Leave Journalism, Make Money

Lynn Sprangers was a 16-year veteran of television journalism when she decided she'd had enough of the industry. Sprangers had achieved a high level of audience recognition and professional respect: she spent her last nine years as the political reporter for WTMJ-TV, where she worked side-by-side with husband and anchor man Mike Gousha. But by the early 1990s, she began to have doubts about her field.The station's broadcasts, she says, were no longer devoted to real news. "The landscape had changed considerably," she notes, "moving away from the meat-and-potatoes kind of news cover age into marketing, into consultants deciding what news is instead of reporters." "Local news departments used to decide what was news; that shifted, and that is not limited to Milwaukee, that's a national trend. News has become preordained, based on what (consultants) thought would be a draw (to audiences). It 's more consumer oriented, more lifestyle oriented."So, in 1994, Sprangers left that life to take a job as director of communications for Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament. It was a brand new challenge for her, and better paying, too. Spranger's salary in the county executive's office approaches $80,000 annually. Sprangers won't disclose her final salary at WTMJ, but a ballpark figure is suggested by the case of Renee Riddle, who recently left h er position as a reporter for WISN Channel 12, where her salary was reported to be around $35,000.That dramatic difference in salary may be one reason some career journalists look down on reporters who join the government they once covered. Career journalists snipe about going over to "the dark side," switching from outsider to insider, from the servant of the public to a servant of politicians or corporations, from a scribe who seeks the truth to a mouthpiece who shades and spins the truth. ab "They think it's selling out, immoral, " says Jim Rowen, an ex-reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinelnow employed as policy director for Mayor John Norquist. "I think that kind of thinking is narrow-minded."There is a long list of reporters who apparently agree, as they have joined the administrations of Ament, Norquist and Governor Tommy Thompson. Others have become PR mavens, like ex-Sentinel reporter H. Carl Mueller, or consultants, like Ron Legro, an ex-Sentinel reporter now with the Chicago-based Communications Technology Group Inc."A lot of reporters are successful because they are communicators," says Legro, "and communication skills are a declining resource in America. Politicians and corporations understand the value of communication skills and seek them out."During his 28 years (1960-1988) as mayor of Milwaukee, Henry Maier would constantly rail about the bias of reporters who covered him. Yet he hired countless journalists in his administration. His successor, John Norquist, seems just as enamored of j ournalists, having hired Legro (who served as the mayor's first communications director) Rowen, ex-Sentinel reporter Jeff Bentoff, former television journalist Jeff Fleming and former Associated Press scribe Rosalind Rouse. His chief of staff is Bill Christofferson, a one-time reporter for Madison's Wisconsin State Journal}{.Working behind the scenes, these ex-reporters use their contacts with fellow journalists and their knowledge of how the media works to get good press for their new bosses. They are the consummate insiders whose efforts do have an impact on public policy. And now that they've switched sides, they see the world in a different light. They are, frankly, rather critical of their former profession.The County InsiderFor Lynn Sprangers, it was precisely the chance to change her world view that led her into politics: "I was interested in seeing life from the other side of the news release. On the journalism treadmill you think you've got the best job in the world, you're in pursuit of the sto ry, etc. But the question of whether I could work in government and be successful was a challenge. I had not done anything but TV news, and I had to find out if I knew how to do anything else. "As it turns out, Sprangers says, her new job is "really not so far from journalism...I'm still dealing with media, I still think like a reporter, in that when something happens I need to anticipate how reporters are going to treat it. "In TV, she notes, you worried about ratings. "In government they call them elections. Both measure what the public thinks. You have to please (the public) to be successful."It has surprised me how much this has been fun as well as a good classroom."Viewing the press from the other side, Sprangers has more understanding of "the basic uneasiness that people in government have, an anxiety about dealing with the press."I always say that it's in our best interest to have good a relationship with the press...For the most part the county executive has been treated fairly in the local news media."Still, Sprangers has a good deal of criticism for her former colleagues. "Sometimes we feel like the Maytag repair man, the loneliest man in town. Reporters don't spend the necessary time anymore. There is less interest in process and more in little squabbles (and) in personalities. Reporters want a colorful story."There are all kinds of stories, policy decisions that affect people in Milwaukee County that go uncovered. I think the demise of (a second} daily paper has a lot to do with that. There used to be healthy competitiveness between them."There is a lot that goes on in government that reporters don't see in terms of how decisions are made. I just keep trying to work it, to make phone calls in hopes that new, young reporters will take an intere st, to find stories that have a human interest side, or in TV a visual side that will promote some interest."I hope the pendulum will swing back, so coverage is not about some mistake that's made but the totality of what we do."Professing a healthy respect for her former profession, Sprangers nonetheless offers this advice to the producers of broadcast news: "We don't need more TV stars. There are plenty of good looking people on TV. What we need is more people with substance. We need more street reporters, fewer who want to sit on the anchor desk. The best TV anchors were good street reporters and still are. "The City InsiderJim Rowen's career switch wasn't as neat as was Sprangers'. Profoundly influenced by his father, Hobart Rowen, who worked for Newsweek and The Washington Post, Jim journeyed from journalism to government, back to journalism, and back to government again. (He's also married to Ellen McGovern, daughter of George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic candidate for president, giving Rowen an other political connection.)Rowen's forays into government included a number of years as an administrative assistant to former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. Rowen ran for mayor of Madison, losing in a close race. He then worked as an assistant to former Wis consin Secretary of State Vel Phillips, and after that as a freelance writer. In 1983 he moved to Milwaukee, where he worked the following 13 years as a reporter for The Milwaukee Journal.Rowen, 51, joined the Norquist administration in June 1998. He says his salary is "about $78,000; at the Journal }{I earned a lot less than that, somewhere around $50,000."Rowen says he experienced no conflict of values in switching jobs. "My interests in journalism, which began at a very early age, were all about the distribution of information and opinion, and to be a part of that process, and that's what I do in the mayor's office. The difference is, when you work in government you are much more involved in getting things done."I've been really lucky that the political people I've worked for have had policy interests that interest me. Both mayors have been very strong on environment, transit, economic development. Those were things that interested me when I was a reporter."I'm also a believer in trying new things. I'm glad that I've been able to have different professions."One real similarity between media and government is both tend to be made up of people who are very opinionated, strong willed, people who have agendas, things they would like to do, see happen. Not e very reporter comes to work every morning with a secret plan, but media often does have agendas. They get on bandwagons."Rowen cites the controversy surrounding the funding of the Brewers' new baseball stadium and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's support for the project. Rowen was in the newsroom when former editor Mary Jo Meisner returned from a meeting with the newspaper's publisher. That morning the Journal Sentinel carried a front-page story discussing a possible downtown site for the stadium, something Brewers President Bud Selig adamantly opposed. As an obviously distressed Meisner walked into the newsroom, she turned to Rowen and said, "There will be no more downtown stadium stories."Journal Sentinelmanagement had decided it would take an editorial position supporting Selig's favored site. "In a one-paper town, that's a powerful decision," Rowen notes."There are times when media weighs in and says this is what we want," Rowen adds. "It is not necessarily bad. They know what they'd like to see happen, and they do what they can to get things done."Rowen says his contacts with former colleagues can sometimes be helpful. "There is an advantage there if I call someone and they know I won't be playing any games with them," he says. "That's a small advantage; I don 't think it's a big deal. I spend lots of time talking to TV reporters that I don't know."It can work the other way, too. It's harder when you feel reporters have gotten it wrong or misquoted you. It's harder if you know them to call them up and say lquote how dare you, how come you did that?'"Like Sprangers, Rowen has criticism for his former profession: "There are a lot of big issues that really don't get covered, except in kind of a piecemeal way. One that comes to mind is the issue of (urban) sprawl. It's a complex issue, it's regional, it's economic, environmental, and it gets fractured coverage. The story is water here, transportation somewhere else, but they are not connected by the media. You don't often find a comprehensive look."Compounding the lack of quality news coverage is a decline in the quantity, Rowen argues."TV is packaged around commercials, air time is limited. Radio news is disappearing, it's mostly commentary and opinion. And now we're down to one daily newspaper. Having one maj or paper in any city is good for the business that owns it but bad for everybody else." The Business InsiderAs a reporter for the old Milwaukee Sentinel,Ron Legro covered a wide range of beats, from the environment to politics to general assignments. He finished his days there as the TV and movie critic, leaving in 1982."I liked writing," Legro says. "I always thought I'd be a journalist all my life. It ran in my family. But it got to the point at the Sentinel}{, I didn't see any more worlds to conquer."Legro's first official job in government came when Governor Tony Earl (1982-'86) appointed him to the Medical Malpractice Compensation panel. After that, Legro continued to be involved in politics, running campaigns and writing speeches for UWM administrators and Mayor Norquist. Eventually Legro ended up heading the city's now defunct telecommunications office. Today he works as an institutional network consultant for Chicago-based Communications Technology Group Inc.When he left the Sentinel,Legro was earning "in the mid-20s." He won't divulge his current pay, saying only that it is "considerably more." Money aside, Legro thinks journalists and politicians share similar motives. "Both politicians and reporters tend to have egos, they're glory seeking. Reporters like bylines, politicians like attention. There's a certain superficiality to both professions."And the reporters are apparently getting more superficial, to hear Legro tell it. "Political reporting is pretty lousy, and getting worse. It used to be issues were primarily what the press covered; we now tend to cover the coverage. This is the negative effect of TV. You can't tell the difference between a commercial and a campaign."Politicians take advantage of this; you can't blame them. I worked in many public roles as a pitch man, I wrote speeches, position papers. A 12-page report won't get covered, but a one-page attack on your opponent will get covered."Reporters are frustrated at how slowly stories develop. It's what's hot today that matters. Long-term stories are not as important in terms of what's news. Politicians flow with that. They are trying to show voters that they can get things done, that they are problem solvers. lquote He will fight for us' makes good copy, presents a positive image, but it doesn't work when trying to do thoughtful public policy."Comparing his experience in journalism to the corporate world, Legro says he finds the pressures familiar. The skills needed to be successful aren't that different, either. "Reporters know a litt le bit about everything. They know how to research, how to express themselves. There's still a bias against reporters, they're not licensed, no sheepskins, it's more craft than a profession, but in my experience reporting helps you in almost any environment."The State InsiderBefore joining Gov. Tommy Thompson's administration as communications director in February 1994, Kevin Keane covered politics for the Fond du Lac Reporterand the Waukesha Freeman. He then spent two years in Washington, D.C. covering the national scene for Thompson Newspapers, a company that then owned the Freeman. }{Keane, 32, earns $58,000 annually. His salary when he left journalism: $32,000."I loved journalism," Keane says, "but the things I don't like are poor pay, lousy benefits, companies that don't invest fully in their employees. You look at your long-term future and it's not very encouraging for reporters at times.It wasn't just money, however, that led Keane to switch jobs. "I've always loved politics and government," he says, "and the frustrating thing of being a reporter was while it was challenging and rewarding, you were always on the outside looking in. Thompson offered me a chance to be on the playing field, to make a difference, and it was something I wanted to try."I'm a pretty fundamental reporter. I took Journalism 101 seriously. I viewed my job to get both sides and present the case regardless of personal opinion and views. Given those parameters, there is only so much impact you can have. In government you can take these issues on directly."What Keane learned in switching sides was mostly nuts and bolts -- the kind of stuff that may be boring and mundane and may even be left out of the story. But it helps form the bedrock of a reporter's understanding of the issues."I wish I knew then what I know now," he laughs. "Reporters always think they know how things work but they really don't because they're not in meetings. Rarely do they get it a hundred percent dead on. The good ones are about 80 percent."Keane believes the experience of working in government could help journalists through all the stages of the news-gathering process: "At some level it would be beneficial to have someone with government perspective.. .seeing government work from the inside would be invaluable. (That) editor could add insight on how things work."Reporters have a tough job, and they do a good job. The governor has great respect for the media. Of course we don't agree 100 percent of the time. The media is a watchdog, and we respect that. When we have a problem, we call up and talk about it. We try to help them understand where we're coming from."All things considered, Keane seems happier with the job that reporters do than many of his colleagues who've become insiders. But then, Gov. Thompson seems to do awfully well with the press."We get more headlines that we like than we don't," Keane concedes. "Doing good work, the headlines will take care of themselves."


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