November 1983:The Milwaukee Journal’s efforts to compete with the new Business Journal are handicapped by “one of the first recorded cases of mass journalistic pregnancy,” writes Jim Romenesko in his Pressroom column. Business editor Anne Curley and business reporters Judy Wenzl and Helen Pauly are all planning maternity leave in March.
January 1984: Milwaukee Journal sports columnist Michael Baumann is in trouble for describing America’s Cup as not a sport for the masses, but the activity of a privileged few. Journal Co. executive Thomas McCollow, it turned out, was part of the privileged few who appreciated the “sport.”
March 1984: The Journal unwittingly
helps finance its competitor, the Business Journal, by contributing to the Wisconsin Venture Capital. This was not long after an MJ editor bragged publicly how his paper would kill off the upstart within months. Twenty-three years later, the Business Journal is still going strong.
August 1984: The Journal abandons its trendy new design (an advertising department idea) for the Sunday magazine Wisconsin, and drifts back to the oldformat of its predecessor, Insight. Back in January, when the new approach was announced, Journal managing editor George Lockwood said Wisconsin “will be a lot like Mil Mag,a city magazine with a happy news format.” Er, not exactly, Romenesko wrote.
October 1984: One of the first (and undoubtedly most morbid) tasks for Sentinel reportersis to write their own obituary, which is stored in the paper’s computer system in case they meet their demise while employed there. For amusement, some staffers scan the obits to see what colleagues have written about themselves, and reporter Gretchen Schuldt found some wag had made this addition to Editor Bob Wills’ obituary: “A tyrant, he single-handedly created an oppressive atmosphere which spawned the city’s newest press association, the Milwaukee Newspaper Guild. He became a hero to all Guild supporters who thanked him for galvanizing support for the union.”
March 1985: You can bet you won’t see any more live television interviews from the Sentinel sports department, at least by Channel 4, predicted Romenesko. Sentinel sports columnist Bud Lea was being interviewed by Channel 4 reporter Bob Dolan, and Lea, who was at his desk in the newsroom, began laughing uncontrollably. It seems that during the interview, Sentinel sports editor Joe Karius handed Lea a note that read, “You’re on live TV and your fly is open.” He lost it. “Lea started to giggle,” Dolan recalled, “then laughed, and completely lost his train of thought … that was the end of the live interview.”
March 1987: “Nipples! By god, those women have nipples! Was this startling discovery the result of investigative journalism?” Romenesko writes of a Sentinel expose on strippers who might be breaking the law by wearing flesh-colored bandages. “Even at a distance of only a few feet, the reporter found it difficult to tell that the two women’s nipples were covered,” the Sentinel solemnly reported.
March 1988: Attempting to plug leaks in his newsroom, Sentinel Editor Bob Wills sends a “lengthy memo instructing staffers to keep newsroom matters inside the newsroom,” which staffers immediately share with Pressroom. “Keep those cards and phone calls coming!” Romenesko writes.
August 1988: Sentinel fashion writer Dianna Greening could be the worst casualty of the paper’s design makeover. When the paper updated the sketch accompanying her column, Greening aged at least a decade, taking on the appearance of author Erma Bombeck. “Everyone thinks I look ancient,” complained Greening, who put her age at 39.
September 1988: “In a day when nouvelle cuisine and Cajun cooking are the craze, the good old-fashioned pork chop remains the reviewing staple of Milwaukee Sentinel restaurant critic Alex Thien,” writes Romenesko in “A Critic’s Penchant for Pork.” “Our ‘Al Thien Pork Chop Count,’ as we’ve dubbed this pseudo-investigative effort, seems to confirm this. We discovered that Al ate chops – an item few seem to be picking off the menu these days – in about 20 percent of his reviews in a recent 12-month period. Furthermore, he likes nearly 99 percent of the chops he tastes. Nearly all, he said, were lean, thick and cooked all the way through.”
April 1989: Sentinel reporter Dave Tianen wrote about a local stripper named Tarzana, whose claim to Milwaukee fame was crushing beer cans with her breasts. The paper got about nine complaining calls and several nasty letters, including one objector who couldn’t believe the paper would run such a story on Ash Wednesday.
April 1990: The battle of egos between WISN-TV co-anchors Jerry Taff and Marty Burns-Wolfe has hit the heights. After Taff cranked up his chair on the newsroom set to relieve pain suffered from a knee injury, Burns-Wolfe reacted by raising her chair, too.
May 1990: Some excerpts from an internal newsroom memo about the Journal’s redesign. “Hey, are we trying to look like USA Today or some other paper?”…“No, we don’t set out to ape anyone. We’ve looked at other papers, but we’re being ourselves – a ’90s version of The Journal…” One month earlier, a Journal reporter complained to Pressroom, “They’re going completely graphics-happy. It’s like USA Today gone wild.”
May 1990: A Channel 6 spokesman said one-time news anchor Mike Miller was “still a part of the TV6 family” even though he was fired after refusing to take a pay cut – from $75,000 annually to $68,000. According to Miller, General Manager Andy Potos told him, “Either you sign the goddamn thing and say you’re gonna work here for three years and we’ll work together and try and get you back to where you wanna be, or just walk out.” Not surprisingly, the “negotiations” failed.
August 1990: “Without knowing it, Sentinel editorial writers have produced some of the paper’s most amusing writing of late. … Read this opening to an editorial: ‘Look around. Somewhere in the United States – perhaps on your block – someone is burning the American flag.’ On your block? …Our advice for the paper’s editorial writers: Look around! Get out of your offices (and out of your 1950s rhetoric) and discover the real world. Fewer people are burning flags than are doing the lambada. Why hype the issue?”
March 1991: “Former Mayor Henry Maier referred to Milwaukee Journal columnist Joel McNally as a ‘man-child hitman,’ begged for a front-page column to respond to the columnist, and had his staff members spend hours (and tax dollars) ‘documenting’ the negative coverage he received, according to his memos and letters that have been made public,” writes Romenesko.
March 1993: “The Journal concedes it has beefed up its coverage of soccer and hockey in exchange for advertising dollars from the Wave and Admirals teams,” reports Romenesko. “The once-solid wall that separated editorial from advertising is being chipped away – much to the delight of advertisers.”
August 1993: The Sentinel was duped into publishing a bogus story about a woman finding a syringe in her Pepsi in the company lunchroom. “The Sentinel has always gone with the most sensational stories they can find … there has always been the risk and likelihood they’d go over the line,” one staffer told Pressroom.
August 1995: Insiders tell us WISN-TV reporter Joel Kleefisch was reprimanded after threatening to do a negative story on a parking security firm that “booted” his car for illegal parking. “He tried to use his position as a reporter to intimidate us,” says Jackie Wills, owner of Metro One Parking Security. Meanwhile, WISN reporter Jeff Friend was suspended after being arrested by Elm Grove police on four charges. Friend had to be pepper-sprayed and handcuffed before officers could take him to the station.
October 1995:“Letting go many popular longtime staffers (after the Journal and Sentinel merger), the newsroom bosses were seen as vindictive. … An easy target for people’s frustrations, Editor Mary Jo Meisner was roundly booed in July when she appeared onstage … for the Journal Sentinel-sponsored Wisconsin Performing Artists Hall of Fame induction of musician Steve Miller.”
August 1996: “Morale is already better,” says one source at WISN-TV Channel 12 just a day after anchor Marty Burns-Wolfe resigned in June. Insiders say Burns-Wolfe “was a terror in the newsroom,” often belittling and bullying coworkers. Ultimately, slumping ratings seemed to rob her of her clout.
August 1997: When Shepherd Express Editor Joel McNally hired his son Sean and Sean’s fiancée, Jennifer Knox, to write columns for the Shepherd, both the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and City Edition sneered. But McNally is happily defiant, Pressroom columnist Peter Robertson writes. “There was no nepotism when I got here,” McNally explained. “I consider it one of my greatest innovations.”
November 1997: Rats and mice have been spotted in the Journal Sentinel’s Downtown newsrooms. Reporter Jesse Garza was walking in the north newsroom when he saw a rat walking – not running – across the floor and hiding somewhere in the business department area.
August 2001: Shepherd Express Metro readers were calling the Milwaukee home of Kari Sumar 50 to 100 times a day with indecent proposals. It turns out the Shepherd had listed the wrong phone number in an ad for “Alice’s Adult Entertainment” and relentless callers were asking Sumar for, well, rent-a-dates. She was appalled.
March 2002: Louis Fortis isn’t a journalist, but now he plays ones on TV. Five years after the former state legislator bought into the Shepherd Expressand anointed himself publisher, he’s launched a monthly television show and anointed himself host of “Shepherd Express Live With Louis Fortis,” a cable-access show. Calling the show a vanity project, some Shepherd insiders quip that it should be dubbed “I Love Louie.”
April 2002: While auditioning for the long-vacant job of sports columnist at the newspaper,Journal Sentinel sportswriter Gary D’Amato wrote his first trial column from – no joke – the perspective of an Arab terrorist making bomb threats against the World Series. “Praise be to Allah!” the column rejoices. Editor Marty Kaiser promptly killed the ill-conceived commentary, scheduled to run a week after the Sept. 11 attacks.
July 2002: Journal Sentinel staffers were up in arms after the paper hired its former antagonist, Milwaukeeworld.com columnist Bruce Murphy, as a reporter.“There are people here with blood dripping from their fangs just waiting for that guy,” said one staffer.
November 2002: The Shepherd Express gave new meaning to the words “early edition” when a story in the August 15 weekly carried an article – written in the past tense – about an event that actually took place after the weekly was printed. The article detailed protesters dressed as clowns demonstrating against President George W. Bush’s visit on Wednesday, August 14. While the Shepherd carries a Thursday edition date, deadlines for the edition is Tuesday morning at the latest, with distribution Wednesday mornings. PublisherLouis Fortis dismissed the gaffe as “an error in tense.”
December 2004:Journal Sentinel photographer Dale Guldan snapped an attention-grabbing photo of Vice President Dick Cheney on his visit to Milwaukee. Let’s just say the snugness of Cheney’s pants left little to the imagination. “He’s got a porn career right there,” Carole Caine snickered on WKLH-FM. “Now we know where his unmitigated confidence comes from,” her partner Dave Luczak quipped.
May 2005: Journal Sentinel columnist Crocker Stephenson writes an adulatory “Snapshot” about Ron Schroeder, aka “Silly the Clown.” Schroeder, it turns out, was still a suspect in the 1991 homicide of his baby daughter, had restraining orders filed against him by a former girlfriend, and twice had children removed from his home on suspicion of abuse or neglect.
July 2005: Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser has handled so many demanding phone calls from Milwaukee Art Museum director David Gordon that, in private, he’s begun doing an imitation of Gordon’s plummy English accent.
July 2006: “Mike Gousha is probably the best anchor in the country,” gushes WTMJ-TV news director Bill Berra. So why, then, did Gousha resign? Some insiders say he was pushed out by Berra.
Help!We Need Younger Demographics!
December 1984:Reflecting the Milwaukee Journal’s “sudden curious obsession with young people,” the newspaper tapped the Booze Brothers [rock band] to promote the paper as “Information for today’s generation.”
September 1985: “These young people,” says new Journal Editor Sig Gissler, “are the ‘skimmers and scanners,’ and the paper has to gear itself to their reading habits (or lack of them).”
January 1986: “In its continuing effort to woo more young readers, Editor Sig Gissler will announce he has acne,” Charlie Sykes predicts.
May 1986: The Journal’s new Tuesday tabloid, Xtra, aimed at 18- to 35-year-old readers, is “the most demographically conceived instrument we have ever done,” says features editor George Lockwood. “It looks like a marketing vehicle,” says one critic.
July 1986: “Watch out for a fine-tuning (if not a complete revamping) of the … troubled Xtra section. … Gissler was especially dismayed when the tabloid featured a black couple dressed in servant and maid’s garb on its cover. … Sentinel staffers [called] it the “where-to-get-a-slave section.” Xtra soon died, leaving city youth to look for other entertainment.
March 1990 During a TV6 news staff brainstorming session, “one group suggested that WITI newscasts open with hipper background music; perhaps … the local jazz group Oceans.”
August 1990: TheJournal brainstorms for a cartoon-like mascot that appeals to young people and decides to go with “Rollie,” a 6-foot-4-inch walking rolled-up newspaper with arms. “We all hoped it was a bad dream and we wouldn’t see it and be humiliated by this,” says one reporter. “It’ll be the laughingstock of the entire state.”
April 1993:“WTMJ-AM is trying to move into the 21st century by lobbing radio smoke bombs to attract a younger crowd. In the midday, the station has replaced the level-headed Kathleen Dunn with a self-confessed manic-depressive named Jay Marvin.”
April 2005: The Journal Sentinel has launched a new weekly tabloid aimed at 25- to 34-year-old readers called MKE. “Reviews are in … and the consensus is that ‘dumb and dumber’ is no way to woo young audiences. … Touting its lack of news and opinion, MKE instead offers snarky, lightweight stories like ‘Pimp Yo’ Pet’ and ‘Rip and Tell: The Bare Facts on a Male Brazilian Wax.’ ‘It’s a joke,’ a Journal Sentinel reporter scoffs.”
Mr. Lonely:In just a two-year period, WTMJ-AM radio host Jonathan Green got divorced, lost his best friend, and his dog died. (December 1983) “It’s very lonely to do what he does,” said a childhood friend. Said his ex-wife Beverly: “Jonathan is an extremely bashful and insecure person, and he covers that with his performance personality. Jonathan loves himself very much but he hates himself very much too.” (Green later remarried and today has three sons and two granddaughters.)
Squeaky Clean:The June 1988 cover story ran when Mike Jacobs was up for the job of top WTMJ-TV anchor. “Mike was so well-dressed, never a hair out of place, that people drew the inaccurate conclusion that he was all surface and no substance,” said former Channel 4 General Manager Wayne Godsey. Jacobs lost out to Mike Gousha, but finally got the top job after Gousha retired. Yet doubts about his substance persist.
The Mouth That Roared:“I had a tendency whenever someone made a good allegation – no matter how incredible – to run it … and run the response later,” admitted Mark Belling (February 1991). Journalist Dave Hendrickson characterized Belling as someone who “stands up to scary black men for white Milwaukee.” As a supervisor, “his people skills were horrendous,” said a former colleague, and on the air Belling can be outrageous, but he proved a savvy political analyst with staying power.
Paper Tiger: Sentinel Editor Keith Spore quickly developed a reputation as “a hot-tempered taskmaster.” (December 1991) One story had Spore throwing a phone book at a reporter, supposedly for misspelling a word, winning the editor the nickname of “Spore-aticus.” But Spore had a clear vision for the Sentinel (“We’re a hard-news paper”) and rose to become publisher of the Journal Sentinel before retiring in 2004.
The Casualty:“At 6 feet 1 inch, Mary Jo Meisner can be a commanding presence.” (October 1993). The Journal editor, “just 41 years old … has created a wardrobe that’s become so much her trademark that one book … refers to Meisner’s ‘signature minidresses.’” Meisner became the ax wielder during the merger with the Sentinel, but had problems overseeing the combined operation and was quietly fired in 1996, insiders say.
The Survivor:Marty Kaiser made “an underwhelming first impression. … Rumors spread he wasn’t the first choice for managing editor. … Co-workers gossiped that he acted like a shy intern.” (May 1999) But Kaiser outlasted Meisner (who brought him in), then succeeded her and became a stronger editor than expected. “He’d like this to be a nationally known newspaper,” said one reporter.
Syked Out:“Away from his professional cronies … his books and his daily blows against the status quo, [WTMJ-AM radio host Charlie] Sykes is an isolated man.” (July 2000). “A man of immense talent and ambitions, yet unsure what to do next in life, a man who has gained the respect and fear of the power elite while failing to win the long-term loyalty of even a single friend.”
The Fighter: The popularChannel 4 TV reporter Lynise Weeks died from diabetes and kidney disease complications just a week after this August 2005 profile ran. “Her fight, which propelled her out of a tough neighborhood into one of the country’s top journalism schools and into the homes of thousands of Milwaukeeans every night, is the same drive that has kept her going with a resiliency that has astounded her doctors, nurses, family and friends.”