Editor of the Year 2009: What's Really Brewing in Milwaukee

By Fitzgerald, Mark | Editor & Publisher, February 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Editor of the Year 2009: What's Really Brewing in Milwaukee


Fitzgerald, Mark, Editor & Publisher


In this harshest-ever climate for the newspaper industry, so many editors have been fired for refusing to implement more newsroom cuts, angrily quit while publicly declaring their frustrations, or simply quietly slipped out the door to retire in peace, that E&P briefly considered naming them all Editor of the Year, under the name "The Departed Editor."

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editor Martin Kaiser is glad that was not the choice -- and not just because he is E&P's Editor of the Year.

Though he doesn't point fingers or name names, Kaiser says tough times are exactly when editors shouldn't bail on their newsrooms: "It's a matter of leadership. If you're passionate about journalism and care about the work you do, you help the newsroom, the newspaper, get through any kind of times."

In this challenging environment, Marty Kaiser -- no one at the Journal

Sentinel calls him Martin -- has pulled off a remarkable trifecta. He has overseen the grim work of reducing staff through two rounds of voluntary buyouts in less than a year, while keeping morale unusually high. He's transformed the newsroom to an online-first operation so smoothly that it's the most veteran journalists who are among the most prodigious bloggers, Tweeters and videographers.

Oh, and the Journal Sentinel won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, among other high honors in 2008, for David Umhoefer's expose of county officials who rigged the pension system to pad their benefits.

"There are a lot of editors these days who are putting up the white flag, surrendering," says Mark Katches, who heads up the Journal Sentinel's unusually large and unusually well-organized investigative projects team. "It's great to be working for someone who believes in what they do."

Kaiser is leading the newspaper through the rough waters menacing all big city dailies by emphasizing ... journalism, of all things. "Times like these force you to say, 'What's special, what are the stories that matter,' where can you have impact," he says. When Kaiser gathers the newsroom together for a talk, which he does fairly regularly, he talks journalism. And he cultivates the feeling, forgotten in so many newspaper shops now, that putting out a paper is fun.

"Marty is always using sports metaphors, and he tells us all the time, he wants to go for home runs -- no singles or doubles," says reporter Bill Glauber, who covers aging and demographics and who worked for Kaiser in the sports department of the Baltimore Sun back in the 1980s.

If the staff is having fun even in these parlous times -- and a surprising number of people will tell you they are -- it's because Kaiser has turned the newsroom to his view of staff reductions, says Managing Editor George Stanley: "We never look back on what we had."

When the Journal Sentinel made its first newsroom cuts in the recession of 2000, Stanley recalls, Kaiser gazed around at the newsroom -- a cramped place that looks little changed since the 1960s, save for the flat screens and computers. "He said, 'What if we had just moved here today, and that's the number of people we had to work with? We'd think, this is a great staff and we can do great things with it.' And that's the attitude we have to have."

Kaiser appears comfortable with the uncertainty of the business these days. "Nobody knows what's going to happen, so let's just enjoy it," he says. "Let's take up the challenge."

Greatness by committeeReporter Glauber says his boss has the calm management style you often find in sports editors. Indeed, after serving as a copy boy in Florida newspapers, Kaiser, 58, became a sportswriter because he couldn't decide between being a reporter and an editor, and someone told him that in sports, he would have to be both.

He began in the big leagues of newspapers at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1977, rubbing shoulders with Mike Royko and Roger Ebert, and became sports editor two years later. …

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