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Essay: The End of "Ma Journal"


April first is a day when many news outlets will sneak in at least one false story in the spirit of April Fool’s fun.  There’s one story in the news today, though, that Lake Effect essayist Avi Lank wishes weren’t true:

This is the hardest essay I have ever written for Lake Effect.  Today Journal Communications is no more. It has been dismembered as part of a sale to the E.W. Scripps Co. of Cincinnati. I toiled for Ma Journal, as we employees called the company with an equal mixture of irony and pride, for more than 37 years -- the prime of my working life. The Journal Sentinel newspaper remains, part of a new Milwaukee-based company called Journal Media Group that also owns 13 smaller newspapers Scripps chose to shed as part of the deal.

Scripps keeps the Journal radio and TV stations, including Milwaukee’s Channel 4, WTMJ AM and WKTI FM. The magic, and most of the influence, of Journal Communications are gone.

Rather than being owned by a local family, its employees, or, more recently, a rather amorphous mass of public shareholders, most of Journal Media Group stock is in the hands of the owners of Scripps and a former Scripps executive is running will run the new company.

To a large degree, the decline of Journal Communications is the result of forces far larger than those that could be controlled from the corporate suite of its building at 4th and State.

The democratization of information, epitomized by the free-wheeling free-flowing Internet, has devalued the work that newspapers did in their prime and still are trying to do with ever-fewer resources. These changes have particularly weakened a company like the Journal, which when I joined it in 1974 owned not only the sole morning and evening newspapers in one of the 20 largest metropolitan area in the US, but also the dominant radio and television stations.

When the Journal spoke in those days, both in the paper and as a corporation, local, state, and sometimes even national leaders, listened. Mostly, this power was used for good, such as helping to build ecological awareness and many of the physical and institutional structures that made Milwaukee thrive in the middle of the 20th century. This power and influence was carefully husbanded and judiciously used since 1882 when the Journal newspaper was started, and especially since 1962, when it took over its last  surviving competitor, the Sentinel.

The economic power of the Journal was spread among its employees through a unique stock ownership plan, and the community through charitable donations and volunteer service.

The Neiman fellowships for journalists at Harvard University were funded by Journal stock and named for one of its owners. There are paintings in the Milwaukee Art Museum that were donated by either the company or its owners and managers. The walls of the Journal’s newsroom and corporate suite also contain stunning art works. Or did. I don’t know their fate under the new ownership.

The fortunes of the paper, like those of the city it served, have fallen. That slow decline is a story I chronicled with professional detachment during my time as a business editor, columnist and reporter at Journal Communications.

The down-sloping road has seen Milwaukee plunge to about the 40th largest metro area in the nation, one whose corporate suites increasingly are filled with talented climbers looking for a promotion to places like Chicago, New York, Minneapolis or Toronto, rather than to sink deeps roots in Wisconsin. The sale and dismemberment of Journal Communications is just one more indicator of this relative economic decline.

Long-time workers for Allis-Chalmers, Schlitz Brewing, First Wisconsin and Marshall & Ilsley  -- to name just a few notable corporate giants that also were slain in recent years -- were as strongly affected by the sales of their employers as I am by the end of Journal Communications. As with the demise of those others, my head can understand and explain the Journal’s sale. But in this case it is more than just another story, it is personal. With the demise of Ma Journal, my heart is heavy, and not just for me, but also for my community.

Avi Lank was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Milwaukee Sentinel and Journal Sentinel for more than 35 years.  He’s an occasional panelist on the Interchange program on Milwaukee Public TV, and he’s co-author of the forthcoming book, The Man Who Painted the Universe, coming out in June. He lives in in Whitefish Bay.