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.
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.
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?
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.”