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Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014

The Death of a Local Newspaper

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Perhaps surprising today, when I came to the Milwaukee Journal from the Chicago Tribune in 1968, there was no question I was moving up.

Although the Tribune still called itself “The World’s Greatest Newspaper,” it wasn’t. It once had been a powerful American newspaper, but that memory was fading fast, as were those running the place.

Because of Chicago journalism’s fabled history, the editor didn’t want to be stuck in some corner office. He had a desk right in the middle of the newsroom, where he sat with his sleeves rolled up. The problem was he was so old by then he kept falling asleep.

That was a time when the Milwaukee Journal always made the Top 10 lists of the nation’s best newspapers published by Time magazine and professional organizations.

Until I arrived, I didn’t realize what kind of journalistic courage it took to achieve that in Milwaukee in 1968.

It was at the height of the civil rights era, when Father James Groppi led members of the NAACP Youth Council in 200 nights of public marches in support of an open housing ordinance outlawing racial discrimination in the sale of city homes, an ordinance repeatedly introduced by Ald. Vel Phillips, the only black person and only woman on the Milwaukee Common Council.

Phillips was the only vote to end such brazen racism. She was opposed by every other council member and by Mayor Henry Maier, who had a liberal Democratic image nationally, but hid behind rhetorical double talk to avoid taking any action that would offend his own racist supporters in Milwaukee.

Angering many readers, the Milwaukee Journal was on the right side of history when it strongly supported open housing and civil rights locally and nationally.

A Journal reporter couldn’t go out in public without immediately learning how much white community hatred that stirred up.

Funny, though, those also were the days when the Journal was held in its highest esteem and its glory days of circulation and readership. Standing for something instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator was good for newspapers.

Courageous journalism everywhere suffered when falling circulation made editors fearful of controversy.

The most drastic change locally until now was the 1995 merger of the liberal afternoon Journal with the morning Milwaukee Sentinel, a former right-wing Hearst newspaper the Journal bought in 1962 and maintained as an alternative conservative voice.

The tail ended up wagging the dog. Management intentionally moved the news and editorial policies of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to the right, chasing suburban readers.

Full disclosure: One well-known example of the political change was firing a high profile, national award-winning, liberal columnist. That would be me.

 

Out-of-Town Scripps in Control

Aside from the dubious achievement of endorsing Scott Walker for governor, the most noticeable effect of downsizing was drastically reducing day-to-day news coverage, particularly of local government.

The most embarrassing result was the Journal Sentinel totally missing the actions of Milwaukee County that led to the biggest political scandal in local history.

Months afterward, Bruce Murphy, an outside reporter writing for a website and then Milwaukee Magazine, revealed the unreported pension changes that resulted in six- and seven-figure pensions for top county employees, including elected officials.

The bombshell led to the resignation of County Executive Tom Ament and the recall of seven county supervisors. It also started the ascendancy of Walker, a minor Republican legislator, to the governor’s office.

As painful as the merger was for many of us and for journalism, the latest drastic turn by Journal Communications could be worse.

Buried in happy talk from executives with shimmering, gold parachutes is the fact that a deal with E.W. Scripps is what Milwaukee has long feared—an outside takeover.

The broadcast properties of Scripps and Journal Communications would be separated into a major company in Cincinnati and the newspapers would form another smaller company based here.

That makes it sound like Milwaukee controls its own newspaper, right? Not really. Scripps shareholders would own 69% of the Cincinnati broadcast company and 59% of the Milwaukee publishing company, which has a Cincinnati Scripps executive as its CEO.

That’s why The New York Times described the primary motivation as Scripps’ desire to shed newspapers “to leave behind the slower-growing print business.”

It’s a great deal for Scripps, which becomes the nation’s fifth largest owner of television stations. But it’s difficult to see why it doesn’t further imperil newspapers, including the Journal Sentinel, that rely on robust broadcast profits to stay in business.

How can it be a positive development to transform Journal Communications from a multimedia company into a newspapers-only publisher at a time when newspapers everywhere are struggling, and often failing, to survive?

Because my own history is so entwined with what was once a great newspaper, I’m hoping for an upside, but it’s hard to shake the fear this really is the beginning of the end.