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?