Merged in Milwaukee  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 1996

Merged in Milwaukee   

A year ago the employee-owned Journal and Sentinel were scrapped in favor of a brand new paper. Combining publications with vastly different styles and hostile staffs continues to pose big-time management challenges.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     


After working at the Milwaukee Journal for 23 years, Beth Slocum, a popular assistant managing editor, was called down to the third floor last year and fired. She called her husband, Jim, who for 26 years had worked next door at the Milwaukee Sentinel. While fierce competitors, the two papers were jointly owned, and the Slocums found themselves among the first victims of an enormous change sweeping through both newsrooms.

"Guess what. You're next," she told her husband, an assistant managing editor. "We are both going."

In the sweepstakes to determine who would survive when management decided last year to fold both papers and create a new one, the Slocums had lost.

"We were quite upset," recalls Jim Slocum. "I was 49. My wife was numb. We felt we still had a lot of value to the company. We never factored in that both of us would leave."

Stunned, the couple left immediately after learning their fate that February day. They returned the next day to clean out their desks. Jim Slocum, laden with boxes, tried to slip out. But his Sentinel buddies waylaid him, shaking his hand and hugging him. With tears in his eyes, he stumbled over to the Journal newsroom to collect his wife.

"Together they walked toward the elevator," recalls former Journal editor Carol Guensburg. "There was this thunderous applause. You could practically see the glass in the windows shaking."

Underneath the outpouring of affection lay oceans of angst. If the Slocums could be fired, the thinking went, nobody at either paper was safe. "It was the first indication of how brutal it was going to be," says Guensburg, now a features reporter for the new Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "People were really blown away."

In the end, 248 full time employees left the papers, most taking early retirement or accepting buyouts. About 100 full and part time newsroom jobs were cut. Although some journalists left voluntarily, none of them really wanted to leave the paper, according to the Newspaper Guild. Twenty-one who were fired from editorial filed union grievances--among them Journal columnist Joel McNally, a 27-year veteran and a popular figure with the staff whose departure caused much bitterness.

It's been a tumultuous time since Journal Communications Inc. announced on January 17, 1995, that it was merging its newspapers.

In the mere 11 weeks before the new paper appeared on April 2, 1995, top editors and executives made more dramatic changes than some companies make in a lifetime. A new editorial staff of 300 was whittled from the combined full time staffs of 357, new beats were conceived, the management structure was radically changed, new circulation routes were drawn up, a new computer billing system was installed, zoned sections were added, the newsroom computer system was reconfigured, adult carriers replaced kids, and a new look was created from scratch.

"I'm not sure any other newspaper has made such a change in that amount of time," says Robert A. Kahlor, chairman and CEO of Journal Communications Inc. The result, not surprisingly, left the staff shell-shocked and uncertain about the future.

A year later, the new paper is just starting to hit its stride and do more enterprise reporting. Reporters and editors are finding a comfort level that had all but disappeared with the merger. Yet signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome linger. Having gone through a major shake-up, staff members, while sleeping better, still appear to be watching their backs.

What the paper doesn't need now, acknowledge many, is another trauma. A recent tremor in the form of a mysterious $1 billion offer to buy the paper from an unnamed newspaper company confirmed to many staffers that they'd rather stick, as the adage goes, with the devil they know.

"If we had another big change," says Carolina Garcia, the Journal Sentinel's senior editor/weekends, "I'm out of here. Even without a job. I'm gone. Absolutely. I'd never want to go through anything again like what we went through last year."

Many newspapers have simply vanished or have been folded into a stronger morning paper. But rarely have two papers with wildly contrasting styles been combined into an entirely new entity. It's as if the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News became one. But the merger must also be viewed in the context of Milwaukee. It's an insular city where people stay for generations, where change is gradual. The same was true of its newspapers.

"It used to be the Milwaukee Journal was a completely safe place to work," says Tim Cuprisin, who joined the Journal 10 years ago and now covers television for the merged paper.

Rarely was anyone fired. In an industry where many journalists are constantly moving from paper to paper, Journal and Sentinel staffers stayed put. Keith Spore, 53, joined the Sentinel in 1965 as a part time copyboy. He became a reporter, then state editor, city editor, assistant managing editor/news, managing editor, editor and is now president of the new paper. His route may have been unusual, but not his tenure.

The community culture wasn't the only force holding staffers in place. They also own--but don't run--the company. Ninety percent of the stock is held in a trust by the employees of Journal Communications Inc., which owns the Journal Sentinel, television and radio stations in Wisconsin and four other states, advertising shoppers, two printing companies and two telecommunication companies. Trust founder Harry Grant's heirs own the other 10 percent.

"It was the kind of company that, because of the employee ownership, you worked your way up, paid your dues and were assured of a lifetime job," says Frank A. Aukofer, who has been there 35 years, 25 in the Washington bureau. His paper was known affectionately as "Ma Journal."

What made leaving particularly difficult was the strength of the stock. It's never dropped in price or skipped a quarterly dividend since the trust was started at the Journal in 1937 (the company bought the Sentinel from Hearst in 1962). A staffer who stays at the paper for a long time and keeps buying stock can retire with serious money.

The Journal was founded in 1882 by Lucius W. Nieman. When he died in 1935, his wife decided to leave her 55 percent of the company stock to Harvard University. Harvard wasn't much interested in running a newspaper, and company executive Harry Grant convinced it to sell back the shares. With the proceeds, Harvard set up the initial endowment for the Nieman fellowships. Grant set up the irrevocable trust to fend off feelers from the Gannett and Scripps Howard chains. His goal was to maintain local ownership and spread profits among the employees who made them.

"It's not only created a great deal of wealth over 60 years," says David G. Meissner, who represents the Grant family's 10 percent, "but it's been distributed over a great number of people who would never have had the opportunity to share in that wealth other than with an employee-owner."

Veteran columnist William Janz says court reporters used to check the estates of recently deceased employees to see how rich company stock had made them. Washington Bureau Chief Aukofer tells of a night copyboy who never advanced but kept buying stock. He reputedly retired a millionaire.

(With the company's management squarely against the recent purchase inquiry it's highly unlikely the trust agreement will be broken. Two-thirds of the stockholders would have to agree to sell. If that happened, however, those opposing the sale would get a chance to buy the stock of those who favored it. If the opponents didn't buy all the stock, it would then be offered to the Grant family, and then the company.)

But employee ownership is not without its downside. The stock plan creates golden handcuffs, curtailing turnover but sometimes making the paper stale in the absence of new blood. When Mary Jo Meisner took the helm in June 1993 she was the eighth editor of the 114-year-old paper. But more significantly to parochial Milwaukeeans, she was the first editor hired from outside.

When Managing Editor Martin Kaiser came to the Journal from Baltimore's Sun in February 1994, he asked a group in the newsroom how long they'd been at the paper. "With my 12 years, I was the baby there," says Meg Kissinger, former Journal gossip columnist and now a general assignment reporter.

Charles Sykes worked as a city hall reporter for the Journal from 1976 to 1981. Then he quit. Impatient at 28, he saw no immediate upward mobility.

"Loyal deadwood would be kept around for years and years, which was endearing to know the paper would never desert you," says Sykes, who hosts a radio talk show. "People who'd burned out at 40 couldn't quit until they were 55 because you had to sell your stock if you quit before you retired, and you'd have huge capital gains. You didn't have the normal turnover at the Journal. This was a lifer place."

Then economics, changing lifestyles and a media climate that offered readers new sources of information caught up with the papers. Circulation, as it did in other cities, declined at both Milwaukee dailies, particularly at the afternoon Journal. From a peak of 373,962 in 1962, daily circulation had plummeted below 200,000 by 1995. The Sentinel's circulation dipped to 175,330.

The 1950s and '60s had been the Journal's heyday. This was the paper that took on Wisconsin's red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. "In the 1960s we thought we worked for one of the greatest newspapers in the country and we were right," Aukofer says. "We used to be regarded with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. But not now."

With numbers dropping, something had to give. By August 1994, Chairman Kahlor had begun exploring the idea of a merger. Consultants were hired, scenarios sketched. Meanwhile, long depressed newsprint costs were rising. By January 1995, Kahlor decided it was time to combine the two papers.

Former Journal Sentinel Inc. President Robert H. Wills, who worked for the company for 43 years, thinks the merger was premature. Wills, who retired in 1993, says that if management had strengthened the circulation and advertising departments the company could have offset skyrocketing newsprint prices and kept both papers.

Unfortunately, staffers, like their neighbors, learned of the merger not from the Journal or the Sentinel but from WISN radio. Five days before the official announcement, Sentinel Editor Spore said rumors about the future of Milwaukee's newspapers were "irresponsible and inaccurate."

They weren't. Milwaukee was becoming another one-newspaper town. The mourning began.

Gone would be the scrappy, sometimes goofy, hard news-driven street fighter, the morning Sentinel. Missing would be the bigger, more prestigious afternoon Journal, the paper with more staff and more resources and the vitally important Sunday paper, a cash cow.

The new management team --Editor Meisner, Managing Editor Kaiser, Editorial Page Editor Spore and Deputy Managing Editor Gerry Hinkley--embarked on creating a staff. They would flatten the management structure, eliminating assistant managing editors in favor of "senior editors." Staffers had to apply for new jobs on the new paper.

"It was a very unnerving process," Kaiser says. "People were sitting out there wondering what they were going to do." The rumor mill churned at full capacity.

Janz, a columnist at the Sentinel for 20 years, recalls, "People were breaking down and crying in the newsroom because of the pressure of not knowing if you had a job or not. Or what that job would be." Janz was one of the lucky ones; he was immediately offered a job on the new paper.

"People were paralyzed after the merger announcement," says Craig Gilbert, the Journal's political reporter, who kept his beat. "From that moment on it was a huge distraction. It was impossible to do any work."

Most challenging would be building a staff out of two disparate newsroom cultures that had thrived on mutual contempt to sharpen their competitive edge. Reporters used to dream up elaborate schemes to keep stories from the other paper. David M. Vogel, a 16-year Sentinel veteran, says he would cast his eyes downward rather than meet the eyes of a Journal reporter. "If somebody from the Journal came into the Sentinel newsroom," Vogel says, "we thought, 'What the heck is he doing here? Stay out of our newsroom.' "

Against this backdrop, the top editors had to put together a staff made up of people who would trust and work well with those they had disdained only weeks before. Each person could apply for three jobs.

"There was one Friday that was like football camp," says Gilbert. "You found out if you got the beat you wanted. If you missed that cut, you could apply for other jobs. If you missed that cut, that was the axe. You were called down to the third floor [and dismissed]."

In the midst of the carnage, Editor Meisner flew to the Caribbean for a vacation she'd planned before the merger was decided. For many on the Journal staff it was unforgivable. Their lives were in turmoil; Meisner was sunning on the beach.

"That really disturbed people," says Lois Blinkhorn, who started at the Journal in 1974 and is the new paper's book editor. "People were furious. It didn't strike me as that bad."

Meisner is unrepentant: "I'm fine with it. I don't regret it." She says Kahlor told her not to cancel the trip.

It's hard to dispute the logic of combining the papers. But some complain about the way it was done. "Some people were butchered," says reporter Jack Norman, who helped start the Newspaper Guild in Milwaukee in 1984.

"We could understand the business reasons," he says. "But we couldn't understand the ruthless way it was done. Tremendously wonderful people with 30 years here were never given so much as a thank you as they were shoved out the door. It seemed rushed, hectic and ruthless. So it produced far more ill will than it should have."

Blinkhorn says she wondered if management couldn't have better handled the painful process, "but I couldn't see how they could have. It seemed fairer to let people apply [for jobs]." Blinkhorn, 60, is one of the oldest survivors. Most of her contemporaries, she says, took early retirement.

"How could anybody come in here and direct this bloodletting and then have people feel good about here?" Blinkhorn asks. "I think that's part of the problem."

It's a process that no one voluntarily would go through again. "It was definitely challenging and a great opportunity," says Meisner, "but I wouldn't say it was fun. There were too many other emotional things attendant to it."

Meisner, 44, was not hired to orchestrate the merger, although she rose to the challenge. But there were heavy casualties and Meisner, as the boss, inevitably bears the brunt of much criticism--fairly or not. As Kahlor says, someone has to take the heat, and Meisner is an obvious target.

"It's wrong to personalize," says reporter Norman. "It's much more institutional and that's true for Mary Jo. She's playing a job that she was selected to do and not the job that people in the newsroom want her to do. I think she's criticized for not being a journalist's hero editor. But her job is to be an executive in the newspaper industry. She has a corporate role to play and she plays it well. People who are unhappy are really reacting to changes in the business."

She's also an outsider hired to shake things up in a newspaper culture that's been comfortably cocooned from change by its employee ownership.

And Meisner's style seems to ratchet up the criticism. In an admittedly conservative town, Meisner's short skirts, Jaguar and brash "what you see is what you get" style are just a little more flamboyant than her city is used to.

"I think in Milwaukee, that's so conservative, they just can't stand it," Blinkhorn says.

But one can't help but wonder if her gender isn't the reason for much of the criticism of this ambitious, successful woman.

Says Norman, "I think it's sexist. I don't think people would be nearly as upset or hostile if it were a man."

Meisner has moved from paper to paper, from Wilmington, Delaware, to Philadelphia to San Jose to the Washington Post, coming to Milwaukee after a two-year stint as managing editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Men do the same thing, but aren't so permanently saddled, as Meisner seems to be, with the notion that she's always halfway out the door in search of a better job. "Every time I've changed, and I've been recruited for these jobs, I've changed for better positions," she says. "When men do that, it's fine. So what's the deal here?"

Kahlor agrees. "To me it's so irrelevant," he says. "The comment about the car she drives. The comment about what clothes she wears. I drive a Corvette and no one comments about that... I think part of it is chauvinistic, if you will. I think Mary Jo is doing a great job."

On April 2, 1995, the new Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a morning paper, was flung on doorsteps. There were new carriers, new routes, new street boxes and a new computer billing system. The first day there were 12,500 subscriber complaints.

It was chaos, admits Keith Spore, who became Journal Sentinel president three months after the merger. He succeeded Jim Currow, who resigned in July 1995 after falling far short of his overly optimistic circulation predictions.

"On the circulation front, we just moved too fast," Spore says. "We were trying to do too many things at once. It was just mission impossible." (Things moved so quickly that some prototypes went into the paper as is.) The Journal Sentinel debuted at 328,000 daily and today, according to company figures, has dropped to 281,669; Spore says the current goal is the low 290,000s by the end of the year. Sunday circulation is 466,000.

The paper's design resembles many of today's papers. Page one is crowded and colorful, the top filled with bright graphics inside skyboxes, the left margin jammed with teasers for inside stories. The lower left corner has a weather graphic. Typically there are four stories and a large color photo on the front page.

"It's a generic newspaper," says longtime Journal reporter Paul G. Hayes, who retired last year. "If you go to St. Louis or Minneapolis or Louisville, you pick up a paper and the color, the index, the graphics are all the same."

Now the paper is in the fine-tuning stage, say editors. "I think it's still trying to find its character," Kaiser says. But the blueprint is in place. Reporters and editors agree it's a bigger, better paper than either predecessor. Even critics like talk show host Sykes think things are turning around.

"There was a while I was talking every day about a story they didn't cover or did an inadequate job on," he says. "I think they had a real hard time figuring out what they wanted to be. The result was bland and uninspired. My sense is they realized they were drifting and they started to be more aggressive."

August Gribbin, who teaches journalism at Marquette University, says the paper has become an attractive big- city publication. "There'd been promises that it would do more entrepreneurial pieces," says Gribbin. "That was a promise that went largely unmet until recently."

Gribbin points to two recent stories, one on the diminishing Milwaukee middle class, the other on gun-toting security guards with criminal records. Another story, by Sentinel alumnae Mary Zahn and Mary Beth Murphy, seems to have galvanized the staff. The February piece exposed the puffed-up resumé of the head of a troubled antipoverty agency. The executive director quickly resigned, as did the chairwoman of the agency's board.

"It was good journalism, and good journalists recognized it when they saw it," says Hayes, 61. "Some old Journal types I talked to left that day feeling really good about the new paper."

But, says Gribbin, if the paper is going to focus on the local scene and leave most national stories to wire services, as it does, "they need to do a lot more of these in-depth, creative reporting pieces than they do on a regular basis."

One running story that's made some reporters uncomfortable has to do with plans for a new baseball stadium. The Milwaukee Brewers have threatened to leave town if the city doesn't build one. Journal Communications Chairman Kahlor, also the Journal Sentinel's publisher, was named head of the governor's stadium commission and successfully lobbied the state legislature for a sales tax increase to help pay for the stadium.

It's a common dilemma for publishers. Kahlor believes it's good for business (sports results sell newspapers, and a company radio station broadcasts the games) and good for Milwaukee to have a major league baseball team.

"I'd much rather be accused of a conflict of interest than a lack of interest," says Kahlor. "The publisher should be a leader in the community. It would be irresponsible not to."

Criticism of Kahlor and the way the paper has covered the debate surrounds the issue of whether the stadium should be downtown or just west of downtown in a more isolated location. Owner Bud Selig has said he'd only stay if it's built west of the city, and Kahlor has advocated that location.

"There was data released last fall that gave statistical reasons why downtown would be a better site," says Milwaukee Magazine Senior Editor Bruce Murphy. "It was consistently ignored by the Journal Sentinel." The magazine recently published a cover story by Murphy on why the stadium should be downtown.

"The anti-downtown campaign, orchestrated by the Journal Sentinel and others," Milwaukee Alderman Paul Henningsen complained in the piece, "has squelched meaningful dialogue about the best place to make the huge public investment required for the stadium."

Kahlor says he's never told reporters how to cover the story, and that his paper's coverage has not always been to his liking. "I don't think Kahlor's role has put the paper in any tough positions," Meisner says. "Editors and publishers and newspapers exist in places. They are going to stir the pot and create some potential problems. That's the way it is. All you can do is say, 'Let's just make sure we are fair.' "

Last month the paper celebrated its first birthday without fanfare. "That's not to say we are not pleased with what we have," Meisner says. "But it just doesn't seem like it's appropriate to throw some big party."

In fact, everyone is doing their best to put the merger behind them. Jim Slocum is editing a trade publication, Model Retailer, and loving it. "I should have made the move earlier, frankly," he says. Beth Slocum is happy doing some freelance marketing work. Hayes says he's thrilled to be retired, although he hadn't planned to stop working this soon. Joel McNally still wishes he had a full time job. He gets in his shots at the new paper in his media column in Milwaukee Magazine.

Gone, however, is the cocoon. "The feeling of job security has really been shattered," says reporter Larry Sandler. Staffers are trying to figure out precisely what Meisner and Kaiser want from them in this new era. Meisner, admittedly, is more hands off than on. She leaves a lot to Kaiser, 45, who remains an enigma to many on the staff. (Wags call them Mary Jo and Marty Jo.) A shy man whose smile is doled out sparingly, Kaiser isn't the type to stride through the newsroom firing up the troops, which some say is desperately needed.

"It's not my style to jump up on the desk," he says. "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."

Not surprisingly, there are still style conflicts: Former Sentinel editors are perceived to want a hard edge; former Journal editors seem to back into a story, afternoon-style. "There are people who still say: 'Tell me how to write that lede, in a Journal way or a Sentinel way?' " Kaiser says.

Columnist Janz says that while everyone is invited to the Sentinel's old "11:30 lunch club," few former Journal staffers accept.

Perhaps with the passage of time the two staffs will become one. But for now, Kaiser says, "I think a lot of what you hear is people still trying to sort things out."

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