Illustration by Michael Hirshon
The Milwaukee Police Department used to have a tough time countering news reports of botched investigations or police brutality. The chief could hold a press conference, but reporters would ultimately decide which sound bites or quotes to run, and how to frame the story.
These days, the MPD directs its thousands of Twitter followers and Facebook friends to the its flashy website, the Source (milwaukeepolicenews.com
). In spite of the macho motorcycle graphic and “Heroes” tab, the site looks a lot like a news page, promising “genuine, unfiltered information.” Dizzying, floating images, 3-D photos and clickable stats (a 16 percent drop in violent crime, 1.7 million dispatched calls for service) fill the screen. Designed by Ad agency Cramer-Krasselt, the site won a Webby Award in 2013 and national attention for its high-gloss approach.
Twirling, talking, eye-popping web design is everywhere. The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Snow Fall” seduced readers in 2012 with visuals animating the tale of a deadly avalanche. “Snowfalling” has since become news-speak for use of a gliding technique called parallax scrolling, and it’s given rise to a torrent of imitators intent on appearing both hip and newsy.
Is the Source news? MPD spokesman Lt. Mark Stanmeyer thinks so. “News is the sharing of information,” says Stanmeyer, public information officer since Jan. 2013. “This offers a factual representation of an opinion of the chief, or a response to an article. It’s getting info out to the community.”
Journalists at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel feel pressure to create cutting-edge web packages, up page views and impress contest judges. But cool design can’t turn promotional content into news, according to assistant managing editor Greg Borowski. “You may have wowed the readers,” he says, “but you haven’t communicated with them in a meaningful way.”
Stanmeyer says citizens use the Source to find neighborhood crime stats, and TV stations use it as fodder for feature stories. Recent postings describe officers rescuing residents from a burning building and delivering meals to needy families. But Renee Raffaelli, WISN-TV managing editor, says her station relies on human sources to develop story ideas, not the MPD website.
“When it first came out [in 2012], they tried very hard to tell us: ‘You’ll have to go to the Source for news,’” Raffaelli says. “That just didn’t work.” She says TV newsrooms do use the site to obtain surveillance video and mug shots for breaking stories.
Most citizen traffic to the Source comes from the department’s constituencies on social media, with Twitter followers more likely to click on crime data and Facebook readers opting for feel-good stories. “The media doesn’t always latch onto every story we see as good police work,” Stanmeyer says, “but the community does.”
The Journal Sentinel’s Borowski doesn’t buy it. “People are not coming to them as a news source.”
As long as the Source gets out the MPD message, Stanmeyer doesn’t much care about someone else’s definition of news. “I have a degree in criminal justice, not a degree in journalism,” he says. ■
This article appears in the July 2014 issue of