Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Latest Journal Sentinel Purge

Some big names could be leaving the ever-shrinking newspaper.

By - Sep 18th, 2012 12:25 pm

The bleeding continues at the state’s largest newspaper.

In late August the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel announced there would be another round of employee buyouts, as “part of our ongoing effort to manage expenses,” as its publisher Betsy Brenner put it. In short, there would be pressure on staff to retire, along with an incentive to do so: two weeks of severance pay for every full year of work plus six months of company-paid health insurance benefits.

Sources tell me that several well-known bylines at the newspaper will disappear. Laurel Walker, the longtime Waukesha reporter who also wrote a column of opinion on Waukesha issues, has taken the buyout. Also reportedly on their way out are sports reporter Tom Enlund, best known for covering Marquette basketball, and City Hall reporter Larry Sandler, who for years covered transportation and wrote a column called “Road Warrior.”

I’ve heard conflicting reports on two columnists. First, that Eugene Kane would switch to education reporter, and then that he decided against this and will take the buyout instead. I’ve also heard sports columnist Michael Hunt will move from doing his column to a post as sports reporter. (None of the journalists in question responded to emails asking them to confirm or deny.)

If these reported departures indeed occur, they underline a couple trends. For starters, the newspaper is moving away from paying for any columnist. Hunt was its only true sports columnist, Kane was for many years its marquee byline as a columnist, and Walker did an occasional column as well. Secondly, the newspaper continues to de-emphasize coverage of the city. City Hall was once the most important beat, where you’d find the newspaper’s elite reporter, but that hasn’t been true for at least a decade. Sandler was far from the paper’s top reporter, and City Hall now gets far less coverage than years ago.

I doubt this is the last round of buyouts offered by the newspaper, as its financial challenges have continued. Just a month ago there was intense speculation that the newspaper could be sold. Increasingly, the paper is a subject of the news as well as a purveyor of it.

Where’s That Bus Full of Illegal Voters? 

On Sunday, The New York Times published a droll story about True the Vote, the group running around the country trying to prove there is voter fraud, and mostly spreading urban legends.

The favorite legend tells of the bus carrying dozens of voters who show up and vote illegally. “It’s so stealthy that no one is ever able to get a picture and no one is able to get a license plate,” Reid Magney told the Times. Magney is a spokesperson for Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections. In some versions of this story the bus is from an Indian reservation; in others it is full of voters from Chicago or Detroit. “Pick your minority group,” Magney added.

True the Vote claimed that more than 400,000 of the one million signatures on the petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker were fraudulent. The group’s “findings” were amplified repeatedly by conservative talk radio hosts like Charlie Sykes and used to bash the non-partisan GAB (whose board of retired judges actually has more that were appointed by Republicans).

But the GAB concluded that about 900,000 signatures were valid, the Times noted, “and, in a memorandum reviewing True the Vote’s work, criticized its methods. For example: Mary Lee Smith signed her name Mary L. Smith and was deemed ineligible by the group. Signatures deemed ‘out of state’ included 13 from Milwaukee and three from Madison. The group’s software would not recognize abbreviations, so Wisconsin addresses like Stevens Point were flagged if ‘Pt.’ was used on the petition. Signatures were struck for lack of a ZIP code.”

The Times also describes what happened in Appleton when True the Vote poll watchers arrived to look for alleged fraud. “Charlene Peterson, the city clerk in Appleton, said three election observers, including one from True the Vote, were so disruptive that she gave them two warnings.”

“‘They were making challenges of certain kinds and just kind of in physical contact with some of the poll workers, leaning over them, checking and looking,’ said John Lepinski, a poll watcher and former Democratic Party chairman for Outagamie County. He said that as a result of the scrutiny, the line to register moved slowly. Finally, he said, some students gave up and left.”

When I wrote a column suggesting voter fraud was rare, conservative commentators insisted there had been a bus full of fraudulent voters in Racine. Ah yes, that famous bus.

As the Times reported, conservative poll watchers in Racine claimed “a busload of union members from Michigan had come to Wisconsin to vote illegally. The Racine County Sheriff’s Department determined that the accusation had been based on an anonymous call to a radio station.  ‘There is no evidence this bus convoy existed or ever arrived in Racine County,’ the Sheriff’s Office said.”

Is Collective Bargaining a Right?

Some readers hailed my column on the court case overturning Act 10 as a hopeful sign that the higher courts might uphold the decision. I’m not so sure about that. My point was to contest the claim of Republicans like Scott Walker that this was merely a liberal legislating from the bench. Rather, it was a thoughtful, well-written decision by a judge who has worked on both sides of the issues over the years, and whose reasoning had been poorly explained by the press.  Judge Juan Colas has worked as both a public defender and on the other side prosecuting Medicaid fraud and sexual predators, as this story reports.

In this respect, I agree with conservative commentator Rick Esenberg. who offered a thoughtful take on the court case: “although I believe that Judge Juan Colas was wrong,” Esenberg writes,  “I am not about to suggest that he was doing anything other than his best. We ought not to confuse our particular views of what the law is or ought to be with legal competence and the proper degree of judicial deliberation.”

Esenberg predicts the Colas decision will be thrown out on appeal, because there is no right to collective bargaining. The latter point is undoubtedly true, but the Colas conclusion that different classes of government employees cannot be treated differently has gotten consideration by some other courts in the land, as Esenberg’s colleague at Marquette University Law School, Edward Fallone, has written.

“Anyone who has been following the nationwide litigation concerning public employee bargaining rights must recognize that Judge Colas was correct to take the plaintiff’s constitutional arguments seriously,” Fallone writes.

Meanwhile, neither Esenberg nor Fallone touch on the issue that strikes me as the strongest part of Colas’ decision, on the home rule power of the City of Milwaukee to control its own pension. It was been doing so for more than 60 years, untouched by many legislative changes in the state pension system, and nine different city lawyers who studied Act 10 concluded it was an unconstitutional overreach in that respect. That may be the toughest part of Act 10 for higher courts to uphold.

Sue Black Won’t  Take County Job 

Some time ago Milwaukee Journal columnist Dan Bice reported that there was some discussion of the Milwaukee County Board hiring Sue Black, perhaps as its lobbyist. The idea raised further speculation, that she would bide her time in this position and then run for County Executive in 2016 against Chris Abele, the man who had fired her.

Black confirms that some kind of position was discussed. “I appreciate their confidence in me,” she says, “but I don’t know if that’s the right fit for me right now.”

In short, she isn’t interested in the job.

Black says she is upbeat about her future and believes there is a “higher power” that will guide her to the next career step. Meanwhile, she is still considering a suit against Milwaukee County.

Update 2:25 September 18: Eugene Kane has told the Business Journal he’s decided to take the job of education reporter.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

6 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Latest Journal Sentinel Purge”

  1. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Typical old school media problems. I used to get saddened but this but now it’s just stupid. The internet changed media more than TWENTY years ago, yet most old school publication still operate like it’s 1985. I’m not saying I know all the solutions, but printing legacy daily newspaper (on paper) is dead. Get on with it and JS could be a leader in the new media. Stick with it and you’re dead.

  2. GD says:

    “Esenberg predicts the Colas decision will be thrown out on appeal, because there is no right to collective bargaining.”

    This would be astute had the ruling actually been based on that premise. There’s no right to vote in this country either, but it doesn’t mean an election law can’t be struck down on equal protection grounds.

  3. JaimeMcBrady says:

    Re the JS, it appears the reporters are given an option to either take a demotion or a buyout. When huge layoffs occurred back when the MJ merged with the Sent, the Newspaper Guild negotiated a decent buyout pkg. it’ll be interesting to find out what they’re offering now.

  4. JR Hayslett says:

    … as the paper turns ever-increasingly red (right). Bet they don’t get rid of their new nonpartisan (bawhawhaw) conservative columnist Christian Schneider.

  5. Denny Caneff says:

    Re: the Journal Sentinel. I know, “new” media is here and the old print stuff needs to step aside. What seems to me we’re losing with the loss of the paper is actual reporting. Blogs, FB, talk radio, blah-blah, are simply not substitutes for reporting. I won’t make a case here for “journalistic objectivity,” because that is elusive. But good old-fashioned reporting — digging, hanging around City Hall or the deans’ offices, getting 2-3 opinions about some issue — is essential, and increasingly and sadly rare. The J-S is the last serious daily paper in the state. It’s hard to watch its continual sinking. If they can Bob McGinn, I will lose all hope.

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