Milwaukee Scribe: Goodbye and Good Luck
On July 31, 2009, I left the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after 27 years. On Aug. 3 of that year, at the invitation of Jon Anne Willow, I became a partner at then-Third Coast Digest, now-Third Coast Daily. The TCD chapter closes for me on Sept. 2. This is my last story for this website.
The last four years have been the most difficult and in some ways the most rewarding of my career. Last September, John Shannon bought out my stake as well as those of Willow, Mehrdad Dalamie and silent partner Chris Abele. John guaranteed the payroll since then. Until he did, our policy was to pay our bills, employees and freelance help first and, if anything was left over, ourselves. (That will sound familiar to the owner of any under-capitalized small business.) Often, nothing was left over. Thanks, John – it’s been great knowing that a check would arrive every two weeks.
I’m leaving TCD at this time because the business development that I had hoped for has not occurred, and I cannot enter another arts season without the staffing to continue to execute at a high level on the editorial side or to pursue new revenue streams on the business side. My exit will open the door for John to develop a somewhat different business/editorial model for TCD. I will leave it to him and to Matthew Reddin, who’s staying on as managing editor, to explain that model and roll out TCD’s new role in the arts community.
At the newspaper, I had to worry only about myself; I wrote the stories and that was that. At TCD, especially since January of 2012, I had to set priorities for our writers and editors; assign stories; edit hundreds of stories; share the load, primarily with our managing editors and photo editor Angela Morgan, in selecting, cropping and inserting images; and generally make sure that we outworked all other media combined in arts coverage. And we did; no one came close to the quantity and quality of our coverage of theater, music, visual art and dance. We also excelled at travel (thanks, Rob Bundy) and fashion (thanks, Kimberly Gomez). We produced videos, we wrote stories, we combined with arts groups on promotions, we published guides. We came to own that space in this market. But we could only keep that up through superhuman effort on the part of our managing editors during my tenure: Matthew Reddin currently, Dan Shafer, Erin Petersen and, briefly at the start, Lisa Townsel. I am enormously grateful for their hard work, skill and ideas.
As difficult as all this has been, I do not regret leaving the newspaper. The freedom to pursue my own agenda as a writer and critic has led to the best work of my life. TCD and I personally have won many Milwaukee Press Club awards in the last two years, including Best Critical Review of the Arts two years in a row and Best News and Feature website. We’ve been very good indeed, and I became a much better writer than I was at the paper. The internet, with its access to video and links, turned out to be my natural habitat as a writer – I can’t imagine going back to print. I’ve broadened my skill set to include editing, management and social media strategies. I’ve also become a very good mentor.
Of everything I’ve accomplished at TCD, I’m most proud of helping the smart, hard-working young interns and employees who have come through our shop develop their talent and find their voices as writers. Matthew Reddin, Dan Shafer, Danielle McClune, Sahan Jayasuriya, Christina Wright and Lacy Landre come immediately to mind, but I am proud of many more. In the last year, TCD has pretty much been me, age 63, and a bunch of 20-somethings. Being around them has been rejuvenating. When people my age complain about “these kids today,” I tell them to stuff it. The young people who’ve passed through TCD have shown a work ethic, creativity and maturity beyond anything I can recall from my own generation 40 years ago.
We could afford to pay just a few of our writers. Many more covered events for us out of love of writing and the arts. Thanks to all of you for your volunteer effort. I’m also grateful to John Shannon, a true patron of the arts, for daring to step in to take over a small, struggling media outlet and see it through some hard times. I do hope that his vision for TCD’s future not only proves sustainable, but also yields a profit.
Finally, I’d like to thank the Milwaukee arts community, the great people at our theaters, musical organizations, museums, galleries and dance companies. You gave TCD special access, you bought advertising from us, you understood and bore with us when our criticism was less than flattering. You knew that even in those cases, we loved you more than any other media, and you loved us back. We understood each other, as people and as institutions. Your passion was our passion.
I’m not sure what the future holds for me. It probably isn’t daily journalism, of which 31 years is enough and which in any case is in a state of shrinkage and confusion. But I will certainly be involved in the arts community in some capacity. I’m thinking about putting on lecture series and perhaps giving some pre-show/concert presentations for some of the local companies. I intend to delve more deeply into songwriting, singing and the guitar. I will continue to teach arts-related courses at UWM, in the Honors College and perhaps elsewhere. Aside from the arts, I’m developing an Efficient Writing Workshop to help businesses promote a culture of clear written communication. I might even dust off my ancient career as an advertising copywriter.
I’m leaving TCD, but not retiring. I’m moving on to see what comes next. Come along if you care to — just friend me on Facebook.