My career in newspapers ended the year I turned 61. I remember it well, because the oldest of my four grandchildren was days away from her first birthday when I retired from The Milwaukee Journal on March 31, 1995. The grandchildren don’t remember their grandfather ever having been gainfully employed.
The day after I retired, the dominant source of news about Milwaukee and greater Wisconsin vanished. On the following day, April 2, 1995, readers of the former Milwaukee Journal and readers of another city paper, the Milwaukee Sentinel, received their first copy of the hybrid Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Ever since I witnessed the eclipse of this great American daily, I have become more and more aware of the rapid decline of newspaper culture.
This decline began well before my retirement, however. Its causes include the rise of television, middle-class women entering the workforce, and, most important by far, the rapid, invasive growth of the Internet and social media. Through websites such as Amazon, eBay, and Craigslist, the Internet supplanted newspapers as the primary medium for classified advertising—the financial lifeline of big city dailies. Although deplorably unreliable and undisciplined, social media have become the dominant purveyors of information for young people. Today, Facebook and Twitter provide a curated stream of information in which the news is just another piece of content.
In our highly digitally connected world, where purchases and information alike are just a click away, one might wonder if there’s a need for newspapers anymore.
• • • • •
Wisconsin has long been home to a world-class newspaper. In 1960 and 1961, three opinion polls asked 335 editors, 311 publishers, and 125 journalism professors to rank the best of the roughly 1,760 newspapers in the United States. The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Washington Post, and The Milwaukee Journal were among the top six in each poll (the editors ranked The Journal third, publishers ranked it fourth, and professors ranked it fifth).
Given its sterling reputation across the board, why wasn’t The Journal as well known as The New York Times? The answer is clear: The Journal was a local newspaper, perhaps the best in the country, and a perfect fit for its community. It was the vacuum cleaner of southeastern Wisconsin, where seemingly no public action went unnoticed. When I joined, it aspired to become the newspaper of record for the entire state. However, if you weren’t from Wisconsin there was little reason to read it.
I walked into The Journal’s newsroom at 8:00 am on a Monday in early March 1962. My wife Philia and I had arrived from Des Moines a week earlier, and we found a furnished apartment above a German sausage shop in northwest Milwaukee. I drove downtown on two-lane Fond du Lac Avenue, as Milwaukee had no freeways at the time. The morning rush hour was horrible, and I was almost late on my first day of work. I made $120 per week.
The Milwaukee Journal Building exuded dignified prosperity, reflecting the character and success of its founder, Lucius Nieman. Built in 1924, it occupied the southeast corner of 4th and State Streets. Its busy lobby, paneled with black walnut, served visitors with a post office, phone booths, and a counter that sold Journal-produced pamphlets about Wisconsin history and lore, fishing and travel guides, even recipes. Cheerful operators of three elevators delivered customers and employees alike to their desired floors.
I quickly learned that deadline panic at The Journal occurred five times a day. The State edition deadline was first. It carried news from correspondents covering most of greater Wisconsin and from four reporters in our Madison bureau. A 9:00 am copy cutoff for the State edition ensured that it would be printed, bundled, and loaded onto a fleet of green-paneled trucks before noon. These trucks then delivered the paper to communities across the state. The State edition was followed at 11:00 am by the Belt edition, which circulated to Madison and the suburbs around Milwaukee.
The Latest II edition deadline at noon was the day’s climax. The flow of information from city-side reporters swelled into a torrent that flooded the newsroom. The rewrite bank became a crescendo of urgent talk, ringing phones, and typewriter clatter, as people wearing headsets took notes from on-the-scene reporters at city hall, the county and federal buildings, central police headquarters, and local courtrooms. Reporters at the scenes of fires, crimes, or accidents called from nearby pay telephone booths. All reporters carried loose change for pay phones. Less urgent afternoon deadlines included the Peach Sheet—a single page given away free with street sales that featured baseball scores, stock market numbers, and the day’s crimes—and the WUP edition, which was trucked overnight to northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan (hence the acronym).
Like some reporters, I would occasionally rush back to the office to write my own story, composing the lead paragraph in my head along the way. I’d stop at the city desk and tell the editor the gist of the story and about how long I thought it should be. If he wanted a shorter story, he’d say so on the spot. He never asked for a longer one. At my desk, I typed my story, making three carbon copies. The original went to the city desk. A carbon was picked up for WTMJ radio for the 5:00 pm news (we often heard our stories on the car radio during the commute home), and another went to the Associated Press. The third carbon went into my file cabinet.
Before moving to press, local stories were reviewed by the city editor, an assistant city editor, the local copy desk chief, and a copy editor. If the story was a big deal, the paper’s managing editor also reviewed it. At every level, stories were checked and double-checked for accuracy, fairness, spelling, punctuation, clarity, and length. Counting the reporter and the person assigned with the rewrite, six or seven people reviewed every story.
This system for creating “the news” in America was the product of 150 years of evolution and innovation, and it aspired to live up to the vision our Founders had of an independent press and its role in democracy. The Founders truly believed that newspapers were essential to good government, and they certainly would have been alarmed at the prospect of their steep and impending decline.
In March 1962, with The Milwaukee Journal approaching peak circulation, we weren’t yet alarmed. Yet the signs were there. We just didn’t see them.
• • • • •
An axiom of the free press is that civic progress and free speech are best protected by more rather than fewer newspapers. By this measure, the decline of the metropolitan daily began in the early 1900s. At their peak in 1910, there were 2,200 daily English-language newspapers in the U.S. Milwaukee had nine dailies—five English, two German, and two Polish—and 689 American cities had more than one.
However, chains were expanding and mergers becoming frequent, not only among newspapers, but throughout commerce, from drugstores and grocers to importers and manufacturers. Milwaukee emerged from World War II with only two English dailies: the afternoon Journal, founded in 1882, and the morning Sentinel, founded in 1837. Where The Journal was an immensely profitable paper, the once-great Sentinel was by 1962 a failing member of the Hearst newspaper empire.
By then, Milwaukee was one of the 40 or so remaining American cities with competing dailies. On May 27, 1962, members of the Newspaper Guild, the union that had represented the Sentinel newsroom since 1937, walked out. Earlier strike threats were met by The Hearst Corporation’s vow to sell Wisconsin’s oldest daily newspaper. Hearst followed through with its vow, offering to sell the Sentinel to Journal publisher and CEO Irwin Maier for $7 million. The Chicago Tribune Company was interested, as was a group of conservative Milwaukee industrialists, yet none of the parties believed they could profitably run the Sentinel.
With no other takers, Hearst cut the price to $3 million and signed a deal with The Journal Company. Maier promised to publish both papers with independent voices. The Sentinel set up a separate newsroom in an annex just north of the Journal Building (the two buildings were connected by a walkway over an alley) where its demoralized staff sprang to life.
Of course, Milwaukeeans, especially those in the business community, feared that The Journal would impose its liberal bent on the Sentinel and the city would become a media monopoly town. Surprising even to us in the newsroom was the intensity of competition that formed between The Journal and the Sentinel, which was far more aggressive than before the purchase. (The Journal’s city editor, Harry Hill, swore that, By God, he was not going to be beaten by the upstart setting up shop in the annex!)
Both papers assigned reporters to important government offices and public meetings, and both kept their traditional editorial identities: The Journal was centrist liberal, the Sentinel conservative. There was, of course, overlap: for instance, when it came to abortion, both papers were pro-choice.
For three decades, newspaper competition was never keener in Milwaukee. Reporters dreaded being scooped, and the truly cursed risked demotion or even dismissal if they were. Nervous editors found space for the flimsiest of stories, fearing that the opposition might publish it first. The Sentinel’s daily circulation grew by 10,000. The Journal’s weekday circulation held steady at 373,000, while Sunday circulation soared to over 560,000 papers.
Yet a careful observer of the paper over these three decades might have noticed one small sign of decline. For years The Journal printed its daily circulation number in small type on page one, comparing it to circulation a year earlier and always showing growth. That cute little feature was dropped in 1963, when circulation began a slow downward trend from its peak of 375,326 on weekdays and 567,042 on Sundays as television began to consume more reader time and attention.
The decline remained gradual until the 1970s, when the number of women in the workplace doubled to 46 million (and continues to grow today). This altered a familiar pattern for many middle-class American families in which stay-at-home wives cooked and tended children while husbands, returning home from work in the evening, settled into a chair to read the afternoon paper until supper time.
Indeed, a good number of women found work in the newsroom, which strengthened the culture and character of a space that until this time was dominated by men. Nevertheless, there were respected female journalists in newsrooms prior to this era, including Zona Gale and Edna Ferber, both of whom worked for The Journal in the early 1900s and went on to win Pulitzer Prizes for their writing.
While some losses in circulation for The Journal came from changes in culture, others were self-inflicted. When the price of gasoline rose sharply in the 1980s, Robert A. Kahlor, the vice president of production, decided to eliminate far-north delivery routes where the price of the paper didn’t cover the cost of gas. Thus ended The Journal’s ambition to be the newspaper of record for all of Wisconsin.
By 1981, daily circulation had fallen to 324,000. There was talk in the newsroom that a merger of The Journal and the Sentinel was probable, even though robust profits suggested that such drastic action could be delayed until the distant future. The news staff remained the largest in Wisconsin with 230 people putting out the daily Journal and about a third fewer at the Sentinel.
In 1986, retiring executive editor Richard Leonard and managing editor Joseph Shoquist were replaced with Sigvard Gissler and Steve Hannah, respectively. Kahlor, the penny-pinching vice president of production, became CEO. He gave Gissler and Hannah seven years to reverse the circulation slide. Many colleagues believed that they were foolish to agree—and destined to fail. Indeed their efforts proved superficial, futile, and pathetic. They hired a newspaper consultant who remade the appearance of The Journal, replacing dedicated news space with flashy color charts, blocks of white space, and oversized headlines. The paper adopted a mascot, a rolled-up newspaper with cartoon features named Rollie. Inevitably, someone was hired to walk around town in a Rollie costume.
Circulation plummeted by more than 70,000 to about 230,000 papers by 1993 when Gissler and Hannah left The Journal. They were replaced by Mary Jo Meisner and Martin Kaiser. Meisner, who previously had held five short-term newspaper jobs, served only three-and-a-half years—time enough to preside over the merger of The Journal and Sentinel into a single morning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in April 1995.
I was in Costa Rica in January of 1995, covering the successful efforts of the Milwaukee Public Museum and Riveredge Nature Center to protect a patch of rain forest called Tirimbina, when I learned by phone that the merger was imminent. The last straw had been an unexpected price increase for newsprint paper that ignited a panic among management and set the merger machine in motion.
The next three months saw a flurry of planning: The new paper would have a news staff of about 300, larger than either The Journal or the Sentinel, but smaller than the two combined. In the end, 248 full-time employees from all departments left the papers. Many accepted buyouts, but others were fired. At age 60, I welcomed the buyout. But it was a tragic day for younger colleagues who were forced out. On March 31, 1995, the last Milwaukee Journal rolled off the presses.
Two days later the first Milwaukee Journal Sentinel appeared. Much has happened since then. The Journal Company became a publicly traded company in 2003, ending its employee-ownership protection against outside raiders. In 2014, Journal Communications and E. W. Scripps Company merged as a broadcasting entity and spun off fourteen newspapers, including the Journal Sentinel, as the Journal Media Group. The Group was subsequently acquired in 2016 by the Gannett Company, a national chain of more than a hundred papers.
• • • • •
Today, the newsroom of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel holds fewer than a hundred reporters and editors. Most of the building is empty. There is a single deadline daily. As a veteran of the old vacuum cleaner, I wonder what dirt we are missing.
Yet the Journal Sentinel remains the largest news-gathering operation in Wisconsin, without which radio and television news—and even social media—would suffer from a growing dearth of facts. Its writers are professionals, honest and good. Under editor Martin Kaiser and managing editor George Stanley, the paper won three Pulitzer Prizes in 2008, 2010, and 2011. Kaiser retired in 2015 and Stanley is now editor of this fine paper. I read it daily and encourage others to do so. The latest official figures put its circulation at 153,000, but a growing fraction of this is online only. Subscribers of the printed edition are rumored to be fewer than 90,000 and falling.
A version of this saga has unfolded in every major city in the United States. The question is, Can we maintain our democracy without prosperous, independent daily newspapers? Recent news out of Washington and Madison indicates that the outlook is poor. Almost four decades of reporting environmental, demographic, and social dynamics taught me caution in predicting the future, and I will not do so here. These decades also persuaded me that the human institutions I once assumed to be enduring and dependable can be fragile and fleeting. My newspaper was one such institution. With my grandchildren in mind, I wonder if our democracy is another.