Saturday, August 01, 2009

Journal Sentinel: Death by a Thousand Cuts

It’s daily-newspaper subscription-renewal time here at the Plaisted household. The Journal Sentinel Inc. wants $75.05 to deliver its dwindling product to my doorstep (what once landed with a thud now floats to the ground like a wounded butterfly) every morning for the next six months. Hmm...what to do, what to do....

This week’s purge of some of the paper’s best veteran writers is not a good sign. Coverage of the arts took a disastrous hit in this round with the loss of Dave Tianen on music, Tim Cuprisin on TV/radio, Tom Strini on classical music and Damien Jaques on theater. I assume they are folding that local arts tent altogether – look for more wire-service Brittany updates on the back of the Local page (for as long as they keep up the facade of separate sections). The business page is losing its most high-profile voice of diversity, Tannette Johnson-Elie, and they are going to have to find someone else to shill for the school "choice" industry with the loss of Alan Borsuk. Even the Letters editor, the lovely and talented Sonya Jongsma Knauss, is getting shit-canned or reassigned.

The decimation of the paper’s staff has had a dramatic effect on the simplest of journalistic tasks. I was shocked this morning when I saw a story on page 3B about the preliminary hearing for a man accused of shooting two police officers in Walkers Point early this summer – an event that caused quite a bit of hysterical coverage when it happened. The paper couldn’t even get a reporter to the courtroom to cover the hearing in person.

  • "A Milwaukee police officer testified in court Friday that he felt a burning sensation and immense pain in his shoulder and leg after he and another officer were shot on the city’s near south side, WTMJ-TV (Channel 4) reported."

Wha? As "WTMJ-TV (Channel 4) reported"? "In testimony recorded by Channel 4..." the story continued. "Burton was bound over for trial and pleaded not guilty to the charges, according to on-line state court records." Where the hell was the J-S reporter? Obviously not in the courtroom, from which newspaper reporters have always reported their stories since the beginning of time. What is going on here? The entire article was apparently generated from the reporter’s desk, as he (Jesse Garza) watched TV and CCAP’ed the proceeding on the internet. This isn’t reporting – it’s tweeting. The late, great courthouse reporter for the paper, David Doege, would never have put his name on such impersonal, second-hand drivel.

While the paper abandons any pretense of basic crime reporting and arts coverage, it is more than willing to hand over acres of its shrinking editorial real estate to right-wing nuts like Patrick McIlheran, Mike Nichols (who doesn’t even have a desk there anymore), and nationally-syndicated cartoonists like Michael Rameriez (including gems like repeating wing-nut talking points about who doesn’t have health insurance). It seems the Kings of State Street think they can make it through another Packer season (there is a reason why, in the midst of all this staff-cutting, they maintain five Packer beat reporters) before they have to face the ultimate consequences of the deadly combination of the death of the newspaper-industry economic model and their own bad decisions and incompetence.

The reasons to keep this charade I have going with the local newspaper are getting fewer and fewer. Just because I need a newspaper in my hands while I drink coffee in the morning, is that worth throwing more money at an institution that is committing corporate suicide right before my eyes? And what good is it if the paper is so thin and the substance so worthless that I am done with it before the first cup is cold? Besides, can’t I get something still-decent like the New York Times delivered? (Answer: Yes.)


xoff said...

When you quit smoking, you feel terrible for a few days, then gradually get over it and eventually feel really good.

I found that when I quit the Journal Sentinel I felt good from the very first day.

Jim Bouman said...

The MJS house-cleaning of this week swept away a significant number of good solid honest reporters, and at least one inveterate leaker.

In Waukesha--the thoroughly indolent and nearly illiterate Darryl Enriquez got swept out the door.

Tom Strini said...

Just for the record, I wasn't "purged." I could have stayed. Instead, I accepted a gold-plated buyout and I'm moving on to another thing while the time is right.

About the paper: The last few weeks at the JS have been chaotic, and the next few weeks will be, too.

Marty Kaiser (editor) and George Stanley (managing ed.) are serious guys who want to cover the news properly. That's tough when you're amid the convulsions of downsizing.

In a couple of months, they will know who they have. Then they will be able to figure out what they can do and how to do it. I think it will be worth reading, because even a greatly diminished Journal Sentinel will own the largest and most skilled news-gathering staff in Wisconsin by a wide margin. Once the shooting stops, I think Marty and George will find ways to,for example, get live reporters physically into courtrooms for important cases.

Arts coverage won't be what it was -- a lot of it will go with me to my new professional home -- but the JS will remain a vital source of news and an important watchdog of government and business.

I don't work at the paper anymore, but I'm rooting for it to survive and prosper. I'm keeping my subscription.

--Tom Strini

Anonymous said...

But Mike, shouldn't this make you happy? I always was under the impression that you thought the JS was a right-wing newspaper.

Mary Louise Schumacher said...

Hey Mike,

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel continues to have the greatest penetration of any newspaper in this country on Sunday, I believe, because all of the crisis and downsizing has forced it's management to focus on what's important.

Some things may suffer, of course, but some things have actually improved, like the quality of our investigative reporting for instance.

And let me say for the record, that the fine arts coverage at the Journal Sentinel is far from departing, though some of the most distinguished, veteran critics have. When many newspapers our size and larger were slashing fine arts coverage, the JS paid four full-time fine arts critics. This is an astonishing and wonderful anomaly. Three of our critics chose to leave because the buyout offer was so generous. But the leadership that supported them remains, as does the commitment to the arts.

It is disheartening to see that one day after the bodies have left the building, you would be so dismissive of that long-term commitment on the part of the paper. And, as is the case with many non-journalist bloggers, it does not appear that you have sought out any information before making such a pronouncement.

So, I can only encourage you to remain patient and with us. Watch how the paper evolves in the coming few months.

And, as the remaining member of the fine arts staff, let me say, too, that your subscription is greatly valued by all of us.

Mary Louise
art critic
Journal Sentinel
(We'e met. I'm Ken Hanson's girlfriend, by the way).

Mary Louise Schumacher said...

P.S. Here is my blog entry about all of this, as well:

illusory tenant said...

"right-wing nuts like Patrick McIlheran ..."

Who devotes nearly all of his time to copying and pasting from his "Pajamas Media" cohorts and purporting to legitimize the local anonymous bloggy whackjobbery, whereas Mr. Strini et al were generating original, well-written, and insightful content. That's the tragedy.

Anonymous said...

Why is everyone acting surprised. Journal reading is for aging boomers with ingrained habits of day old news fed to them by editors who screen to their liking. It was inevitable that this must come to a conclusion with 40% receiving news fom other sources, and younger generations dont care to hear news screened through a board full of aging diehards. Let it go, its just the beginning.

Anonymous said...

Hey there, Mike: I share your lamentations. When the Cap Times retreated to two days/week, my wife and I extended our JS scrip from Sunday to seven days/week instead of taking the default rollover to the Wisconsin State Journal. Since then, we've savored one of the great enterprising newspapers that remain, staffed by journalists who exemplify the best ideals and traditions of the Fourth Estate (including, in the case of both arts and sports as well as news, a keen capacity for critical thinking and appraisal). From Dan Egan's reporting on the Great Lakes Compact to the paper's series on BPA and DWI, to its coverage of books and music and drama, I've become accustomed to the paper's excellence. Now the most recent round of cuts. I fear the paper has gone beyond trimming fat and cutting into the bone to evisceration and amputation, which can only cripple it in the ways you suggest. I hope I'm wrong. But I also hope the paper will find some combination of other means to stop its hemorrhaging, and buy back the editorial staffers who represent its greatest assets.

David Medaris

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, Jesse Garza is a very hard-working reporter and a great guy (I used to work with him back in my JS days). I'm guessing this is what happened with that trial story: Jesse was working night GA and the night editor saw the news coverage on 4, realized that no one on the day shift was there to cover it, smacked his forehead, said "D'oh!" and made Jesse cobble something together. Just wanted to throw that out there. Jesse's awesome.

RAG said...

This is a sad moment and there is no question at all that it will seriously impact the quality of an already challenged publication.

I'm old enough to recall when the Journal was rated as one of the ten best newspapers in the nation. Thorough, competent, community responsive (perhaps even a bit of benign dictator thrown in).

That newspaper hasn't existed for about 20 years as the thousand cuts came rummaging through. Call it buyout, forceout, etc., you can't cut that much talent from your staff and have it make no impact. It isn't just having a reporter available to cover a story -- it's also having the right reporter there.

I spent most of my journalistic career as a broadcast journalist. It was a thrill to compete with and beat the Journal (and other papers). We were sneered at by print journalists because they were real reporters who covered stories in depth. My how CNN changed that.

Publisher Betsy's self-serving shill piece is a work of art in the reverse. She promises a quality product, blah, blah, blah and offers glittering generalities, blah, blah, blah.

It doesn't take multisyllabic words for people to understand that if the bus system gets rid of 37 or more drivers that there's going to be less bus service. Who is she kidding?

This is not to ignore tough economic times but what Betsy doesn't realize is that we're getting fewer reasons to read the paper.

Newspapers are funny creatures. Yes, they are a business, but the're also organic. I was in Dick Leonard's office the day the Washigton Star announced it was folding. It was like an old friend died.

In the present case, it's more like an old friend and competitor is in hospice.