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For decades, the most important beat for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its predecessor papers was City Hall. A long list of notables manned the post, including Ron Elving (now National Public Radio’s senior Washington editor), current WTMJ talk radio host Charles Sykes and Mike Nichols, now a Journal Sentinel columnist. “To me, the beat […]

For decades, the most important beat for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its predecessor papers was City Hall. A long list of notables manned the post, including Ron Elving (now National Public Radio’s senior Washington editor), current WTMJ talk radio host Charles Sykes and Mike Nichols, now a Journal Sentinel columnist.

“To me, the beat is among the most critical – and most vital – at any newspaper,” says Greg Borowski, who’s held the job for eight years for the Journal Sentinel. “There are more readers who live in the city or have interest in things happening here than in any individual suburb.”

But the Journal Sentinel has gradually de-emphasized its coverage of the city, particularly in the last year. “These days, you can go months without reading about anything that’s happening in the mayor’s office,” bemoans former Milwaukee Journal reporter Joel McNally, who covered City Hall in the 1970s and was once physically removed by former Mayor Henry Maier.

In late April, Borowski was taken off his beat to help cover the governor’s race, a move that would have once been unthinkable. Transportation reporter Larry Sandler is now pulling double duty, handling City Hall on a temporary basis, meaning that the beat that once ranked first in importance now merits only a part-time reporter.

Partly, the reduction in coverage reflects a shrinkage in the paper’s Metro section. Metro fills up half of its second page – prime real estate for any section – with the weather section, which was moved from sports. Nowadays, page two often has just weather and ads.

“The section is definitely smaller,” says Sandler. “There’s no doubt about that. There’s a smaller news hole.”

But what gets covered has also changed. “In the 30-plus years I’ve been here, there has been a major shift in coverage toward the suburbs,” says education reporter Alan Borsuk, who also covered City Hall for the old Journal. In the last year, suburban stories that ran toward the back of the section – if they ran at all – have often gotten front-page coverage. A story on Whitefish Bay that could impact its less than 14,000 readers may get more prominence than a Milwaukee story affecting nearly 600,000 people.

Until recently, a beat covering the suburbs was considered a second-class assignment. “The suburbs were Siberia to a reporter, but that’s not the case anymore,” says McNally.
The Waukesha Bureau alone is up to 12 reporters, nearly the same number as the entire business section. “When we started the Waukesha Bureau, it was on a shoestring budget,” says a former reporter. “We didn’t even have a secretary.”

The change in priorities has been signaled by the Metro masthead. As recently as the mid-1990s, the section was called “Milwaukee” and subheaded “Metro and State.” More recently, the title changed to “Metro,” with the subhead “Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington, Racine and State News.” Now it’s “Metro,” with the subhead “Local news around the clock.” Milwaukee has been banished from the title.

Borsuk suggests that the shift from the city reflects the growth in suburban population, but the city still provides at least 40 percent of readers, dwarfing that of any other part of the metro area. The crucial reason for the shift in coverage, says the former Waukesha Bureau reporter, is a shift in advertising. As shopping malls and other advertisers have blossomed in the suburbs, they need the newspaper to connect the coverage to the ads. “Sections have to be supported by advertising revenue,” says this media veteran.

Journal Communications Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steve Smith echoed this idea in July remarks to stock analysts when he noted that decreased ad revenue has pushed the paper to focus on “increased penetration in 25 growth ZIP codes in the fastest-growing and most demographically attractive areas to our advertisers.”

At one time, the paper experimented with adding specialized pages for readers in Ozaukee, Washington and Racine. Now, in order to cut costs, all readers get the same number of pages, but there are three different Metro sections: one for Milwaukee residents north of I-94, one for those south of it and one for Waukesha residents. In practice, this means that a resident north of I-94 will read little about the city’s South Side, while readers from that side of town get little news about the North Side.

Veterans can’t resist contrasting the situation to the good old days. “When I covered City Hall, we covered every single committee meeting, from gavel to gavel,” -Elving recalls. “There were always two Journal reporters and one Sentinel reporter at City Hall at all times.”

But in the age of the Internet, says general assignment reporter Meg Kissinger, there may be less need for such coverage. “There’s not necessarily the same need to be the paper of record because now people can download budgets and committee meeting minutes on the Internet anytime they want.”

But who will do the interviews and background reporting to explain how and why the decisions were made? Citizen journalism hardly seems an adequate replacement.

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