Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Will Journal Sentinel Become a Right-Wing Paper?

Marty Kaiser’s retirement and replacement by managing editor George Stanley will likely mean a more conservative paper.

By - Dec 11th, 2014 10:22 am
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Journal Sentinel Headquarters

Journal Sentinel Headquarters

Yesterday’s announcement that Marty Kaiser will be retiring as Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, might not seem a big deal to many readers. Kaiser was not an outsized personality and his quiet, enigmatic style left many uncertain of his impact on the newspaper. But make no mistake, this was Kaiser’s newspaper, and his departure, while probably to be expected, signals the end of an era. In January, the E.W. Scripps Co., which has purchased Journal Communications, Inc, will take over, and the newspaper that Kaiser long ran will likely become something quite different.

Kaiser’s 17-year tenure is also notable in a national context. “Off the top of my head I cannot think of any (current editor) who has served longer,” says Arnie Robbins of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “It’s a very, very long and distinguished tenure.”

Kaiser’s push to upgrade the newspaper’s ability to do investigative and “watchdog” journalism “has provided a road map for newsroom leaders across the country,” a story in USA Today notes.

Raised in Winnetka, Ill., Kaiser was a classic news junky as a kid. “I was a newspaper nerd who spent allowance money to buy newspapers,” he told reporter Bill Glauber in a story for The American Editor “I’d cut up the newspapers and lay them out, create my own little newspaper.”

Kaiser graduated from George Washington University with a degree in sociology but soon gravitated to journalism, starting his career with newspapers in Florida and “eventually supervising sports writers and editors, some of whom were nearly twice his age,” Glauber wrote. Kaiser’s big break was getting hired at the Chicago Sun Times, where he rose to sports editor in just two years and served in that position for eight years, followed by ten years as sports editor for the Baltimore Sun.

He came to the Milwaukee Journal to become managing editor in 1994, not long before the paper merged with its arch-rival Milwaukee Sentinel. The merger was a messy, traumatic process and the first Journal Sentinel editor Mary Jo Meisner seemed unsure of where to take it. She soon left and was succeeded by Kaiser, whom she hired as managing editor in 1997.

Kaiser’s long tenure as sports editor made some JS reporters suspicious he didn’t know much about the news, but my sense, when I talked to him was that he was a well-versed, thoughtful student of the news who didn’t flaunt his knowledge.

His low-key style also left some reporters confused.“A shy man whose smile is doled out sparingly, Kaiser isn’t the type to stride through the newsroom firing up the troops,” a story in the American Journalism Review noted. “It’s not my style to jump up on the desk,” he told the magazine. “I give people an opportunity to stretch themselves, and I don’t have all the answers. When you don’t set out all the rules, people are unsure.”

The Journal had long been an insular paper that didn’t seem to recruit nationally, but Kaiser did. He recruited Mike Ruby, who had been executive editor of U.S. News & World Report, to the JS, where he became editorial page editor. Kaiser also recruited Mark Katches, who had been the high-profile team leader of award-winning investigative projects for the Orange County Register. Katches created a team of investigative reporters at the Journal Sentinel, who went on to win two of the three Pulitzers the newspaper received under Kaiser. But the success began before Katches arrived and continued after he left: The paper was also a Pulitzer finalist six other times from 2003 through 2014.

Kaiser also had a commitment to diversity in the newsroom and recruited Garry Howard, who became the first black sports editor in the nation. He wooed O. Ricardo Pimentel, a well-regarded columnist who was also being recruited by another newspaper, to replace Ruby as editorial page editor.

Marty was one of the finest bosses I’ve ever had,” says Pimentel. “He exemplified all the industry should – but doesn’t always – hold dear. A commitment to good public watchdog journalism and getting the talent to make this happen.”

But all the emphasis on watchdog journalism meant cutbacks elsewhere. “For example, the Journal Sentinel shuttered suburban bureaus, and it reduced the size of the paper,” USA Today notes. The Milwaukee City Hall beat, which had once been the most important, was also deemphasized. The newspaper’s disinterest in what editors called “building coverage” of various government meetings, meant readers were less informed about local issues. Some of those investigative stories were on national topics, which bespoke great ambition for a regional newspaper, but meant the paper did that much less local coverage.

Meanwhile the newspaper has moved rightward, dropping Eugene Kane as full-time columnist (he still free lances a Sunday column) and making Christian Schneider, a long time Republican party operative who had never worked as a journalist, a full-time columnist.

That said, the newspaper’s readership probably tilts Republican by now. While the City of Milwaukee and some Milwaukee County suburbs are Democratic, the rest of the metro area is heavily Republican. And a newspaper that falls too far out of step with its readers will lose subscribers.

Kaiser’s managing editor during his entire 17-year run has been George Stanley (the longevity of that partnership, too, is pretty unusual nationally) and he is clearly a conservative. There was always some tension between the two, with Kaiser overriding some of Stanley’s decisions. Now Stanley will have a freer hand, and that’s likely to mean the paper moves further to the right. The Scripps company, moreover, mostly has newspapers in smaller towns like Evansville, Indiana or Corpus Christi, Texas, southern towns where the readership is likely to be quite conservative, which may color how Scripps publishers see the world.

The first issue I expect to arise, under the new editor and ownership, is JS editorial page editor David Haynes, whose editorials often lean left. Will he be replaced?

But as I’ve often argued, most readers ignore the editorial page. The key decisions at the paper are about the front pages of the national and local sections of the paper, and the lead stories online: which stories get big play and how are the headlines written. This is how the state’s biggest newspaper has always set the news agenda for Wisconsin, and you can expect Stanley, a very fast and very activist editor, to wield a heavy hand in this process. Likewise, he’ll have his hand on the scale when its politifact stories weigh the truth of politicians’ statements. Stanley likes to be a crusading journalist and the classic example of his approach was the long run of stories the newspaper ran suggesting — erroneously — that the City of Milwaukee’s election system led to rampant voter fraud.

Under the circumstances, Kaiser’s retirement was inevitable. It’s probably likely Scripps would have let Kaiser go, anyway, as the company will be looking to achieve “efficiencies” at a newspaper that had long been subsidized by its broadcast division — the TV and radio stations owned by Journal Communications. The newspaper’s editorial approach — which was so important to Kaiser — is likely to undergo marked changes. And there are more buyouts and layoffs of staff coming. Kaiser probably had to usher out more than 80 staffers in the last decade (he was up to 50 by 2009, Glauber wrote), and I doubt he has the stomach for any more such triage. “I know that the loss of talented people hurt him deeply,” Pimentel says.

Kaiser’s legacy was large, and may become all the clearer next year, as the newspaper begins to change.

Update 4 p.m. Dec. 11: Christian Schneider emailed me to say he has worked as a journalist. He edited his high school newspaper, wrote for his college newspaper and free lanced at least two stories for the Wisconsin State Journal, copies of which he forwarded to me. When asked how many stories he wrote for the State Journal he replied, “off the top of my head, I don’t know.”

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

18 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Will Journal Sentinel Become a Right-Wing Paper?”

  1. Frank Galvan says:

    Become?

  2. PMD says:

    Bruce what do you think a more right-wing paper looks like? The columns in the editorial pages have already been largely right wing. In the past it has been routine to see 2-3 conservative columns in the paper on the same day. I recall days when Christian Schneider, Jonah Goldberg, and Kathleen Parker all had columns in the paper. This isn’t specific to the JS either. I recall a statistic noting that this is true nationwide of columns on editorial pages (not the editorials from the paper’s staff).

    So, as you suggest, the big changes will likely be in the front pages in the local and national sections. What do you think that means? What might Stanley cover that Kaiser didn’t? Will he hire reporters that reflect his more conservative views?

  3. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    As Frank says “BECOME” right-wing? It’s been there for quite a while Bruce. From the dishonest “we dunno” approach of the “news” department on anything related to their boy Scott Walker, to the fact that Bice, Schneider and Sleazenberg are given regular columns while being portrayed as “Objective observers.”

    Bruce, it’s the right-wing corporatist garbage in the J-S that’s a big reason behind Urban Milwaukee’s growth. This just puts it on steroids. We are well past the time for a “balance in media” rally outside the Bradley Center, with the speakers pointed right at the JournalComm building.

  4. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    And Bruce is concerned Politi-fact will have Stanley’s “hand on the scale”? Given the last few months of their garbage, it’s pretty evident that the right-wing fist has been pounding that scale. I can’t tell the difference in “analysis” between Republi-fact, and AM 620 talk shows.

  5. PMD says:

    Politifact is stupid. The ratings are often arbitrary or inconsistent with previous ratings. It’s easy to find fault with almost every rating. Either that or it rates something inane and useless like “Facebook email chain says Obama ready to release all sex offenders from prison on same day.”

  6. Bill Kurtz says:

    Perhaps we’ve gotten our first taste of the Scripps, post-Kaiser JS this week with the elimination of the op-ed page. The JS is starting to resemble a slightly thicker Wisconsin State Journal.

  7. Andy Umbo says:

    Ditto to PMD, the M J/S has been if not at least totally right wing, fairly so for a while now. I recently moved to Indianapolis, a state in which Scott Walker wants to emulate the governor (I’m sorry for you Wisconsinites), and I can tell you, the Gannett paper here, The Star, is very right wing. There is a left wing and a right wing opinion here, but the left wing is middle of the road conservative and the right wing is bat-crap bonkers tea party. Get ready for that to happen to the M J/S. Similar to the M J/S, the Star has only about 2.5 pages of local news a day, if you’re lucky, and really no more than that on Sunday. In addition, the Star, like most Gannett papers, has ‘early retired’ most of the senior staff, you know, the people that actually have institutional knowledge of the city, and replaced them with ‘kid’ reporters, like they now have a ‘beer’ reporter and columnist! I took exception, since at least the early 2000’s, with how the M J/S was going, now get ready for the ‘infotainment’ to accelerate. The only recourse? Quit buying it and quit advertising in it, and it’s right wing television and radio stations.

  8. Bruce Thompson says:

    I think the J-S editorial tends liberal but fears losing the Waukesha county audience. So they run various right-wingers to create balance. Unfortunately the people they run are liberals’ view of what conservatives look like, rather than thoughtful conservatives who can add something to the discussion.

  9. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I tried to interview for editor and they turned me down. Far too liberal.

  10. Tim says:

    Thanks Bruce for blaming the rightward march of the js on liberals. Maybe there aren’t any thoughtful conservatives to waste ink on; who are these thoughtful ones you speak of?

  11. Bill says:

    This is funny because the folks over at Right Wisconsin think George Stanley is a raging liberal.

    I agree with Mr. Thompson. The editorial positions the paper takes lean left. In the past they never had a local conservative writing to balance that somewhat. Now they do. I’d also agree that they should get a local liberal a column. Perhaps James Causey counts, but he’s left to usually write about racial stuff. Hard to say what to make of David Haynes column because it’s usually “rah-rah” Milwaukee sort of stuff.

    I’d also submit the the coverage of the recent governor’s election doesn’t exactly reveal a rightward tilt. They were all over the John Doe, but pretty much didn’t do much looking into Mary Burke until that was broken by other outlets.

    No worries though. You still got Urban Milwaukee, The Shepherd, The BizTimes, OnMilwaukee and the Business Journal to carry the liberal flag.

  12. tim haering says:

    Schneider a journalist. LOL. NO humility. Then again, the guy he replaced, McILheran, wasn’t a journalist either, though he did work in journalism. Schneider is a meager replacement, like trading Kopp’s for Schoep’s. Maybe newspapers can start redistricting too. I don’t really care which way they lean, as long as I can count on that lean and intellectually adjust. The free market will provide alternatives. Urban Milwaukee is proof of that. What I’d really like is some analysis on Walker’s presidential prep. How did Kasich’s upbraiding at the RGA affect him? That was some Skin Bracer slap! Merry Christmas, Bruce. Happy Hanukuna matata! ROFL
    http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/anckrc/scott-walker-s-hanukkah-gaffe

  13. PMD says:

    The editorials probably do lean left overall (for now), but the op-ed page balances that out and then some.

    In addition to being a poor writer and boringly predictable, Schneider is such a blatant cheerleader for Walker, it’d be comical if he wasn’t a paid columnist working for the state’s largest daily. He should be on Walker’s payroll for the amount of time and effort he puts into either voraciously defending him or passionately advocating his policies and (alleged) achievements.

  14. Observer says:

    Wait. George Stanley is more conservative than Marty Kaiser? Lawd!

  15. Bill Kurtz says:

    Andy, the Indianapolis Star was traditionally conservative, long before Gannett bought it. So their leanings probably are taken for granted, unlike here where there has been a shift. Gannett doesn’t care about the political leanings of their editorial pages, they just try to squeeze the maximum profit from their papers. That’s what we’ll probably be in for.

  16. Ms. Ann Thrope says:

    It’s ironic that the Journal Sentinel ends up in the hands of the stridently conservative Scripps group. The Journal’s founder, Lucius Nieman, and Edward Willis Scripps started their papers (or in Scripps’s case, more than forty papers) in the 1880s by bumping up against the establishment and the laissez-faire attitudes of the time. By championing the aspiring immigrant working- and lower-middle-classes, their papers were tremendously successful.

    After Scripps’ death in 1926, the heirs and his protege´ Roy Howard, moved the chain’s editorial views steadily to the right, so that by the late 1940s Scripps papers were in lockstep with the Los Angeles Times, Hearst and McCormick-Paterson papers in their views. Scripps has spent the past sixty years shedding newspapers; the J-S and the Memphis Commercial Appeal will be the only big-city papers in the chain.

    I’ve always assumed a paper’s editorial stance is dictated by economics. The J-S’s printed-paper circulation is in the comfortable suburbs of Waukesha and Ozaukee counties. Those readers are older, better-off, and more conservative politically than the younger and minority audience in the city (those more likely to read the paper on-line.) Why does this matter? For newspapers generally, 90%-plus of ad revenue is still generated by print, so that conservative suburban audience must be kept happy.

    In short, an editorial move further to the right seems inevitable.

  17. RS says:

    THIS is why its the perfect time for a second newspaper to enter the Wisconsin market. To allow the other side of the story to be told(which was pretty much WHY Journal and Sentinel separately existed in the first place!) to have a voice again that does not cater to either slant. Last time I looked it was called Non Partisan Journalism. It HAS to exist somewhere in this world!

    When the merger at JS occurred it was obvious the Journal Sentinel was going to go in a direction of stilted reporting. Liberal writers such as Joel McNally were let go and the readership plummeted because you were now only getting half the news, poorly reported at that. it only got worse as the years went on.

    This of course lead Journal to blame outside sources as readership dropped like good little conservatives . The economy, the death of print, etc and they followed the conservative corporate bandwagon. It couldn’t be that a majority of the state didn’t want to READ what they could watch on Fox News could it?

    Marty Kaiser was not the only one who had to have a strong stomach for all the downsizing being done company wide. All the conservative pushed ideas were followed with precision. Downsizing, Outsourcing. If the GOP thought it was a great idea, you can bet it was implemented quickly.

    I think there is larger handwriting on the wall with the sale to Scripps. Journal touted itself for YEARS as “The best LOCAL Newpaper in the world” I think “Local” now stands for Local Politicians, local lobbyist and local propaganda. The size and style of the paper looks more the “The Enquirer” or “The Star” now, rather then anything resembling a true newspaper. They swore to everyone that the newspaper would NEVER be sold. It would always be locally owned. Now for the first time ever an outside influence will guide local news.

    Readership will continue to drop, Journal will become more and more irrelevant as local new becomes more irrelevant and eventually men like Marty Kaiser will return to 333 W State Street saying “I have come here to bury Ceaser, not to praise him”

    It will be a sad day in Wisconsin when something with as long and rich history as the local newspaper comes to an end. But isn’t that the conservative way? Use it up, bleed it dry and toss it aside.

  18. Observer says:

    I miss the Christian Science Monitor, a paper that seemed to report news without a slant. Those that never have picked up the Wall Street Journal might laugh when I hold it up as a fine example of reporting the news. With the WSJ, one must never even glance at their editorial pages as there seems to be no pretext there of being “fair or balanced”. The old Milwaukee Journal was quite a paper in its prime. They covered every vote in Washington and how our reps voted on every bill. Of course in those days bills were more straight forward so there wasn’t a vote pro or con on say abortion tucked in a military spending bill. That prevented the TV ads asking the viewing public to ask the incumbent why he voted to prevent oxygen for seniors or other such nonsense that we see now.

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