Saturday, November 17, 2007

Shepherd Express: The Lost Opportunity

It’s always uncomfortable to criticize local artists – that’s why virtually no one does it. You want your local singer-songwriter to succeed, so you forgive him the occasionally maudlin 12-string finger-picking whine about the last lost love. It’s the same with efforts to force an alternative or leftist perspective into the national or local conversation through various media; you let slide the single-issue tirade about free trade in Peru or whatever. After all they mean well, don’t they? There’s no use treating locals like some national target like Dave Matthews or Chris Matthews, nor should they necessarily be held to the same standards.

But, then there’s Milwaukee’s Shepherd Express.

The Shepherd Express – what passes for an alternative weekly in Milwaukee – is celebrating its 25th anniversary in this week’s issue. Its history is an interesting one, as are most of the spontaneous journalistic "happenings" that rose up across the country during the cultural revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s. After Milwaukee’s earlier attempts at weekly counter-cultural media capitalism and creativity – Kaleidoscope (1967-71) and the Bugle American (1970-78) – went the way of the love bead, it left Milwaukee without a place to advertise bong shops, record stores and youth-oriented bars.

According to the history of the paper in the anniversary issue, the then-Crazy Shepherd was started in 1982 as an arty "free-expression" eight-pager featuring UW-Milwaukee students with things on their open minds and soon evolved to (try to) fill the void. Through the years, there were mergers, staff coups, rides to the financial rescue and the usual sorts of alternative intrigue. A former state legislator, Louis Fortis, is credited in the history as the latest savior and has run the paper for the past ten years.

The history in the current issue, I’m sure, has many past staffers pulling their hair out, as the vanquished always do, when history is defined by the victors. For instance, many of Milwaukee’s best journalists have passed through (and, always, out of) the Shepherd editorial doors, including Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy. I wonder how Murphy feels about his exit as editor being described as follows: "...his desire to cover softer news didn’t mesh with the paper’s long history of serious political reporting." Murphy always being one of the city’s best political reporters and the SE containing no "serious" political reporting that I can see, that must come as a shock to him.

I have no knowledge or interest in any of the people or soap-operas that evolved the Shepherd and that always follow ground-up, grow-on-the-fly alternative (or, too often, formerly alternative) weeklies. My interest is as a consumer. I want a damn decent rag to pick up with my lunch every Wednesday or Thursday so I can get some perspective I can’t get elsewhere in the dead-tree universe. Being the ever-forgiving sort, I always open each new Shepherd Express with hope for a new day, for redemption, for anything – anything – substantial and worthwhile between its pages. I am always disappointed. In fact, it’s always depressing.

Sorry, but the Shepherd’s few redeeming qualities – Joel McNally’s column and fellow former-John Byrons bartender Owen "Casey" Dunne’s clever growing-up cartoon, You Damn Kid – don't quite make up for the stuff that usually makes up the rest of the paper.
  • The problems begin with each week's cover page, which often highlights the most ridiculous of stories – "Dude, Where’s My Vacation?"; "Are Gadgets an Addiction?", to name only a couple of the most recent -- with cheesy, amatuerish graphics.
  • Inside, the paper seems frozen in a bad ‘80s layout, with content plastered on the page in read-it-or-leave-it indifference. The SE experimented for a couple of years with handing over several of the middle-back pages to younger demographic Gen-Y’ers with a flippant indifference to the regular Shepherd layout, but, alas, still, with little to say.
  • The paper has always been hampered by personalities who were of historic significance or friends to the Shepherd staff, but had little to offer the rest of us. The most tedious of these was Dave Berkman, a UWM professor who wrote a ponderous media column for decades and was bounced a couple of years ago.
  • But Rip Tenor in his alter-ego as columnist Art Kumbalek also tries our patience on a regular basis – how many years has it been since "what the fock?" was funny? The sad state of the SE is exemplified by the fact that Tenor-as-Kumbalek regularly acts as the Shepherd's cuddly mascot in area bars.
  • Too often, the personal staff indulgences are just embarrassing. Take the fingernails-on-a-chalkboard annoyance of social butterflies Boris and Doris, who some misbegotten editor at the SE apparently thinks are interesting as they relate who went to what Eastside house party or benefit or whatever – complete with the revelers’ names bold-faced. I keep hoping it’s a parody, but it’s not.
  • The paper recently added a regular travel column that hardly expands our knowledge of the world ("Jamaica and Arizona are perfect winter destinations"! "Wisconsin Dells Dazzles"!).
  • The arts and entertainment pages suffer from inconsistency of what to cover and an apparent lack of writing talent to cover it. Sometimes, concerts will be reviewed after the fact, most times not. Reviews of CDs seem to be governed by the niche interests of whoever is writing the review (says the former Fine Arts writer who used to hog all the Costello and Springsteen reviews back at the Cardinal). There is a focus on local artists and under-covered areas like theater, dance and classical get their due, but the writers seldom are able to express anything but admiration for the effort.
  • I can’t remember the last time I was able to get through a Dave Luhrssen movie review.
  • I mean, most "alternative" papers are at least able to get the fine arts stuff right. The Shepherd arts coverage suffers badly in comparison to the Onion, which managed to produce top-flight movie and music reviews even before it went national. Even the Onion's local content is far better written and more interesting.
  • The "news" pages, such as they are, consist of a bits-and-pieces review of the previous week and whatever cover-feature story dominates the issue. The paper seems reluctant to take a firm stand on anything and hasn't broken a major news story in Milwaukee since, well, never. It offers oh-so-serious endorsements during election season, with no indication the rest of the year why we should care what the Shepherd thinks.
  • Every damn article in the non-A&E parts of the paper ends with a juvenile "what’s your take?" tag-line. It kind of takes the edge off of, say, a Joe Conason column (Conason’s OK, but he’s no Molly Ivins – R.I.P.). We all know we can write to the editor. Why mess with the flow of McNally's annual anti-deer-hunting column by having the editor barge in at the end asking for comment?
  • The new back-page classifieds is titled Bizarre Bazaar. Really. How bizarre is it, man? Is this the best we can do with ironic dissonance after 25 years?

I don’t mean to be so hard on the Shepherd Express. I always assume that – except for the inclusion of Boris and Doris – they are trying to do their best. But holding the mantle of the alternative weekly in a major city carries with it some responsibility. The internet now allows us to get some alternative perspective into play, but it’s nothing like the power of a well-distributed newspaper with a full-time staff.

If Madison can produce a quality product like Isthmus (its hard-news section led, not coincidentally, by Shepherd veteran Bill Lueders), Milwaukee should be able to pull together something that at least is not a laughing stock – or vulnerable to rear-guard attacks like the Journal Company’s frivolous but youth-demographic-targeted MKE. As it is, the Shepherd Express exists as a placeholder in the market, like an upscale Weekly Shopper. It could and should be so much more.

Ahem. What's your take?

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

Same goes for the other paper in town, the Journal-Sentinel. Why is it that the Isthmus is better than that paper too? When was the last time The MJS really did some great investigative work?
Am I just naive, is good print journalism gone everywhere due to the Internets and CNN? I mean, I guess I can read CNN on my phone in the bathroom just as easily as a print newspaper.

Does it matter? The bloggers in Milwaukee seem to be filling the void if you are looking for news.
Great points about the Shepard. I will say their coverage of the MPS budgeting wasn't bad.

If you could take McNally's column, The Onion's A/V column, Onmilwaukee's politics section, and a handful of the good Milwaukee bloggers (Jim Rowen, Story Hill, etc) and the first couple pages of the Business Journal slap them together and print them once a week you'd have a better read over your lunch hour than what we have now.
I'd still rather read MKE than the Waukesha/New Berlin focused Milwaukee Journal.

Anonymous said...

It's the personalities of those who have been with the Shepherd the longest who are most responsible for nearly everything you point out. I used to work there. Ohhh...the stories I could tell...

patrick said...

for the first time I have to admit I agree with almost everything mike has to say. The Shepard is tiresome.

Anonymous said...

No Patrick, the Shepard is a JOKE. Louis Fortis was an idiot for getting rid of Doug Hissom, a person who saved that paper during its bleakest days. Nowdays, the only time anything in the Shepard makes even the remotest sense is when the reader is drunk. Falling down drunk. Passing out drunk. Dead drunk.

Anonymous said...

Why is it that only one of you can spell "Shepherd" correctly? The Shepherd is still a paper that distributes "in 1200 locations in the Metro-Milwaukee area," and the four of you are:

1. A disaffected blogger writing late into the night to:
2. Three people who don't know enough about a newspaper to spell its name correctly.

Mike- try talking to yourself in the car while you drive. Much more efficient, I'd think. No computer required.

By the way- I had "Shepherd Express" set up as a Google blogs alert, or I NEVER would have found your post and these whining creeps. And if even one of you thinks CNN is a vital news source, you're all irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

Shepherd, right, maybe no one can spell it because it is not relevant enough to remember.
CNN was used as an example of something light and easily read in the bathroom which is probably where many people read the SHEPHERD since it is free and available in places likely to induce a bowel movement--like your local gyros shop, coffee shop, or City Hall.

Dave said...

Amen. Esp. in re: "David" Luhrssen, Kritik @ Large ...

http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=151638201&blogID=299060785

Dave said...

... by the way, anynymous no. whichever, it USED to be (mis)spelled "Shepard" by the paper itself, so ...

But this reminds me, I recently had someone (an alleged former journalism student, which bears out Berkman's complaint that university journalism departments are really just PR trade schools these days) who freelances for at least a couple/three of these "independent weeklies" plus one of the local online "papers" tell me I was taking them too seriously as they are all just "infotainment" anyway. Indeed. But surprising nonetheless to hear it straight from the horse's mouth ...

Mike Plaisted said...

Anony 8:33 --

So are the Shepherd's distribution numbers a defense of some sort? Impressive, yes. Weekly Shopper-type numbers? Certainly. And the substance of the paper? Where?

I do talk to myself in the car, Anony, so I can do both. Mostly, I drive around on Friday and Saturday nights, looking for shindigs to attend so I can make the Boris and Doris column. I wonder if they talk to themselves in their car, too. Now THAT would be interesting.

Not sure why this is an issue, but are you saying CNN is NOT a "vital" news source? Are you saying the SE is?

Michael Horne said...

I wrote a column in the Shepherd Express called "Plenty of Horne" for a number of years, and was a witness to much of the history of the publication. The Louis Fortis hagiography of the publication's history is every bit as fanciful as the 2002 account of a supposed anti-Bush protest during a presidential visit to Milwaukee written in the past tense, yet printed and distributed throughout the community while Air Force One was still aloft. I called him on this horrid abuse of journalistic privilege, and did so in the pages of Milwaukee Magazine, which cost me my position at the Shepherd.

Mr. Fortis and his sychophants are not an asset to this community. Thank you for your assessment.

Michael Horne
www.milwaukeeworld.com

P.S. You're right about Berkman, too -- I was there when he was hired and was shocked to note that a journalism professor could pump out column after column over the course of many years without ever so much as interviewing (not to mention quoting) one single person.

Anonymous said...

The saddest part of the Shepherd Express are the countless business who are swindled, fleeced, and otherwise extorted out of their money for advertising space in that rag. They overinflate their circulation numbers and make businesses believe that they HAVE to be in their pub because everyone else is...nice business model Louis.

Anonymous said...

I'm ambivalent on the Shepherd (someone needs to print the beer specials), but I find it curious that anyone would extol Bruce Murphy. His articles are notoriously chock full of errors and his big-picture scene setting also is amok. I guess when there is no other game in town, he's what passes for big-time reporting.

Dave said...

Mr. Horne: I actually wrote to complain about your replacment by "Boris & Doris" (Dave Monroe here, by the way). My complaint went unpublished, as did an e-mailed note about one of Berkman's columns regarding his (lack of) research (in that particular case, a misattributed quote and an argument revelatory of an apparent ignorance of the works of John Calvin, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin and Max Weber). They DID publish a letter I rwote when I caught Nathan Guecquierre reviewing an MAM show he obviously hadn't seen (seeing as he named/described pieces which were in the catalog, but WEREN'T in the show), and at least acknoledged/posted online comments I made abouyt an unchallenged statement in an interview with/puff promo piece on a local DJ, but ...

My complaints about the Milwaukee Int'l Film Festival, howver, went unaddressed. Programmer Jonathan Jackson can dd no wrong as far as I'm concerned, but otherwise the whole thing is essentailly one big ego circle jerk for Fortis, Luhrssen, and any number of yr local bourgeosie who I never see at, say, pretty much any of the several dozen to a hundred or more at least as deserving films I see annually even @ the evnues involved, esp. teh UWM Union Theatre, which is where the celluloid REALLY hits the sprocket wheel in this town ...

But I was particularly disturbed when a short comment, followed by a longer explication, were simply NOT posted evn as online comments to a book review of Luhrssen's (see the URL I posted above). Given what's slung @ Joel McNally on a weekly basis, I can't help but attribute this to Luhrssen himself, who can dish it out (however badly), but apparently can't take it. One should never be allowed to be one's own editor, not if one's publication is to be taken seriously ...

Anonymous said...

Ahhh...yes...the advertisers. Most of them are small businesses that don't know the first thing about marketing (at least ten years ago) and were easily pushed into spending their very limited budgets with the Shep. This was made even easier when an advertising manager forged contracts!

Anonymous said...

Dave, re your saying that "Shepard" was a misspelling by the paper itself -- as I recall, it started with that name because it was the name of one of the people who started it.

Btw, amen re Doug Hissom. And didn't John-David (do I recall that correctly?) Morgan also write for the SEx -- when there was some real journalism here? Those were the days.

Michael Horne said...

Anonymous says the paper may have been named after a founder, to wit Shepard.
No. It was named after a line in an Allen Ginsburg poem, "Footnote to Howl." "Holy the crazy shepherds of rebellion." http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/footnote-to-howl/
You are close on the spelling of Mr. Morgan. He styles his first name "John-david." I never asked why.
Since we are in a "btw" mode, I feel obliged to mention the quality food reviews by Jeff Beutner. I got him that gig. He is probably the most-travelled Milwaukeean of our age. Unfortunately, in his absences, his space is taken by reviewers of far less stature and talent.
Horne

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the correction, "Horney."

Btw, as we say, I'm glad you're bloggging, so I still can read your reporting.

Dave said...

Yeah, I like Beutner as well, I've often, when faced with the occasional day off, simply gone for lunch at whatever restaurant he'd last reviewed. And let's not forget perhaps the single most useful, insightful, entertaining and well-written feature the Shepherd ever had, Sean McNally's (yes, Joel's son; as we used to say, who's mom do we have to sleep with to get a column here?) "Bug World Video." I've always wanted to do something along the same lines with books ...

And pardon my thalidomide flipper typing, I CAN spell, I can proofread and/or edit, even, but I generally do this on the fly, so ...

guess said...

well done Mike.

Anonymous said...

Read OnMilwaukee.com instead.

Anonymous said...

Agreed with that last poster. Just read your entertainment stuff online, whether it's this blog, milwaukeerising.com, onmilwaukee.com, or something else. mke, shep and js are best for wrapping fish.

Anonymous said...

Happy Thanksgiving, Michael.

Bill Tyroler

Anonymous said...

Mike, I do think referring to those who run and write for the Shep as "local artists" is far too kind...

I'm with you in wishing that an Isthmus-like publication existed in this city. If it did, I think some really good reporters and editors would be inspired to write for it. There's a definite vacuum in this city.

The trouble is, print publications are based on what is becoming a failing business model (witness the JS's latest catastrophy, where far more newsroom employees jumped at the chance to take a buyout than the paper really wanted or expected). Still, advertisers won't really buy online to the extent they will buy print ads. So how to pay the bills?

Adding to the mix of problems with launching new media in Milwaukee, it's pretty unusual to find an investor(s) who will fork over a sizable chunk of money and allow the professionals to run a quality publication the way it should be run. Instead, with the weekly tabs, you usually either get corporate hegemony or a wacko owner like Fortis, who pretty much takes the cake when it comes to heavy-handed pursuit of blatant political and ideological objectives.

I have no problem with journalism with a slant, as long as it's at least smart and interesting. The ShepEx isn't either of those, and it seems to exist only to promote (or defame) the friends (or enemies), projects and pet issues of its current publisher.

Dave said...

This is completely unforgivable. My comment is posted (for the time being, they've simply NOT been posted in the past) afterwards ...

http://shepherd-express.com/1editorialbody.lasso?-token.folder=2007-11-22&-token.story=178960.113121&-token.subpub=

TGirsch said...

I guess it's all about your perspective. Spend a few years living in Memphis and reading the Memphis Flyer (what passes for an "alt weekly" here), and you'll be begging for the Express in a month or less.

I usually manage to find at least two or three things of value in the Express. I still subscribe to their weekly e-mail, in fact. Yeah, there's a whole lot of crap, but I just ignore most of that.

David said...

Wow ... you're "blogger", how cool are you?
You're really cool and influential and all that.
Get a life.

nick c. said...

yeah, the rag had its ups and downs. But mine was more practical: it took so long to get paid, so i only wrote a few pieces for 'em.