Journal Sentinel Ends Blackout of Milwaukee Credit Downgrade Story

By: Brian Sikma

The state’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, prides itself as the newspaper of record in Wisconsin and yet on Monday it came under fire for failing to report that the City of Milwaukee’s credit rating had been downgraded the previous week. Moody’s Investors Service, which regularly rates the fiscal health and creditworthiness of public and private entities, downgraded general obligation debt for Milwaukee from Aa2 to Aa1 ahead of a new round of bond offerings totaling $445 million, according to Reuters.

The Chicago Tribune ran the Reuters’ story on April 12, and it wasn’t until mid-day on Monday, April 16 that the Journal Sentinel posted a five sentence item on their website about the matter. It was only after conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes talked about the downgrade, and media observers on Facebook and Twitter directly asked the Journal Sentinel about the story, that the newspaper published its short piece online.

Previously, the Journal Sentinel has felt it necessary to cover credit downgrade news even though the paper is not exclusively a business-focused publication. Local credit downgrades have been deemed worthy of coverage, and last summer’s debate about the national credit downgrade earned an editorial from the paper. In that editorial the Journal Sentinel’s opinion writers called out Republican members of Congress for refusing to accept President Barack Obama’s budget compromise – a plan that did not guarantee the kind of fiscal austerity necessary to restore the nation’s fiscal standing.

George Stanley, the managing editor of the Journal Sentinel, explained in a Facebook post that the paper failed to run the Milwaukee credit downgrade story because they don’t subscribe to the Reuters’ newswire. “The Journal Sentinel buys the Bloomberg Business wire, in addition to AP, but Bloomberg also did not move a brief or story,” Stanley said. He then went on to lambast Charlie Sykes, whose host station is owned by the same parent company that owns the Journal Sentinel. Sykes used his radio show to draw attention to the media blackout of the credit downgrade story.

Large newspapers tend not to rely too heavily on wire reports when compiling stories that are about the market they cover. Even so, the credit downgrade of the City of Milwaukee, regardless of the Journal Sentinel’s opinion of its impact, is a story with a local flair and local angle that is not completely foreign to the paper’s typical approach to Milwaukee issues.

In issuing the rating, Reuters’ reported that Moody’s cited declining property values as a major factor in their decision. In 2010 the Journal Sentinel ran a piece on the decline of property values in and around Milwaukee. A little less than a year ago the paper reported that declining property values in TIF districts was making it difficult for those districts to pay off the debt incurred for initial development that should have led to increased – not decreased – property values. It would seem then that anything involving a local angle and property values would be of interest to the news team at the Journal Sentinel.

Stanley’s position that the downgrade is not news worth noting was further undermined when the paper published its brief story online about the Moody’s decision. A Milwaukee Business Journal story published online merely minutes after the Journal Sentinel’s online story was published (according to the website timestamps) was about twice as long as the Journal Sentinel’s story and contained quotes from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Back in May of 2010 the Journal Sentinel ran a story on Moody’s downgrade of the Waukesha School District’s credit rating. Daniel Warren, school district president, at the time mirrored the defense used by Stanley and Barrett now about the Milwaukee downgrade, saying because the school district did not plan on obtaining any long-term financing the raiting change was nearly insignificant. That story was 24 sentences long compared to the 5 sentence long story about the Milwaukee rating downgrade.

The Journal Sentinel through its repeated earning of Pulitzer Prizes has proven itself capable of the day-to-day newsgathering task of a major newspaper of record. On this story the paper got scooped, or it just did not care about the story, and it remains to be seen what, if any, changes will come as a result of the incident.

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