It’s a recurring nightmare for any publication that wants to be on top of the news: A big story breaks after you’ve already gone to press or worse when your new edition is already on the streets. That’s exactly what the Business Journal faced last week when the announcement came Friday morning that the area’s […]

It’s a recurring nightmare for any publication that wants to be on top of the news: A big story breaks after you’ve already gone to press or worse when your new edition is already on the streets.

That’s exactly what the Business Journal faced last week when the announcement came Friday morning that the area’s biggest local banking company, M&I, would be bought by Montreal-based BMO Financial Group, the parent of Harris Bank.

It was perhaps doubly vexing because the weekly’s senior reporter Rich Kirchen had long been closely following the vicissitudes of M&I. By Friday afternoon, however, the Business Journal‘s afternoon news blast had not just one, but a passel of stories on the acquisition, looking at several different angles.

So did the paper have any heads-up as to what was coming that could give it a leg up on the story?

 
Photo by Adrian Palomo.

No, but yes. “No specific inkling this week,” Kirchen told me in an e-mail. But he did have a print-edition story Nov. 3 after M&I reported a disappointing eighth-consecutive quarterly loss. That story quoted analysts predicting an acquisition even as M&I executives waved away the rumors. Harris/BMO was among the prospective suitors for the bank.

It looks to have been prescient.

Certainly the Journal Sentinel‘s business staff got online quickly and in print in Saturday’s and Sunday’s papers with a raft of stories, too. And BizTimes Milwaukee covered the acquisition in its noon Friday e-mail blast (three hours before the Business Journal‘s) with a story that went behind just reciting the press release.

But the Business Journal‘s response is noteworthy because of the paper’s small size and its flood-the-zone gusto after deadline. It also is one more signal of how the news business continues to evolve toward digital delivery. And it illustrates how, regardless of the medium, the essential nature of quality journalism requires an investment in preparation for the moment when a story breaks.

“We did not know the story was coming, but have been following M&I’s troubles very closely over the past several years, including a blog item by Rich Kirchen in recent weeks, and were watching for something significant to happen with the bank,” says Business Journal Editor Mark Kass.

On Friday morning as the Business Journal‘s weekly print edition was landing on desks and in mailboxes around the city, Kirchen got a cell phone call at 7 a.m. while en route to work. Says Kass: “We were able to quickly get an item posted on our website and included in our Morning Roundup e-mail, which is sent every weekday around 7:30 am. We then met as a staff and quickly talked about story ideas, and I made assignments based on beats. This will be the biggest business story of the year, and we needed to be all over it because that is what our readers expect.”

So the publication posted stories and blog entries as the day wore on. A new website redesign unveiled in October included a “story carousel” that made it easier to highlight the M&I story and keep updates visible all day.

“As part of the redesign, we have also put a greater emphasis on Web coverage in our newsroom,” Kass notes. “We have encouraged our reporters to write blogs more often, to highlight their knowledge and expertise on their beats.” Kirchen led the effort, mining the information he’d already collected in past reporting on M&I and Harris Bank, but other staffers – Rich Rovito, Stacy Vogel Davis and Sean Ryan – also pitched in, for a total of seven stories by the 3 p.m. blast and two more that went to e-mail subscribers after the M&I afternoon press conference.

“When I was hired as a reporter at The Business Journal in 1989, all we did was write for the weekly paper,” Kass says. “Nowadays, we run two operations in a sense, a daily news website and a weekly business newspaper. Our reporters are expected to contribute to both.”

And by doing so, the paper can compete with the Journal Sentinel even as the daily dwarfs it in circulation and staff.

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No whipping boy

The November issue of The Wisconsin Interest has a behind-the-scenes look at Ron Johnson‘s successful campaign to unseat Russ Feingold in the U.S. Senate, written by Christian Schneider. WI, edited by Charlie Sykes, is put out by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank and policy mill for the state’s GOP.

In the course of his lengthy account, Schneider (who was once the pseudonymous and iconoclastic conservative blogger “Dennis York”) made a number of observations about both the media’s coverage of Johnson and the Johnson campaign’s media strategy. For instance, Schneider asserted that story by Walker pointing out the fact that five employees of Johnson’s company were on BadgerCare, was an “attempt to besmirch Johnson” and “was meant to paint RonJohn as a hypocrite” because Johnson criticized the federal health insurance reform bill.

Walker didn’t take that, or the rest of Schneider’s swipes at the newspaper’s coverage of Johnson, lying down. Instead, he wrote a point-by-point rebuttal, complete with links to relevant JS stories. On the BadgerCare story, for instance, Walker wrote:

“I understand Schneider has his own biases for the purpose of his story. I would only point out that the story was not an attempt to ‘besmirch Johnson.’ I would call it reporting on an issue involving an issue Johnson himself brought up. And that was that he said on numerous occasions that his company had a good health-insurance program and that his policy was the same as the rest of his employees.”

To the WPRI’s credit, the organization has posted Walker’s takedown in full on its website “in the spirit of transparency,” in the words of WPRI President George Lightbourn – who went on to say that “WPRI stands behind Mr. Schneider’s piece.”

We’ll let readers read the two side by side and draw their own conclusions.

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Smoke alarm

Speaking of the JS and Sykes, in Tuesday’s PolitiFact “fact-checking” column, the paper calls out Sykes as a “pants on fire” liar for his bloviating about the upcoming state Rose Bowl trip as a political junket. The column also pats itself on the back for being willing to take on a corporate sibling. (WTMJ-AM 620 is owned by the newspaper’s corporate parent, Journal Communications.)

I’ll have more to say about PolitiFact in the future, but here’s what’s wrong with this item. It takes nearly 1,000 words to respond to just a few minutes of off-the-cuff sheer nonsense from Sykes. There’s no sign that Sykes takes any umbrage – or is at all repentant. Instead he writes off his original offending remark as “humor, hyperbole, joke.”

Sykes doesn’t deserve a pass for such balderdash (or other b-word). Yet the whole thing smacks of journalistic kabuki. Everyone – the paper and the radio station – has a part to play and follows through as though scripted on a thoroughly inconsequential matter that actually winds up reinforcing Sykes’ “it’s all a joke” alibi. It pains me to say this because Dave Umhoefer, author of the item, is a great reporter definitely deserving of his 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

And don’t expect liberal critics of PolitiFact – who’ve accused the paper of pulling punches by not going after Sykes and other rightwing talkers at WTMJ – to be satisfied. At the media-bashing blog Whallah, Bill Christofferson writes:

“While it’s nice that the JS challenged Sykes, at long last, it’s too bad it chose a fairly trivial topic after ignoring all sorts of whoppers on much bigger issues during the recent campaign.

“We rate this one as Window Dressing.”

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