Friday, January 11, 2008

Here and NOW -- The Death of Milwaukee's Suburban Newspapers

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.


wisconsinJer said...

. . . The 3rd & State Street operation is still up to their antics.

I watched them while in Linotype Machinist School, 1961, (Vocational School 3 blocks west [1019 N 6th St.] of Journal Co.) and heard many stories from different employees in the composing room area, 5th floor.

I guess it was 1962 or 3 when Local 23, International Typographic Union blessed them with a strike. The Journal took action quickly. They hired Fairchild Teletypesetter Corp., Plainview, L.I. to install the latest Teletype Setting Equpt. on 12 hot-metal linecasting machines — to teach those maggots on the street — they weren't going to tell the company how to run their business.

It happened I was on the team of 4 from TTS corp. that were chosen to install this equpt. Riding in the back of newspaper delivery vans was a real experience. And brought up to level 5 in the freight elevator.

Somehow tho, the local 23 managed to reach an agreement with the big dogs and all was well for a few more years. Until the 1972 era. When photo composition reared up.

Lost track of the 3rd and State Street operation when I took employ with the State Of Wisconsin -1972- where I helped design and operate the first computer driven pagination photo type setting (CRT) Cathode Ray Tube - operation in the U.S.A. - I guess the world.

Jay Bullock said...

There is still a need for--and demand for--independent journalism. Blogs are doing well. neighborhood papers like the Currents and the Comapss are not only being read widely, but they're doing great journalism (not to toot my own horn too loudly). The financials on any of those are dismal, but the people running them are so incredibly talented.

And then there's what's happened to the Shepherd ...

Anonymous said...

Exactly right, Mike. Plus, at least the old Shorewood Herald had decent coverage of local sports. (Or maybe I'm just missing the fact that it had some coverage that focused on S'wood.)

But I also think Jay Bullock is right. Print news is dying, period. What's gong to replace it? Beats me. All I know is that even 5 years ago if someone told me the 1st place I'd go for news is the Internet I'd have thought him nuts.

Bill Tyroler

borges said...

The Kickapoo area has a new independent paper that is a good monthly addition to the weeklies around here. Kickapoo Free Press is the name. They have a website, but it isn't kept up as well as they would like because the grind of even a monthly is taxing on a small staff. They do a good job though. Link is here:

WFB_reader said...

Awesome commentary. Couldn't have said it better. What the Journal has done to local news is just a crime. They should all be ashamed.

WFB_reader said...

Awesome commentary. Couldn't have said it better. What the Journal has done to local news is just a crime. They should all be ashamed.

mortified said...

No one has said it better...The West Allis Star was a newspaper in our community and ABOUT our community for many, many, devolved into the CNI..which was still very good...West Allis NOW stinks...the old papers used to publish the council and school board agendas, candidate information/interviews, specific civic information (budgets, re-cycling hours, special activities and sponsorships etc.), letters to the editor about local issues and homespun articles about neighbors and neighborhoods...West Allis Now is a joke and to make matters worse they often combine West Allis Now with Greenfield NOW...I don't care about Greenfield...the powers that be haven't figured out that West Allis is unique and HAS nothing in common with with Greenfield...What a disaster...I never thought I'd say this but the West Allis Shopper Newspaper seems to be picking up the slack for this rotten excuse for local news...the blogs don't make up for the lack of substantial local coverage...