Thursday, December 8th, 2016

Follow-up Pulitzer

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Jessica McBride had an excellent column yesterday in the Saturday Waukesha Freeman (just 3 small quarters at every corner newspaper box). Jessica looked at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Pulitzer Prize win, and wondered if they would be willing to share.

The newspaper’s Dave Umhoefer, who won journalism’s highest prize, is a good person and a good reporter, who exemplifies the best in journalism.

He was one of the first Wisconsin reporters truly skilled at computer-assisted reporting, which is the use of databases in investigative journalism. So, it’s not surprising that Umhoefer won the big award for a project that involved building a database from raw documents.

His story – exposing a faulty Milwaukee County pension buyback scheme – was great enterprise work. In an era of episodic reporting, Milwaukee journalism needs more like it.

But there’s something unfortunate about the newspaper’s failure to utter the words “Bruce Murphy” as it slaps itself on the back. The newspaper got a Pulitzer for a story that stemmed from a far bigger story it ignored and traditional journalism will never honor.

Murphy, now editor of Milwaukee magazine and a former Journal Sentinel reporter himself, broke the original, far more impactful Milwaukee pension scandal on Milwaukeeworld.com, one of the first journalistic blogs here. Ironically, a local public relations executive, Craig Peterson, created the blog to tell stories the traditional media didn’t.

Murphy revealed that Tom Ament and other administrators stood to reap multimillion-dollar pensions. The big scoop sat on the Web for weeks before the newspaper reported it. Murphy’s story – the first in Wisconsin in which a blog set the news agenda – was enormously influential.

It prompted Ament’s resignation, recalls, a tax revolt, the dramatic realignment of Milwaukee County politics through the election of a Republican county executive, and criminal charges.

The buybacks were not directly related to the pension backdrop lump sums. But Murphy ignited the reportorial focus on pensions and government, particularly in Milwaukee County.

Murphy is why the editors sent Umhoefer over to the county beat. I remember how the editors used to frantically run over to their computers to check Murphy’s site every morning, panicking that he was going to break yet another story they didn’t have. Which, inevitably, he did. Now they pretend the buyback story was something that just popped into their heads.

Normally I would have let this go. After all, Bruce Murphy’s a big boy and doesn’t need a defense in this community. But I couldn’t, and probably for the same reason Jessica cited.

What pushed me to write this column, though, was a quote from Journal Sentinel Editor Martin Kaiser. Murphy’s successor at Milwaukeeworld.com, Michael Horne, was the one who singled it out. Kaiser, in the newspaper’s story about the Pulitzer, stated, “No one else is going to do investigations like this except newspaper staffs. That is what makes you relevant. You’ve got to provide news that people can’t get anywhere else.”

The problem is, someone did.

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