Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Incomplete Story

How the Journal Sentinel slants the story on venture capital -- and on downsizing the county board.

By - Jan 24th, 2013 12:11 pm
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Let us begin with a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story by one of their Pulitzer Prize winning reporters, Kathleen Gallagher, with the murky headline, “Venture capital in at finish,” that surely left readers wondering what the hell this story was about.

Which is odd, because the story is actually very good news. Nationally, venture capital — early investment that helps grow young companies — declined in 2012.  But in Wisconsin, venture capital went up by a bullish 31 percent.

The Wisconsin State Journal had no problem figuring this out and its story was simple, as was the headline: “Venture capital up in Wisconsin, bucking national trend.”

But Gallagher’s story was longer and managed to bury the lead so well that the headline writer missed what should have been the key point.

Now, as it happens, the Journal Sentinel favors a proposal to have the state create a taxpayer-supported venture capital fund, which Gov. Scott Walker will probably promote this year.

So is that why Gallagher downplays Wisconsin’s venture capital success last year? Actually, I don’t think so. I think it’s because Gallagher handles this beat and naturally identifies with the people she is covering, who are constantly arguing that more government handouts are needed.

You can find that in the Sunday columns for the JS by Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, who constantly nags about the need for more venture capital. But even Still has acknowledged Wisconsin has created an “impressive” network of angel funds (which rose from five to more than two dozen funds) to help grow fund fledgling companies. He also notes that Wisconsin already created a tax credit program that “has leveraged $186 million in private investment in 138 companies since 2005.”

In short, there are some reasons to question whether we need yet another state program, and whether Wisconsin is doing all that poorly in attracting venture capital.

In Gallagher’s recent story, she wrote that the amount of of money Wisconsin raises — less than 1 percent of the national total in venture funding — is so small that it is difficult to determine state trends.

That’s true, so far as it goes, but it doesn’t mean you can’t give some idea of how Wisconsin is doing over time versus other states. In fact, the Journal Sentinel did a Politifact column which told readers Wisconsin ranked 25th among the states in the amount of venture capital raised in 2011, and that there are two dozen states with no venture capital at all. Gallagher sees the glass as half-empty, but there’s a case to be made that its half-full.

The County Board Issue 

A similar phenomenon can be seen in JS coverage of the proposal to create a referendum on whether to downsize the county board. County reporter Steve Schultze has certainly reported the objections of county board members, but hasn’t done much to examine why it might be a good idea to downsize the board. He did one story that mostly had complaints, generating lots of heat and little light.

And he did two more stories, on January 11 and then again on Jan 17, that were mostly about board members’ complaints about the proposed reduction in the size of the total county board budget.

Schultze has specialized in stories about bickering between board members and county executive Chris Abele, so he has conditioned readers to see the issue this way. His coverage of the downsizing proposal has continued this narrative, noting past arguments between Abele and the board, and quoting county board chair Marina Dimitrijevic to the effect that  “Abele can’t seem to figure out working with others,” and he is pushing this issue as a “personal vendetta” to punish supervisors.

But there is another, quite different way to see this issue. This is not the first time Abele has supported reform of county government. He pushed successfully to create the position of county comptroller, which enraged supervisors. And Dimitrijevic has stoked that outrage to build her power and build support for a budget that dismantled nearly all the major initiatives by Abele. This not to say that Abele hasn’t made mistakes dealing with the board (he clearly has), but there’s more to this story than Schultze presents.

Meanwhile Schultze has ignored the many reasons why downsizing the board might make sense, including the fact that voters in this county created the Milwaukee County Executive as the main power to oversee county departments, but that has never happened. Among the reasons are that the supervisors bumped their salary to a full-time one in the early 1980s and began greatly increasing the number of their supporting staff beginning in the late 1970s, all without a referendum of any kind. As a result the board’s budget of $6.5 million is now five times bigger than the county exec’s budget of $1.3 million.

Nor has Schultze’s coverage of this noted the massive imbalance between Milwaukee and other cities in spending, the fact that this county has twice the population of Dane County but spends seven times more for its county board, and is five times bigger in population than Racine but spends 16 times more on our county board.

Nor has Schultze noted that there was bickering between past executives and the board, or the historic complaints by department heads that they get micromanaged by county board members, something a JS editorial did note.

Why doesn’t Schultze provide more balance and context for readers? Partly because he works like a typical daily reporter, covering a current dispute without bothering with historical background. But another reason could be that Schultze wants to maintain a good relationship with his sources in county government, and the vast majority of them are supervisors.

You can see that phenomenon at work in sports coverage: why don’t we learn about all the problems of a particular coach until he or she is fired? Because the beat reporter, who knew most of this stuff for years, didn’t want to cut off his access to the coach by writing the negative stuff.

A similar sort of situation occurs with beat reporters like Gallagher on venture capital and Schultze on county government. They may begin to identify with the folks they cover or don’t want to burn any sources. And that can color their coverage of the issue.

Short Takes

-The board downsizing issue is instructive for those who believe the JS editorials dictate how reporting is done. The editorial board may support downsizing, but there’s little sign that’s had any impact on Schultze. There are issues where the editorial staff and reporting seem in lockstep (as in the campaign against Chief Ed Flynn), but there are many examples to the contrary. It’s a big newspaper, with competing visions and staff, and the relationship between editorial board and reporters is a complex one.

-That said, Schultze made a diplomatic turn in his coverage recently, quoting Abele to the effect that county government’s size has dropped by about a third in size since the 1970s. Was this because Schultze had just sat in on an editorial board session over the issue? You be the judge.

-Dimitrijevic, meanwhile, is arguing the county exec’s budget is actually larger than $1.3 million, and claims through her spokesperson Velia Alvarez that the budget would be larger if you include the county corporation counsel and the county Department of Administrative Services.

That seems a stretch. The Administrative Services includes divisions like Risk Management, Water Utility, the Office for Persons with Disabilities and Information Management, which serve the entire government. The Fiscal Affairs Division of DAS, for instance, is charged to provide “high quality, efficient and responsive financial services and administrative business functions to the County Executive, County Board and County departments to enable the delivery of financially sound and effective services to the community.” Similarly the county corp counsel provides legal opinions and legal help to everyone in county government, including the board, the exec, and other independent county departments like County Treasurer or Register of Deeds.

-Residents in the Brady Street neighborhood are boiling mad over a new development and Michael Horne has all the outraged details.

-And Bill Lueders offers a revealing look at the secret lobbyists who work to land government contracts and how Gov. Scott Walker backed off on his promise to make them register just as legislative lobbyists do.

7 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Incomplete Story”

  1. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Is there anything less important in this community than the petty bickering between the immature members of the Cty. board and the little more mature Exec? It goes a long way to send a message to all the people out state that Milwaukee is just a little less nutting than Ca.
    There are 4-5 major issues in this Cty. if we ever want to see if come back, gain families and population and first is schools, next is economy and jobs.

  2. Mark Johnson says:

    Bruce, what an odd item on Kathleen Gallagher’s article. You manage to: 1. Blame her for a headline that was at worst unclear and 2. suggest that the story is slanted without offering one shred of evidence. (Cautioning readers not to weigh a single report too heavily is usually considered responsible reporting). Criticizing Gallagher’s work is not the wisest course, given that any comparison between her work and yours is going to be a mismatch in her favor.

  3. George Mitchell says:

    Steve Schultze is like all reporters who cover a beat and accept the status quo as fine. He and all prior county govt reporters have failed to grasp the obvious governance problems. To validate Abele’s concerns is to invalidate their reporting. Won’t happen here. Won’t happen in K-12 education. Etc.

  4. Sam says:

    Bruce,
    This column stinks of double-standard. It’s ridiculous of you or anyone else at Urban MKE to criticize the Journal’s reporting on the county board proposal when you’ve only presented the views of those for cutting the board and its budget. There are a number of community groups (Citizen Action and the Transit Riders Union are some of the ones I’ve seen so far), unions, Democratic state politicians from Milwaukee, the Shepherd, and progressive bloggers that have come out against this. Yet when Dan Cody comes out for it in the comments section on here after losing his board run (nothing personal against Dan Cody), you make it sound like big news. You haven’t done any reporting on the fact that the referendum as proposed now would be a sham because the board’s budget would be cut by state law no matter what. Or on the fact that Abele and big business and Republican interests are using the current clout they’ve purchased in Madison to push a measure to kill a government body that they disagree with politically because it actually represents the needs of low-income inner-city constituents. It’s a shame too, because you’ve otherwise done some really good reporting on other issues. Too bad you can’t seem to see far enough past your own viewpoint on the matter to actually see some of the major problems with this really obvious power grab.

  5. A very nice analysis of the internal dynamics of a newspaper, especially the analysis of how expertise can get in the way of the bigger picture.

  6. Bruce Murphy says:

    Sam, thanks for the note. I have certainly been transparent to readers that I favor the referendum. Whereas the JS coverage is written in a way to suggest no stand is being taken, that its “just the facts” reporting. Meanwhile, I have indeed written about the proposed budget cut in Sanfelippo’s proposal, on more than one occasion. I did write a small item about Cody, but noted he had lost office to the supervisor he was chastising. I’ve also written about whether the reduction to part-time supervisors will mean less representation for residents, which as a city resident would concern me greatly. I’m not convinced that will happen.
    But I’m open to suggestions as to what hasn’t been covered, and Urban Milwaukee would be happy to publish an op ed by you or any organization arguing against this bill. The whole point of this publication is not to adhere to a particular set of views, but to champion the city (and we all have differing ideas about the best way to grow and improve the city) and to promote a dialogue about that.

  7. John says:

    Bruce- you have neglected to mention that the County Board has reduced in size twice over the last 10 years, from 25 down to 18, and yet the same Waukesha and Washington County residents are still pushing to punish the residents of Milwaukee. I understand that you are still caught in the past and still obsessed over the great reporting you did on the pension scandal, but that was 10 years ago and those people are gone thanks to your work. Time to move on man.

    How about a story on the numerous times the Milwaukee County Board has reigned in County Execs and saved or tied to save millions of dollars that the County Execs end up costing the taxpayers (security disaster, illegal furloughs, etc).

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