Shortly after starting work at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I ran into Keith Spore in the hallway. Then the publisher, Spore had spent his entire 37-year career there, rising from copy boy to the front office, but there was still a lean-limbed, youthful quality to him. That unpretentiousness led some to underestimate his profound impact on the newspaper. The Journal Sentinel was in many ways the realization of his personal vision, and now I was part of that picture.
“So,” he asked, “have you figured out why good reporters go bad?”
I laughed. Spore and I had met in the early 1980s when he was a hard-charging city editor for the old Milwaukee Sentinel and I had freelanced a series of front-page stories. More recently, we had exchanged e-mails prior to my hiring. Spore had been encouraging, but I had doubts and pressed him as to why good reporters seem to lose their edge at the paper. No one was better placed to explain this than Spore.
“I don’t know,” he wrote back. It seemed telling that he didn’t deny the problem. Now he had turned the question back to me, and I was just as clueless.
Not anymore. After nearly three years of working at the paper – from April 2002 to last February – I have some answers to what strikes me as a crucial question. At issue is the state’s largest newspaper, which has more impact on how Wisconsinites see the world than any other media outlet. Its strengths and weaknesses, biases and insights help drive the state’s political agenda and color much of the content on radio and TVnews shows.
I walked into the newspaper assuming that it was a big, mainstream institution where reporters inevitably begin to coast and coverage hugs the middle of the road. But I encountered a publication with more talent, with more reporters who want to make a difference than I had imagined.
Perhaps more surprising, I found a paper where half of the hyphenation, The Milwaukee Journal,has almost disappeared. It is the Sentinel,the all-but-dead paper The Journal rescued in the early 1960s, that has ironically triumphed.
The end result is an often strained newsroom where top editors drive the agenda, middle editors worry about their dictates and reporters take turns being confused and demoralized. Against all odds, good stories – and an occasional great one – get written, but you can’t help but wonder why the paper can’t be better. The answer begins in the chaotic mess of the newsroom.
In The Trenches
For someone who has never worked at a daily paper, there is no preparation for the cramped, seedy quarters of a newsroom. Reporters’ desks are banked against each other, there’s barely any space to write or store files, you are engulfed in conversations of other reporters doing interviews or simply gas-bagging with an office colleague, and there is paper – and newspapers – piled everywhere.
Reporters often eat at their desks, crumbs of food and candy wrappers drop on the floor and the janitors fight a losing battle in the ongoing war. In years past, the newsroom had mice.
My desk was sandwiched between Annysa Johnson and Georgia Pabst, two reporters with voices loud enough to shatter any concentration. There were moments when the person I was interviewing on the phone could hear Annysa’s voice as clearly as mine and countless times when the piles of papers on Georgia’s desk and at her feet would slide onto my precious slice of workspace and I would bark at her to back off. It became part of a bantering routine between Georgia and me.
The newsroom essentially slopped all of the reporters together in fluorescent-lit claustrophobia, with the editors lined along the wall in private offices, the only staff with windows and a view of the world. It was the age-old hierarchy of The Front Page,the 1920s-era play where Editor Walter Burns dominated his talented yet docile reporter Hildy Johnson.
It’s an odd contradiction – the braininess and passivity expected of the daily-news reporter. Your duality is such that people in the community are always impressed with your Journal Sentinel byline and return your calls quickly but seldom know what you have written. Unless you have a column with your face displayed, you are one of the hundreds of nearly anonymous bylines. The average salary (about $55,000) and status of reporters is a far cry from that of the millionaire network anchors or celebrity writers like Bob Woodward (though many veterans had become well-to-do from the old employee stock plan, which had been eliminated in 2003 when Journal Communications became a publicly traded company).
Whatever your status, there was an excitement to the job, a kind of perpetual buzz in the newsroom, with phones ringing, journalists jawing, keyboards chattering, televisions (which editors eyeballed for breaking stories) blaring and always the heightened sense that you were at the blazing heart of the Fourth Estate.
In such close quarters, reporters could become fast friends or outright enemies. Gossip could be merciless about someone like reporter Crocker Stephenson or columnist Tim Cuprisin, who were perceived as editors’ favorites but who didn’t work very hard.
You also had to be careful about tromping on another reporter’s turf. I did several stories on Don Walker’s beat, and he did not like it. Walker is a crusty 50ish veteran who had been a senior editor and, frustrated with what he felt was the paper’s timid coverage of politics, went back to reporting. He’d created a new beat covering the business of sports and had made an impact.
Walker told me he had favored my hiring (many reporters didn’t) but resented my encroaching on his beat. One story of mine documented the hefty payments the baseball stadium authority made to public relations specialist Evan Zeppos. Walker argued that the article was unfair because much of the bill came from Zeppos answering phone calls of Journal Sentinel reporters, namely Walker himself.
Eventually, Walker went to Managing Editor George Stanley and read him the riot act. After that, the editors seemed uninterested in assigning me stories on Walker’s turf.
Beat reporters inevitably get too close to the people they cover, and Walker seemed a classic case. Still, I respected his knowledge and passion for the job. There were other reporters who seemed more blasé.
During the 2004 election for city attorney, I got a call from challenger Fred Tabak, who asked me to investigate his claims that assistant city attorneys were overpaid. He told me that Larry Sandler, the reporter covering the election, didn’t care if I covered it.
Sandler, whose main beat was transportation, wrote a column called “Road Warrior,” whose fierce title belied its often pedestrian prose. The city attorney race was off that beat and seemed of little importance to him.
So Sandler was happy to have me do the work, and we ultimately co-wrote a story. Tabak’s claims didn’t amount to much. But given that incumbent Grant Langley hadn’t had a challenger in two decades and that no story had ever examined the department’s payroll, I was stunned by Sandler’s complete disinterest.
“Sometimes I feel like you almost have to give reporters permission to do a good story,” Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser once told me.
Apparently, Sandler hadn’t got the memo. But he was doubtless well aware, as I was to learn, that permission is often difficult to get and easily revoked. Publishing good stories is often less important to the editors than the all-consuming task of protecting the newspaper’s image.
Managing Editor George Stanley is tall, at least 6 feet 2 inches, but Marty Kaiser is even taller. They seem to tower over most reporters. When the two men approach your desk, you can’t help but get nervous.
“Am I being taken to the woodshed?” I joked when they brought me in to discuss a story I wrote about then Archbishop Rembert Weakland. Marty laughed, and the reader’s complaint we ended up discussing didn’t amount to much. But their poker-faced scrutiny was always intimidating.
“They’re very hands on,” Assistant Managing Editor Tom Koetting once said, comparing them to editors at other papers. “Marty operates more like a managing editor and George operates more like a city editor.”
The two editors are opposites in many ways. Stanley is clean-shaven and impeccably attired, even on dress-down Fridays. Kaiser is bearded and slightly scruffy even in a suit. Stanley stands erect and seems to look down on you as he talks; Kaiser rounds his shoulders and hunches toward you.
Kaiser mostly listens, Stanley mostly talks. Kaiser is soft-spoken and introverted; Stanley is an extroverted declaimer. Stanley yearns to be a crusading journalist; Kaiser often applies the brakes. Stanley sees evil in many places; Kaiser worries about fairness to all.
Their opposing philosophies could combine to confuse reporters. The typical message, as a veteran reporter like Pabst saw it, was “Go, go, go. No, stop, stop, stop.”
If the editors were conflicted, it was understandable. They were presiding over an ever-declining industry. Newspapers across America face dwindling readership. The daily circulation of the Journal Sentinel has plummeted from 328,000 in 1995 to 238,000 today. Every year the paper has fewer customers, less clout.
The editors needed to grab readers’ attention without getting some so mad they cancelled their subscriptions. Kaiser and Stanley yearned to win awards with tough reporting but without alienating the community.
“We’re losing touch with our readers,” Senior Editor Gary Krentz would say, suggesting that the coverage of some issue had gone too far in one direction.
A case in point was the “Blue Shirt,” the airport artwork that was rejected by county government, raising a host of fascinating artistic and political issues. But the public appeared to be anti-Blue Shirt and the newspaper was wary of looking elitist, so reporters weren’t allowed to dig too deeply.
The old Sentinel and Journal fiercely competed for scoops, but now stories could wait for weeks. There was plenty of time to worry if an article had the right tone, the right balance and if every fact was double- and triple checked.
A critical part of that process was the copy editor. Each story went through two edits, first by the “rimmer,” then by the “slot.” The titles were ancient, harking back to when rimmers sat in a horseshoe arrangement, with the eye shade-wearing top editor or slot in the middle.
The level of detail considered by copy editors was often impressive and at times maddening. Copy editors woke reporters at night to niggle over nuances in a story.
“They’re aliens,” reporter Lee Bergquist raged after one nighttime call. “They’re not like us.”
The tension between editors and reporters was age-old, but a paper with no competitor could stretch out the agony. It was not unusual for a front-page story to go through two content editors, two or three copy editors, a review by Stanley and finally Kaiser. By the time all the slicing and dicing was done, there was often little left of the reporter’s voice.
Reporters speculated about how stories might be shaped with concern about the company’s chief executive, Steve Smith, and the leadership on the upper floors.
“People ask me if I get pressure from upstairs,” Kaiser once told me. “I never get any interference.” Perhaps that was because he was careful to head off anything that might draw complaints.
The editors gave me an enthusiastic go-ahead to do a series on corporate executive pay, but once I submitted the stories, they sat for two months. Some editors were betting the series would never run. I felt like Ziggy, the comic strip character with the black cloud over his head; inevitably, a story’s death gets blamed on the reporter.
The series did run but only after many changes, including the addition of complimentary comments from civic and business associates of former Johnson Controls Chief Executive Jim Keyes, explaining that Johnson Controls would never have wanted to hurt workers (while hiking the CEO’s pay) by exporting jobs to Mexico. No such compliments were necessary when I did a story about a pension hike pushed for (and personally benefiting) teachers’ union head Sam Carmen. Stanley pushed that series to publication at hyperdrive.
Objections to stories could also come after publication, as elite members of the community demanded to meet with the editors. Milwaukee Art Museum Director David Gordon made one such request after an article of mine documented the museum’s financial problems.
It is a remarkable thing to watch the sphinx-like demeanor of the editors at these meetings. The British-born Gordon is naturally combative, and he was in high dudgeon, accusing me of personal vindictiveness. Gordon had come with the museum’s financial officer, who also accused me of misunderstanding basic accounting. Why, I began to wonder, did I ever have the loony idea of writing this story?
The Great Stonefaces, however, showed not a ripple of emotion, not a clue to their feelings. Gordon and I were in the same boat, wondering what they were thinking. As our sparring continued, the tension mounted. Finally, Stanley asked whether Gordon could provide documentation to show the museum was not running a deficit. Gordon said no.
That was that. The meeting ended. The newspaper ran no retraction. Gordon had damaged his credibility with the editors. Kaiser had by then handled so many demanding phone calls from the museum head that in private he began doing an imitation of Gordon’s plummy English accent.
Still, any resistance from the community, even if the resistor ended up looking foolish, was likely to make the editors think twice about the next story. With no competing paper and an ever-declining base of readers, there are always reasons for delay and never enough reason to be aggressive.
Good journalism was certainly possible. A series like “Made in China,” documenting how China was taking away jobs and business from Wisconsin, was extraordinarily powerful. Of course, the paper wasn’t circulated in China, so every reader could cheer this investigation and editors could crusade away at no risk.
Many reporters dreaded the pre- and post-publication pressure associated with a high-visibility story. Any error in a story, any complaints from the community could draw the editors’ wrath. It was easier not to do a front-page story and easier still to avoid an investigative story in favor of a typical “he said, she said” article of straight reporting that often had to be decoded by readers.
Lesser stories were less risk but more likely to be held in reserve. And the longer the delay, the more likely their death.
Yet stories were always needed, even if some got cut, killed or combined with another one. Krentz is the editor whose job it is to keep the pipeline of prose flowing, and he operated as a kind of newsroom Santa, jollying reporters into accepting assignments and approving lots of story ideas. The result was often a bewildering contrast between his happy affirmation and the stone wall of negatives a story might hit later.
For Krentz, every day is Ground Hog Day, and he was soon repeating the same process, planting the seeds of more stories without worrying too much about the fate of the last day’s crop.
The yes-no, push-pull environment of the newsroom confused and embittered some reporters and took its toll on morale. It was often easier to produce less, to simply do the stories editors suggested. Yet if your stories got too safe, you could get marginalized and stuck with a low-priority beat like suburban government.
There was chronic confusion over expectations and an inevitable us-against-them edge to the gossip about the editors. The paper had run a massive series on the chronic wasting disease of deer, and the team of writers that won the Journal Sentinel a nomination as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize was rewarded with free tickets to, appropriately enough, a Milwaukee Bucks game.
The reporters were elated until they spied the editors who had handled the story in the company’s luxury suite, watching the game from on high. Even an informal reward seemed to preserve the paper’s top-down hierarchy.
Still, some reporters found ways to thrive. Real estate writer Tom Daykin owned his beat and drove the Business Journal batty in its attempts to scoop him. He was so productive that Journal Sentinelstaffers would talk about “pulling a Daykin” – filing two or three stories in one day. He wrote intelligent, balanced articles that never pushed the envelope. But it helped that his beat was more politically neutral than covering City Hall or the state capital.
Daykin was the perfect complement to architecture writer Whitney Gould, and their combined reporting covered the urban landscape more thoroughly than any other beat. Gould had the rare chance to do both commentary and reporting, and her passionate, intelligent writing elevated the topic in the community.
But she was an exception to the rule. The newspaper’s ethical guidelines, standard in the industry, barred reporters from expressing opinions, so they weren’t allowed to mix commentary and reporting. It was editors who got to have opinions and who defined the acceptable mainstream.
Given that Democratic-leaning Milwaukee County still accounted for most of the paper’s readers, you might think that mainstream would slant slightly left. But history had intervened to push the paper in a different direction.
The Sentinel Triumphant
The old Milwaukee Sentinel was a place where every staffer lived to beat The Milwaukee Journal.They deeply resented its longer stories, bigger staff and higher salaries.
The Sentinel, founded in 1837, had long been the loser. Its circulation had been surpassed within one year of the founding of the upstart Journal in 1882. By 1924, the Hearst chain bought out the Sentinel. By 1960, it had less than half the readers of the nationally acclaimed Journal. The Sentinel briefly went out of business before The Journal purchased it at a fire-sale price.
The Journal was the liberal paper with the Pulitzers, the fancy staff parties and the attitude of entitlement. Keith Spore, editor of the more newsy, more conservative Sentinel, competed with The Journal for decades and hated everything it stood for, staffers say.
By the time the papers merged in April 1995, The Journal had been adrift for more than a decade, trying everything to arrest the declining circulation afflicting all afternoon papers. The Sentinel, by contrast, had a united staff and a hard-edged mission: to scoop The Journal.
That clear focus gave Sentinel staffers an advantage in the battle to define the merged paper’s editorial. The Sentinel, moreover, had fewer staff members and they were willing to take jobs with less status. Journal staffers were fussier and often better paid, with more to gain from a buyout offer. The end result is that far more of the Sentinel editors and reporters kept their jobs.
At first, The Journal’s losses were not as clear because its editor, Mary Jo Meisner, took over the merged paper, while Spore became editorial page editor. But within three months, Spore was named publisher and president, and by January 1997, he had asked for Meisner’s resignation.
Kaiser was promoted from managing editor to editor, but he wasn’t really a Journal man, having spent just one year working there before the merger. He was surrounded by Sentinel people and was widely seen as having more interest in sports and features than politics and government. Kaiser’s news junkie would be George Stanley, a Sentinel man through and through. Stanley was a Spore protégé whose rise had been remarkable: from staff writer for the low-impact Ducks Unlimited magazine to Sentinel reporter in the late 1980s and then Sentinel business editor. Stanley retained that position after the merger and then got the managing editor job, doubtless due to Spore.
Journal editors had been used to working day hours and putting out an afternoon paper and were not interested in second-shift work. But the new paper was a morning paper, and the nighttime editor positions could be very influential, changing the story mix and front-page headlines as the day’s events changed. Two Sentinel veterans, David Vogel and Russ Maki, assumed these positions.
While Kaiser is consulted regarding nighttime changes, Stanley was more involved in the detail of news decisions, working with his old Sentinel mates Vogel and Maki, and their choices were telling.
“It’s rare to have a managing editor as conservative as Stanley,” one well-traveled middle editor once observed. But Vogel was considered even more conservative, a right-wing religious conservative.
Because the Journal Sentinel has no international reporter and does little original national coverage, the editors were largely on their own in this sphere, choosing stories from a range of syndicated sources. That’s where their bias is most apparent.
When former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill released his book with a scathing analysis of the Bush administration, the story was buried inside the paper’s first section, while the next-day denials by Bush’s defenders got the front page. The approach was the same when Bush’s former terrorism expert, Richard Clarke, published his book contending that the administration had ignored his warnings about terrorists.
The tilt can get absurd: Sometimes the Journal Sentinel runs stories with the Bush administration denying some claim or criticism that had never been published in the Milwaukee paper.
Nationally, there was debate as to whether the Iraq War bore any relationship to terrorism, but the issue was settled at the Journal Sentinel, which ran a daily column of shorts headlined “Iraq/Terror.”
Nationally, there were stories about the Bush administration’s planting of a conservative pseudo-reporter at press conferences, of its payments to media commentators who favored Republicans and of the “extraordinary rendition” program that shipped suspected terrorists to foreign countries that used torture in their interrogations. Only Milwaukee readers who subscribed to other publications were able to read these news stories.
Nationally, the foremost critic of Bush was New York Times commentator Paul Krugman, who was named the best columnist of 2002 by Editor & Publisher magazine. But the Journal Sentinel rarely ran Krugman’s columns.
The newspaper’s editorials have been all over the map since the merger. The paper typically endorses incumbents, from right-wing to left-wing and all shades in between. The paper, however, endorsed Republican Bob Dole for president in 1996 and made no choice in 2000. It was again going to sit out 2004 because the company’s management favored Bush and the editorial board opposed him. Only after national stories embarrassed the Journal Sentinel for its inability to endorse a presidential candidate did the paper relent and endorse John Kerry. This doubtless rankled management, but as always, protecting the paper’s image trumped every other concern.
In any event, most readers don’t read editorials. The decisions regarding headlines and news stories have far more impact, and there the trend has been clear.
For state coverage, the merged paper had to choose between the two Steves for Madison bureau chief: The Journal’s Steve Schultze and the Sentinel’s Steve Walters. The Sentinel and Walters won (Schultze remained as a general assignment reporter), which meant that the capital coverage would have a Sentinel flavor.
Stanley, moreover, dominates the decision-making on all state-local coverage. Most middle-level editors run scared of him. Former Journal Sentinel reporter Jessica McBride’s advice to me was, “Don’t cross George. He controls everything in the newsroom.”
Stanley could clap you on the back or, with his throaty voice and warm, almost conspiratorial tone, give you the feeling the two of you shared a little secret. But his eyes could also flash a daggered look of warning not to cross him.
Stanley had been a legendary business editor whose reporters still loved him. He was a terrific line editor who could zero in on any weakness and suggest better arguments and organizational improvements. He was fast and hard-working and left his mark on many stories.
But Stanley was also remarkably shallow about urban problems and social issues. Minority reporters felt he was uncomfortable with race questions. He could be downright childish, writing a snippy e-mail in response to a diplomatically written challenge from Democratic consultant Bill Christofferson. Stanley was extraordinarily unguarded in his comments, often suggesting that various Democrats were sleazy, while offering no such criticism of Republicans.
Stanley was a hunter and former environmental reporter who had an unending appetite for stories on chronic wasting disease or the degradation of the Great Lakes. The constant headlines on the dumping of sewage reflected both his environmentalism and a suburban Republican’s resentment (Stanley lives in Germantown) of the Sewerage District. After years of such screaming headlines, the Journal Sentinel did an investigation of other cities and found that Milwaukee’s record on dumping was no different than other cities’.
Some of the paper’s slant seemed to hark back to the old Sentinel, even its days as part of the Hearst chain: a front page that often favored murder and mayhem, suspected government and resented taxes.
The old Sentinel typically got first access to studies by the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and in return gave them prominent coverage. That arrangement was irrelevant once the two papers merged, yet the WPRI regularly got favored coverage. Its study suggesting the need for a Taxpayer Bill of Rights made the front page, while studies done at two different universities with an anti-Tabor slant were ignored by the news page.
Stanley would bug education reporter Alan Borsuk to find stories critical of the teachers’ union, Borsuk told me. And when it came to labor disputes at private businesses, even involving union-busting companies demanding huge wage givebacks, the paper simply wouldn’t cover it.
“We don’t parachute in” on those stories, Business Editor Gary Miller told me. The phrase suggested leaping into a hostile territory, and indeed, it had become a foreign land. A newspaper that had for so long been employee-owned no longer had a full-time labor reporter.
The newspaper’s name still carried the Journal first. The news staff all worked in the old Journal’s pink-bricked, 1920s–era Art Moderne building. Daily editorial meetings convened in the Lucius Neiman Suite, named after The Journal’s first editor, and meetings with people from the community were held in the Harry Grant Library, named after the Journal leader who created the employee stock plan.
The news staff was surrounded by the symbolic history of the long-mighty Journal, but it was the once-extinguished Sentinel flame that now burned brightest. And whenever an article lacked the Sentinel touch, it would be condemned by a talk radio host who first won fame as a Journal reporter.
The Sykes Syndrome
The myth of Charlie Sykes as a recovered liberal, the legend he created, is far more colorful than the facts. In the 1970s, Sykes was the Journal reporter who won fame for a very un-Journal-like story about garbage workers loafing on the job – just the sort of investigation the conservative radio host might embrace today.
As an editor at Milwaukee Magazine in the 1980s, Sykes was unpredictable: He favored the neoliberal New Republic,revered Ronald Reagan, had opposed school busing and was anti-abortion.
Since becoming the morning talk show host for WTMJ radio, Sykes has joined fellow conservative radio host Mark Belling in trashing the Journal Sentinel. But Sykes has far more influence. Partly that is because a morning show can better drive the day’s agenda, but mostly it is because editors hear Sykes during their morning commute but are busy working during Belling’s afternoon show.
Sykes, moreover, is far more unrelenting in his criticism, for the simple reason he works for Journal Communications and must prove his independence. Paradoxically, because he works for the same company, his comments can’t be dismissed (as Belling’s might be) as mere goosing by a media competitor.
For Sykes, it’s a game he can’t lose. No matter how much coverage the Journal Sentinel gives his favorite issue, he can always claim there’s a bias or that something has been overlooked. Because he is an entertainer, not a journalist, he is not required to balance his comments or calls from listeners. Yet because Sykes is a savvy media critic and WTMJ bills itself as “news radio,” listeners rarely see him for what he is: a polemicist who regularly advances the talking points of the Republican Party.
“He has to be getting paid by the Republican Party,” Stanley once fumed to me. “Nobody could be doing that for them and not be getting paid off.”
Sykes does get funding from the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, but his big paycheck, of course, is from the same company paying Stanley. Journal Communications pays Sykes to relentlessly undercut the credibility of its newspaper. And credibility – the readers’ belief in the Journal Sentinel’s integrity – is the primary thing it sells.
The fact that Sykes is allowed to do this speaks volumes about the paper’s ever-plummeting clout within its own company. Last year, the newspaper generated just 28 percent of Journal Communication’s total revenues. Broadcasting, telecommunications, printing and other media account for the rest. For the first time, the company has a chief executive, Steve Smith, who did not come from the newspaper but from broadcasting.
So Sykes has a free hand to attack the paper’s trustworthiness and, inevitably, drive it to the right.
But his theory of the paper’s liberal bias is absurd on its face. Even among the paper’s reporters, few live in the city and few are likely to be knee-jerk liberals on a city vs. suburbs issue. As for the top editors, they are all white suburbanites (except for the sports and features editors, who have no impact on the paper’s politics) and are dominated by old Sentinel hands who are anything but left-wing.
Sykes’ impact on them is extraordinary. Stanley would assign story ideas based on what he’d heard on his morning commute. Kaiser has invited Sykes to write occasional columns for the paper. Stanley drove off the freeway one morning in order to call the radio show and argue over how he had been characterized by Sykes.
For a conservative like Stanley, it must be particularly maddening to be libeled as a liberal. But Sykes’ criticism will never stop, no matter how rightward the paper tilts, because those brickbats help drive his ratings.
Stanley told me he spoke to a group of University of Wisconsin alumni prior to the 2004 presidential election and handled comments from listeners of Sykes who questioned whether the paper was ignoring the issue of voter fraud. Almost immediately, the Journal Sentinel began a blizzard of stories that ran for months, looking into irregularities in the city’s election system.
The issue is legitimate, but in a newspaper where space is always scarce, how can there be unlimited room for repetitive stories on this issue? Inevitably, this means that other stories are not getting covered.
Another pet issue for talk radio was the tire slashing of some Republican cars by Democratic operatives. The columnists Spivak and Bice did two stories repeating the same news, naming the Democrats who were likely to be charged. There was no news for readers in the second article, but it did help ward off criticism from talk radio.
The 2004 election featured a face-off between Republican Scott Walker and Democrat David Riemer. The newspaper gave it little coverage, compared to the mayoral race, and the standard assumption was that editors saw Walker as a shoo-in. In fact, both races ended up having similar margins. But the undercoverage of the county race hurt Riemer because a challenger most needs a chance for the issues to be discussed.
County reporter David Umhoefer, one of the newspaper’s best, was frustrated by his handcuffing. It was a repetition of how the paper had undercovered the county during the pension scandal.
One issue getting scant coverage was Riemer’s charge that Walker hadn’t dismissed top aides eligible for lump sum pension payments. In an appearance on Sykes’ TV show, I suggested that the issue could be a potent one in the campaign.
I hadn’t researched the issue since it was clear the paper had so little interest in the campaign. But when I got back to the newsroom, I proposed doing a story. The response was lukewarm, but I went ahead. I soon documented that three aides could earn huge lump sum “backdrop” payments ranging from $480,000 to $1.1 million. Stanley got excited about the story only after I let him know that the Walker administration had been stonewalling me regarding data I requested; the newspaper jealously guarded its right to get government records. So the story was slugged to run Saturday, three days before the election.
On Friday afternoon, I was summoned for one of those meetings with Kaiser and Stanley. They looked grim. They had on their stone faces. Kaiser had gotten an e-mail from a Walker campaign operative trying to head off the story. The e-mail argued I was biased because of the comment I made on Sykes’ show.
Given that I had made no value judgment on the show regarding Walker’s handling of the backdrop and given that I was the reporter who brought down a Democrat, former County Executive Tom Ament, with my earlier pension story, it was hard to see how an accusation of bias could stick. The story was strictly factual, and Kaiser and Stanley saw no weaknesses in the reporting. But they decided to hold the story until after the election. The newspaper’s image was more important than serving readers and potential voters.
Afterward, Stanley took me aside for a chat. At such times, he could exude a fatherly charisma that was compelling. The newspaper, he explained, had to be careful about its image, had to protect its tremendous credibility with readers. “It’s not because of anything we’ve done, it’s something we’ve inherited,” he noted.
As an example of that clout, he pointed to the Ament pension scandal. He said he had read my story in Milwaukee Magazine, then gave it to Kaiser, and they agreed that the newspaper must cover it. Their banner-headlined barrage, of course, ultimately brought Ament down.
It was a strange conversation. Stanley was using the example of the paper at its worst, when it failed to cover one of the biggest stories in recent history, to demonstrate its clout. He was telling the reporter who broke this story to feel good about the newspaper once again failing to print a pension story.
The picture he painted was not of a paper that fought to break the news but of one that decided which of the stories it was handed was worthy of being printed. “We’ll just get Sykes attacking me and Marty because we’re such big liberals,” he added, mocking the label he found so infuriating.
Some time later, I was given the go-ahead for a news story synthesizing liberal and conservative research on the question of how high Wisconsin taxes were, relative to other states. I interviewed researchers on both sides, who agreed on a portrait of a state where taxes were higher but fees were lower, and where considerable progress in reducing spending had been made over the last decade.
This was not likely to please Sykes, who relentlessly campaigned for what conservatives dubbed TABOR– the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
So instead of running my story in news, Stanley gave it to the Crossroads section, where it was treated as an Op Ed piece. I was never consulted. I picked up the Sunday morning paper to discover I was anti-TABOR. I soon got a blitz of e-mails from readers assuming this was my opinion.
Perhaps it was. But if I were to do an opinion piece considering the question, I would have written it much differently.
It was an ironic situation. The editors had warned me never to express an opinion on the air. The ethics code barred me from attending a political rally or putting a campaign sign on my lawn. But it was okay for the editors to essentially assign me an opinion by running my news story on the Sunday editorial page.
Not long after this, the paper did a series on the impact of TABOR in Colorado. The writer was Steve Walters, a good reporter, but one who exuded the old Sentinel’s anti-tax mentality.
In response to Walters’ series, I got an e-mail from Chris Kliesmet of the Citizens for Responsible Government and a pro-TABOR activist. Kliesmet mistakenly thought I had written the series and complimented the paper he was certain had a liberal bias.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought the reporter was pro-TABOR,” Kliesmet wrote.
Before my hiring, I went through several interviews, including a luncheon with Koetting at Lake Park Bistro. “I was joking with my wife,” he said, “that you’ll eventually go back to Milwaukee Magazine and write a feature story on ‘My Three Years of Hell at the Journal Sentinel.’ ”
Well, Tom, here’s the story. Though it wasn’t really hell.
There was much I admired about the Journal Sentinel and its editor. It was clear Kaiser was trying to improve the paper through national recruitment efforts, hiring top-flight reporters like Dan Egan (who does investigative stories on the environment) and John Schmid (with a background in international economics).
Kaiser also seemed genuinely committed to hiring minorities, to broaden the paper’s range of voices. He brought in O. Ricardo Pimental, a bright Mexican American and veteran journalist, as editorial page editor.
He also wanted more enterprise and investigative stories; Koetting’s hiring helped make that happen.
“This is as good as it gets for a mid-sized newspaper in America,” Koetting would often declare, though it often seemed aimed at bucking himself up as much as me.
I suspect he was right. I sometimes got e-mails from reporters at other newspapers marveling that I was allowed to do a particular investigative story. And journalists hired from elsewhere, usually from newspapers that were part of a national chain, were impressed by the resources and manpower available at the Journal Sentinel.
But compared to most reporters, I enjoyed considerable access to the editors, and that convinced me it was time to move on. I wanted to write commentary but clearly wasn’t the kind of writer they wanted. I might have continued as a reporter if it was a mainstream paper that was cautious but played fair with both sides, Republican and Democrat. Or I could have continued if it was a conservative-leaning paper that aggressively covered the news. But the combination of Kaiser’s cautiousness and Stanley’s conservatism simply created too many reasons to reject stories and too little autonomy for reporters.
The addition of the liberal-leaning Pimental was a surprise. But after he did a column last December suggesting that the reasons for supporting Bush’s re-election were counterintuitive, Sykes went into full attack mode. Pimental got a hailstorm of e-mails and phone calls complaining. He has not written a political column since.
Meanwhile, the paper’s editors plucked a designer with no reporting experience, Patrick McIlheran, to write a weekly political column. The idea was to create a consistent conservative voice, and McIlheran is certainly that.
But he has never worked as a reporter. Such experience makes most journalists more unpredictable, more cynical toward politicians of all stripes. McIlheran isn’t encumbered by such knowledge.
But the paper runs his columns more to ward off Republican complaints than to enlighten readers. In an era of slumping circulation and agitated conservatives activated by talk radio, newspapers across America are running scared. Inevitably, they are adjusting their coverage to quiet the squeaky wheels.
The old Milwaukee Journal bucked many readers, courageously challenging pro-German isolationists in the World War I era and the home-grown McCarthyism of the 1950s. It had remarkable journalists whose writing I grew up reading. I still fondly remember Oliver Kuechle’s commentaries on the Milwaukee Braves, Gerald Kloss’ Shakespearean send-ups and Walter Monfried’s cultural reviews. But the old Journal, and that style of journalism, is dead.
I had been interested, perhaps naively, in adding to that rich history of some of the state’s best writing. One thing I loved about the newspaper was the incredible library of Journal and Sentinel stories going back to the 1920s and earlier. At times, I miss that. I miss the pace of daily news, the newsroom banter and buzz. I even miss Georgia’s pile of papers. Well, maybe not that.
At its best, the newspaper functions like a public utility that serves the people, a complex organism with a thousand arms and legs that somehow work in concert. There was no better example of that than election night, when every reporter and editor seemed to be needed, when all were equal waiting in line for the usual complimentary pizzas and when so many were madly typing away while shoveling down food. A given story might have six contributors, with one reporter who ultimately slapped it all together. Contributing reporters messaged story matter to main reporters, who sent the cobbled creation to content editors, who yielded to copy editors in agitated but fairly seamless succession.
The next morning, when I picked up my paper along with every other reader, it seemed like a miracle that so much coverage had been assembled so quickly and accurately. It made me proud for a time to be a Journal Sentinel reporter, but it also showed how much could be accomplished every day if the main goal was to simply and fearlessly cover the news.
Bruce Murphy rejoined Milwaukee Magazineas a senior editor in February.