Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Journal Sentinel Veterans Vanishing

Seven more journalists leaving, including some big names, as paper shrinks further.

By - Dec 11th, 2019 11:44 am
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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Headquarters. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Headquarters. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

One of the crummiest things about the brutal and never-ending run of layoffs at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is that very good journalists, typically with decades of experience, disappear with no notice given in the newspaper. These are reporters whom many readers often knew by name and followed regularly, but the JS won’t report on their departure because it would make the newspaper look like it’s declining.

If anything, the lack of transparency has been worse under the ownership of Gannett, as Andrew Pantazi, a reporter for The Florida Times-Union and president and co-chair of the Times-Union Guild, has noted. Gannett, he tweeted, “has forced people to sign NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] in order to get severance and now the company is telling **journalists** to stop tweeting about layoffs. This is the transparency we can expect from the largest newspaper company in American history.”  

Pantazi has been tracking the layoffs and as of Monday, 215 jobs had been eliminated from the many newspapers owned by Gannett,  including 29 at The Indianapolis Star, 35 at its corporate headquarters, 11 at ThriveHive, and 11 at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (including eight newsroom jobs and three other positions at the JS) as the industry publication Subscription Insider reported.

Those layoffs would have probably come anyway due to Gannett’s financial problems, but the recent merger with GateHouse Media (which is more like a buyout) will significantly increase the pressure for layoffs as Urban Milwaukee has previously reported.

Indeed the publication Media Nation noted that Paul Bascobert, the CEO of the newly merged company, sent out an email that amounted to saying “Sorry for the layoffs and get ready for some more.”

“The natural question at this point,” Bascobert wrote, “is ‘are we done?’ The honest answer is No. I have tried to be very transparent with you all and not spin things in a way that you wouldn’t believe anyway, so let me tell you where we are.

“We just named our leadership team and while we were able to identify this reduction, the new team will need some time to finalize their organizations, and I expect there will be some additional reductions. It will take a few months to work through this process, and I expect this will conclude the bulk of the synergy actions.”

Which is to say there will be further “reductions” followed by more “synergy actions.” Dana Neuts at Subscription Insider predicts that the latest cuts are “only a fraction of what can be expected in the coming months.” 

That echoes the predictions of experts who have predicted a total reduction of at least 3,500 employees.

The departures at the Journal Sentinel include some big names, which were first reported at the Business Journal. They include columnist Jim Stingl, food editor and writer Nancy Stohs, business reporters Rick Romell and Paul Gores, general assignment reporter Jesse Garza, environmental reporter Lee Bergquist and night news editor Bob Friday.

All have reached the standard age of retirement or are older, I’m told, and one other journalist is still likely to be let go. 

It’s a big loss for the newspaper, with the biggest losses being Stingl, Romell and Bergquist. 

In the old days of newspapering, a top columnist like Jim Stingl would have been retained at all costs. But the changing economics of newspapers, and the fickle, headline-skimming habits of online readers have made even columnists less indispensable than in the past. (Mike Royko must be rolling over in his grave.). Stingl was largely a self-made columnist (the newspaper’s editors, more geared toward news coverage, aren’t much help with columnists) and created a unique voice that was very Milwaukee and often quite funny. He will be missed.

Romell was one of the paper’s best and most versatile reporters, combining excellent reporting with a sense of style. Bergquist was less flashy but a dogged, scrupulously objective reporter, who managed to cover the decline in the state’s environmental regulations under Gov. Scott Walker while weathering the state’s polarized politics, in which anything a reporter writes can become a red flag to either side. 

Together the seven journalists leaving the building will take with them hundreds of years of institutional knowledge that is unlikely to be replaced, And they will vanish with no notice from the paper they served for so many years.  

Post-script: I’d also like to pay homage to the late Whitney Gould, the newspaper’s former architecture critic, who passed away, and got a nice obituary. Her name has come up frequently in Urban Milwaukee stories because she served on the City Plan Commission, where she continued as a force pushing for good architecture. 

You’ll find a host of Urban Milwaukee stories where her name appears, including one where I quoted a past review of hers, noting “her passion and bracing clarity on architectural issues.”

All in all, a sad week for local journalism.

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10 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Journal Sentinel Veterans Vanishing”

  1. TransitRider says:

    Any chance Stingl could write for Urban Milwaukee? Would UM have any money to pay him?

  2. Thomas Martinsen says:

    Yo, Transitrider: Urban Milwaukee could offer voices to Stingl and others who Gannet has silenced. Money could be a problem, but some of these retired and previously compensated writers may wish to write just to write in these times.

  3. frank a schneiger says:

    Many years ago, I left Milwaukee, but, in that time, I have never lost touch with my hometown. One of the most important ways that I maintained those links was through Jim Stingl’s columns, which invariably captured what was interesting, funny, good and different about Milwaukee. My first contact was after Jim wrote a column about the beautiful, architecturally unique National Liquor Bar electric sign on 26th and National Avenue. Having grown up on that block, the column had great meaning for me, and I was hooked as a Jim Stingl fan.

    Even more important, in our harsh times Jim is a critical local voice for decency, fairness and good humor, including seriously considering my (unsuccessful) application to replace Mrs. Griggs. I’m with TransitRider and Thomas.

  4. TransitRider says:

    UM could make Stingl pieces “premium content”—only available to paid subscribers. It might well increase the number of paid subscribers.

  5. Virginia Small says:

    The departures of all these veteran journalists, which continues the ongoing shrinking of the JS staff, indeed is a great loss.

    It’s also crucial that many of their beats may simply no longer get covered in any depth or consistency. Our metro area will likely lack ongoing coverage by JS of essential issues such as the environment, neighborhoods, culture and other topics.

    Whitney Gould will surely be missed by many. Although she no longer published articles in her retirement, she joined another former JS architecture critic, Mary Louise Shumacher, in writing a letter urging the preservation of the grove designed by Dan Kiley at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. https://www.milwaukeemag.com/former-journal-sentinel-critics-push-preserve-marcus-center-chestnut-grove/

    Also, Whitney was interviewed on a panel about the Pabst district’s preservation on WUWM, which ran on November 23. https://www.wuwm.com/post/lake-effect-site-brewery-district#stream/0

  6. Thomas Sepllman says:

    UM might want to consider offering a $$$ making venture ie Adds that are being requested by the consumer A subscriber enters a UM site and indicates that for a period of time they want ads on appliance or even specific appliances. Then folks who pay decent money can provide that information to those who asked for it. The same goes for movies and plays by topic etc Peace

  7. Lee Bitts says:

    “But the changing economics of newspapers, and the fickle, headline-skimming habits of online readers have made even columnists less indispensable than in the past.”

  8. just1paul says:

    Agree with Lee Bitts. I still read articles in depth by certain writers and others that catch my eye, but often I will be having a conversation with someone who will reference an article I have read and I find out they skimmed it and missed facts.

  9. TransitRider says:

    Jim Stingl still seems to be writing for the J-S. A new column with his byline was posted Friday.

    So, has he been let go or not?

  10. just1paul says:

    He did announce his retirement for when I don’t recall.

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