of five felonies, and lobbyist Gary Goyke pleaded guilty to four felonies.

While the story helped end doubts about the magazine’s commitment to probing journalism, its editor and publisher periodically had to weather complaints from the publisher’s husband. “Harry would call sometimes and yell about a story,” Betty recalls, but always after the fact. “He felt it was his right to complain.” But he never killed a story or requested changes, she adds. (Harry even gave Murphy permission to sell the Medical College story to the Milwaukee Journal, which published a condensed version of it; Quadracci said he didn’t want to operate as a censor.)

When Harry died in September of 2002, then-Editor John Fennell wrote an Outfront noting that when he was hired, “Harry said neither he nor Betty would interfere in editorial… They remained true to their word.”

Fennell served as editor for 13 years, from 1992 to 2005, more than half of the publication’s history. The monthly won more than 160 state and national journalism awards during that time, including the Gold Medal for General Excellence in its circulation category in both 2002 and 2004 from the national City and Regional Magazine Association. Milwaukee Magazine was named one of the “50 best magazines” in the country by the Chicago Tribune.

Fennell served on the CRMA board, getting to know many editors and publishers. “From that vantage point,” he says, “I learned that Betty is, by far, one of the boldest and most fearless publishers in the city and regional magazine industry. She is a rarity in American publishing today.”

The magazine’s high standing with the CRMA led directly to Fennell getting a job offer from the Missouri School of Journalism, which runs the awards competition. Among Fennell’s duties as an associate professor there is to oversee the annual awards.

In June, Betty Quadracci will have served as publisher for 25 years, by far the longest tenure of any publisher in town. “I have no regrets,” she says. “As we got into this, we realized we could effect change, we could provide leadership to the community. That was very important to Harry and me. That came from the heart.”

* * *

Magazine Alumni:
Where are they now?

Frank Kuznik (1981-83, editor). Editor-in-chief of The Prague Post,the Czech Republic’s most popular English-
language weekly newspaper.

Charlie Sykes (1981-82, and editor 1983-87). Author of several books, columnist and WTMJ-AM 620 talk radio host.

Judith Woodburn (1981-90; editor 1987-90). After working in publishing at American Girl magazine with Madison’s Pleasant Company, she now freelances, having done essays for the New York Times and Salon.

David Fryxell (1991-92, editor). Editor and publisher of Desert Exposure, a monthly tabloid with about 25,000 readers in southwest New Mexico.

John Fennell (1992-2005, editor). Associate professor, Missouri School of Journalism, where he teaches magazine publishing and narrative feature writing.

Sharon Nelson (1979-2005, art director). Art director for Backyard Living magazine, a Greendale-based Reader’s Digest publication.

Willard Romantini (1981-96, dining critic). Left the magazine to become the city’s first and only TV food reporter at Channel 58 and is now semi-retired.

James Romenesko (1982-96, Pressroom columnist, senior editor). The Walworth native runs the Poynter Institute’s nationally influential media blog, Romenesko.

Dawn Behr (1984-2006, managing editor). Managing editor of The Director, official publication of the Brookfield-based National Funeral Directors Association.

Helen Pauly (1985-86, associate editor). Now works part-time as the Sunday “RSVP” columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Simon Dumenco (1987-89, associate editor). The Greenfield native has gone on to write, edit or consult for New York Magazine, Details (where he is a contributing editor), Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone and O: The Oprah Magazine.

Steve Filmanowicz (1989-99, senior editor). He lives in Riverwest and commutes to his Chicago job as communications director for Congress for the New Urbanism, headed by former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.

Peter Robertson (1996-2006, Pressroom columnist). He now lives in Madison and works for Barnes & Noble.

Kevin J. Miyazaki (2000-05, staff photographer). He now shoots for such publications as Food and Wine, The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Time, Forbes and Fortune.

Natalie Dorman (2000-05, associate editor). Now 32, she left the magazine to be a full-time mother.

– compiled by Julie Sensat Waldren





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