Southeastern Wisconsin was once blessed with a vibrant press that served the local communities that surround Milwaukee. What curious casual historian wouldn’t want to delve into the archives of weekly newspapers with charming, historical names like: Bay Viewer, Cudahy Reminder Enterprise, Franklin Hub, Elm Grove Elm Leaves, Germantown Banner Press, Greendale Village Life, Greenfield Observer, Hales Corners Village Hub, Mequon-Thiensville Courant, Mukwonago Chief New Berlin Citizen Muskego Sun Oak Creek Pictorial St. Francis Reminder-Enteprise, South Milwaukee Voice Graphic, Sussex Sun, Wauwatosa News Times, West Allis Star – not to mention all the various Heralds and Newses. To read the often-colorful prose in small locally-owned newspapers is to read the first draft of history, now the only link to small-town history itself.
The papers listed above were, no doubt, of varying quality and interest. Some may have been mere "shoppers" – quickly-produced free handouts that existed only so local businesses could get some advertising out to the locals. Some were more serious enterprises, with actual reporting and photography staffs. The best of them, I imagine, were published by entrepreneurs with an ax to grind – a local crusader who, rightly or wrongly, would rail against the Forces of Darkness and their damnable zoning decisions and school bond referendums. The small newspapers gave local communities soul and depth, if only to let us know what socialites were out at a holiday function for what charity. They are part of what made the communities surrounding Milwaukee more than just suburbs; more than just places to sleep before driving to the city for work the next day.
All of the newspapers listed above are now dead – or, I should say, are NOW dead. In 1997, Milwaukee’s home-town media behemoth, Journal Communications, purchased the CNI chain that served most of the communities, bought a few more, and proceeded in the intervening years to strangle the small-town press to death in its sleep. The ghosts of the newspapers that were haunt JCI’s NOW franchise, a doomed, desperate experiment in paper/internet cross-pollinization that is dissolving before our very eyes. The thin (28 pages) North Shore version of NOW that arrived with my newspaper this Thursday is now indistinguishable from the Walgreens flyer. All those historic newspapers apparently died for literally nothing.
After the Journal (unfortunately) survived the government’s anti-trust concerns and bought its CNI competitor, the company paid the usual lip service to continued service to the various communities served by the local papers. It wasn’t long before the newspapers were merged regionally – the Heralds of Whitefish Bay, Shorewood, Brown Deer into one; the various papers of St. Francis, Cudahy, South Milwaukee, Bay View into another. As late as 2002, the corporate types were still supporting the independence of the various properties and those working for papers still thought they had some (see this helpful review from a UW-Eau Claire student).
But the heavy hand of Fate came down in January 2006, when the Grand Poo-bahs on State Street announced that they were taking over the management of the CNI papers from the managers in New Berlin. In the two years since then, the separate newspapers were completely destroyed and the resulting NOW product has homogenized and, ultimately, euthanized the small-town press in southeastern Wisconsin. Early last year, the company gave up completely on selling the CNI product in stores and newsstands, instead including it with the Journal Sentinel newspaper on Thursdays.
When I first started getting the Thursday NOWs here in Shorewood, I was amazed by the vapidity of the product. The various communites served by the North Shore edition compete for a very small (and continually shrinking) news hole, on pages crowded by at least 50% ad space. But you never know what community they are reporting on from the headline. "Debt retirement a boon for village," NOW reported this week. Where? What village? That question is not even answered in the body of the story – you have to look all the way down to the bottom of the page to see the story is about Whitefish Bay. I think they do this so that you can still pretend you are reading a local paper – the old Whitefish Bay Herald didn’t have to name what village they were reporting on, unless they were saying bad things about Shorewood.
Most informative in NOW is the map of crime scenes in the area – by which I could keep track of arrests at Bay Shore relative to Mayfair, where the right-wing occasionally declares a crisis (result of analysis: no difference). It is always interesting to know that an iPod was taken from a vehicle a couple of blocks away, but the paper fails to give us details on domestic calls. "Police responded to one domestic incident this week." Who?! Inquiring minds want to know! NOW’s only real fresh coverage is on the sports pages, where you can at least keep track of your kid’s high school exploits on a slightly deeper level than in the J-S itself.
The early versions of NOW last year also had a fairly meaningless opinion page, since the paper has no independent opinion on anything. There, they ran a column from ubiquitous JCI darling Charlie Sykes (can’t get enough), Matt Pommer of the Madison Capitol Times and a couple of letters to the editor. Recently, NOW dropped the pretense of being a real newspaper and dumped the opinion page altogether (sorry, Charlie) in favor of Your Place, one page of writing by bloggers and others, of whom you only have about a 15% chance being from your actual place.
The dead-tree NOW is so entirely decimated, I think the idea is just to get you to the on-line NOW. You’d think that, with theoretically unlimited space, the on-line NOW would include just tons more stuff and really provide the broader community with some information. You’d be wrong. Besides the bloggers, whose various insights into and gripes about village life are taken with a grain of whatever they are salting with, there is no professional content to speak of. NOW is like a car without a driver, careening through the sea of information, swerving to avoid anything controversial or interesting.
Whatever NOW is, it is not in any way a local newspaper serving any of the communities that were once minding their own business with a newspaper of their own. Like too much of modern-day journalism, its content is vague and inoffensive, a thin excuse for the advertising that surrounds it. It is amazing, though, how far and how quickly the Journal Company abandoned the communities that they once pledged to continue serving when it bought CNI.
It is a classic example of the large corporation that eats up the competition and ends up killing its products. Whether Journal Communications intended to do that when they bought CNI 11 years ago is not important. That it happened is undeniable.
And, the sad thing is, that they can’t give it back. All that history, all that infrastructure of writers and editors and printers, all the written heart of the small town has been ripped out and can’t be replaced. If the Journal Company had a soul, they would just give the rights to the small-town papers back to whoever they bought it from, maybe with an apology and seed-money to start back up again. But the offices are closed, the editors moved on, the photogs out in the wilderness looking for birds. And when a future historical society looks for publications that define the communities of the early 21st century, where will they look? Not here. Not, certainly, NOW.