Limits of Influence

How investigating who are the most influential people in Milwaukee’s media world revealed divisions that continue to exist.

There’s a story behind the media portion of the November cover story for Milwaukee Magazine about who’s got clout in this city. It starts with the first draft.

“Uninspired,” my editor sniffed. “The same old white guys.”

I could have written that memo myself. I had been burning up the phone lines – and kept doing so, even after that first draft – yet the way the names people I called came up with fell into a well-worn groove was dispiriting.

Yet if that’s what people – all kinds of people – were telling me when I asked them to name who carried influence in the local media, who was I to dismiss them, just because they didn’t fit a preconceived demographic frame?

I even asked one source directly why the results were so one-dimensional. My contact – who’s white – was blunt: It shows Milwaukee’s still stunningly deep racial divide. This city still has only a relative handful of African Americans in visible positions of significant power.

That’s part of the story. Another part is an equally tired reality about local media – and the paucity of black faces in all but a few prominent positions. Eugene Kane was once the most high-profile African-American writer at the Journal Sentinel before he took a buyout in one of that newspaper’s serial downsizings. Now that role falls to editorial writer, columnist and blogger James Causey.

As my piece in the magazine notes, Jerrell Jones – owner of the Milwaukee Courier newspaper and WNOV-AM radio – carries some influence just by dint of owning two major channels of communication that speak to the city’s black community. Others, like Milwaukee Community Journal newspaper editor Thomas Mitchell, also got mentioned. In the end, Jones made the cut while Mitchell didn’t – not because the Community Journal  has no clout, but because its power is largely in a narrower arena. For black Milwaukeeans, I’m sure it is an important source. Yet its reach doesn’t seem to go beyond that community – one more indicator of the city’s and region’s racial divide.

Even within a more limited audience, the individual spheres of influence are probably smaller. Jones and Mitchell wield influence in Milwaukee’s black community – and so does the website The Milwaukee Drum. Yet each reaches only a segment of that community – segments that might not overlap much.

But as the media have splintered with new, narrower channels for information, we’re losing a common forum to discuss issues and exchange ideas. It goes beyond divisions of race or class. When it comes to women, the story’s a bit different (more on that in a moment).

Certain bloggers enjoy strong and devoted, yet isolated and segmented followings. Some can move the needle on issues: one correspondent credits longtime conservative blogger James Wigderson with helping to torpedo a Waukesha proposal in September for a city-backed loan to a foundering condominium occupied by low-income residents. But when the example was first proffered, I had to Google the story to even know what my correspondent was talking about.

On the left you’ll hear rock-star enthusiasm for Madison’s John Nichols, the editorial page editor for the Capital Times (once a newspaper and now a website that publishes two weekly print editions) who also writes regularly for The Nation and appears on MSNBC. But does a high profile mean influence? Not the way we were measuring it.

On the right, it’s hard to argue that Charlie Sykes wields significant media power in state and local politics. In a backhanded way, the New Republic even implied as much when it predicted 18 months ago that Gov. Scott Walker would not withstand national media scrutiny as presidential hopeful because of the comfortable media bubble he gets thanks to Sykes et al.

Outside politics, still other journalists enjoy influence in more confined arenas. Sean Ryan at the Milwaukee Business Journal goes head-to-head on real estate coverage with the Journal Sentinel’s Tom Daykin. A friend in the local food distribution business brought up highly specialized beat reporters who cover his organization – a perfect example of media and audience fragmentation.

Another wrinkle is invisibility. Journal Sentinel Editor George Stanley, thanks to his rank, has a significant influence in what news we get. Yet very few people I talked to brought him up simply because it’s the high-profile reporters like Dan Bice who are the face of the newspaper.

Similarly, Jill Williams – the African-American features editor at the JS – plays a key role in directing a significant element of the newspaper’s content. Yet it’s a role that’s far behind the scenes. And Betsy Brenner, the JS publisher, same story.

That brings us back to women. Certainly the JS has visible women reporters, some of whom wound up on an early list. Pulitzer-prize winner Raquel Rutledge, police and crime reporter Ashley Luthern, and investigative reporters Ellen Gabler and Gina Barton all arguably might have qualified. For what it’s worth, however, only Luthern surfaced in my calls, and she wound up not making the cut.

So with the shifting media diet, the shrinking of established media sources, and the fragmentation of media outlets and audiences – when we ask who has the greatest impact on debate and public policy, we paradoxically end up favoring the most established sources and institutions: those with the loudest voices, the deepest pockets, and the most entrenched presence. (That tends to cut out most of the broadcast world entirely, where local TV reporters seem to churn through faster than coaches at losing NBA teams.)

That those institutions are smaller and weaker now means their individual influential people are fewer in number – and therefore have a lot less competition in the influence contest. So when we ask who’s got media clout, it’s really no wonder the list winds up looking like a lot of the same old white guys.



Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.