Tim Cuprisin, long-time media columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has seen a lot change during his two decades at the daily paper. He's watched reporters come and go, seen the Web become a driving force in his industry and witnessed the phenomenon called "American Idol."
But from his front-row seat to all the action, Cuprisin, 49, has also gained much insight into what makes Milwaukee media tick. In this latest Milwaukee Talks, we caught up with Cuprisin to get his take on the local TV, radio, print and Web scene.
OMC: Give us the brief Tim Cuprisin story.
Cuprisin: I've been at the Journal / Journal Sentinel since 1986, so about 21 years. And I came as a general assignment reporter from the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
OMC: Are you a Milwaukee native?
TC: I'm not, I'm from Chicago. I started my reporting career in Chicago at a wire service called City News Bureau, which covered mostly police news, but really the city. It was a wire service that was a non-profit organization set up sort of like AP was. I started as a police reporter. My first day we were at the John Gacy murder site, back in 1979, and so in a way, I was covering really hardcore police news. I was there for a couple of years, was an editor there, and then moved up to Green Bay. While I was in Green Bay, I spent about six months at USA Today on a Gannett loan program in Washington. I came back and worked briefly in Green Bay, then came here and got a job as a general assignment reporter.
OMC: And you've been here ever since. So do you consider yourself more of a Milwaukeean or a Chicagoan?
TC: I'm more of a Packer fan than a Bear fan, having lived in Wisconsin since 1980. I love Milwaukee, but Chicago is still home. I still have family there, and I get there as regularly as I can. I have to say, though, Milwaukee is a more livable version of Chicago. It has all the things that a big city has, because it is a big city -- without the congestion of Chicago.
OMC: Some might say you have the first or second best job at the newspaper. Would you agree with that? Behind Bob McGinn, maybe?
TC: He has to work harder, because he has to actually travel places. I can just, theoretically, sit on my couch and listen to the radio and watch TV. The upside is that they pay me to watch TV. The downside is that I have to watch TV or listen to the radio -- to a lot of things that are garbage that other people might not listen to. And while that's entertaining in some ways on its own, it's a job. But I love it, and I can't believe that they pay me to do it.
OMC: When did you become the media critic?
TC: Before the merger (of the Journal and Sentinel). I started in October of '94, and the merger was the following year. But I had a discussion with (now editor) Marty Kaiser, and I remember that it was a night where some big news had happened on the Brewers stadium issue. I was there late on a Friday, and Marty and I started a conversation that turned to television. We had a long talk about the influence of television and how important it is, how it molds everything we do. He, at that time, thought we needed more of that in the paper. Six months later, the column was set up. I was added to do what I do now, basically, and Joanne Weintraub was added to also write long news and bigger-picture things. Mine is more the daily stuff, and hers was seen as the big picture stuff.
OMC: Is it harder than it seems to stay on the cutting edge of pop culture?
TC: Honestly, at this point, I've been doing this since 1994, and so for a lot of local stuff I have a good network of sources. It's like any beat, where you call people and keep in contact regularly. But they also call me, and really, readers are important. When readers notice someone is gone -- sometimes I don't hear when people are fired -- I can then check on that.
OMC: Is a challenge to avoid burning a source when you write something perceived as negative? If someone gets fired, do you watch carefully how you report that?
TC: One of the difficult situations that I have is that I write breaking news in media, but I'm also a columnist, so I'm also able to give my own personal spin. A lot of people don't understand when you see a picture next to a story; that means it reflects my point of view, as well. I would argue that the facts are correct, but sometimes I use those facts to make a point. That becomes very difficult when dealing with sources. For example, when I write about Channel 4, because it's part of the same company (Journal Communications, which owns the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), I'm critical of some of their changes in their newscast. And then I also have to report on news events there. The upside is that all these people are media people and most of them are media-savvy people, who understand that this is not personal and this is what we do.
To answer your specific question about people who get fired, often, the column is the only place where they have their final say. If it's a radio person, the general principle is that if someone is fired, they are off the microphone (immediately) for fear that they'll jeopardize (the station). They don't get to say goodbye to the listeners, and I think it's only fair to offer some of them a chance to say goodbye, to say what happened, to offer their side of the story. It's also important to remember that in the media, especially in radio, people get fired all the time. It's not the same as in the newspaper, where people don't get fired that way. Firing is less of a stigma in broadcasting.
OMC: Your regular readers hopefully think you give everyone a fair shake, but have you heard any conspiracy theories, in both directions, about how your report on properties owned by Journal Communications, like WKTI, WTMJ, etc.? Are you censored or do you have free reign to say whatever you want? Has there ever been a time when someone has said, "That's our sister company, you can't write that?"
TC: First of all, I've never been censored in writing anything about the Journal Communications entities. Obviously, I'm read by a number of editors, and you know that if it's the company, they're going to look at it more closely. There have also been issues where I've had to write in some regard with the newspaper, and that's scrutinized. But no, no one has ever told me I couldn't write something about anybody. And I will say the conspiracy theorists, to this day, go both ways. If I write something positive about any of the Journal Broadcast entities, I'll get e-mails saying, "Oh, you're just a corporate stooge." If I write anything critical, I hear from inside Capitol Drive, "Oh, he just does this to prove that he's not a stooge."
OMC: Does the criticism just roll off now?
TC: Yeah, it has to. I've been doing this for a long time. Sometimes it makes me laugh.
OMC: You said that if there's a photo next to your story, it means that opinion is allowed. But it doesn't say that.
TC: There are a lot of things about newspapers that we never explain to readers.
OMC: But now you've got your blog, and you and I sat on the "blog summit" together, and none of us can honestly say we're experts about this new medium yet … But how do you differentiate between the blog, the hard news, the column, what's online, what's in print? How's this evolving media landscape changing your job?
TC: I think that for a column like mine, which is essentially a lot of bits of information, the blog format is perfect for it because a lot of times what I write evolves during the day. If there's a breaking news story, I'm doing updates on my blog about how the story is being covered. I can follow that story and how it unfolds. I can see the day when the column is an Internet entity like that, and it's always changing and always evolving as the news is evolving. That's a very different mindset from setting something down on concrete or on paper, which is the literary version of concrete, where you think the story is done. One of the parts about a column like I do is that it's never done. There are issues that are always evolving. In a way, it's sort of a pre-cursor to the Internet format.
OMC: So what I see on JSOnline is your column and is what will run in the newspaper, or has already run in the newspaper. But your blog on JSOnline is exclusive to the Web?
TC: Often, it's the notes to the next day's column. For example, in mid-May, the networks released their schedule. We just don't have space in the newspaper to run the whole schedule. I get them very early, and there are people who follow this stuff who want to know if their shows are canceled. I'm able to post the schedules and the networks' descriptions of their new shows right away, so that raw information is there. I would take all that information and boil that down to the lead item in my column. That's where the journalism comes in, making judgment calls about what you think is the most important. On a day like that, a blog is the rough notes of what the column will turn into.
OMC: Have your own media-watching habits changed over the years? Are you subscribing to podcasts and using the TMZ.com's, and sources that never used to exist?
TC: We talk constantly in the office about how we could have done our jobs 10 years ago when we didn't have these national resources. As you know, I do national and local stuff, and so the ability to keep up on the national stuff is key. We used to depend way more on the wires and network statements. Now we read and hear insider blogs on television shows. We can actually go to the source in a way that we couldn't before. I'm a religious (podcast subscriber) -- I mostly (listen to) professionally done podcasts. I (download) a lot of radio stuff, some BBC stuff, a little bit of entertainment stuff, as well. I try to walk an hour a day, so I always have an hour's worth of podcast material that I can listen to. I'd rather listen to that than listen to music. I'm learning something, and it's also entertaining to me.
OMC: What's the future of media? Do you believe the quote from the guy from The New York Times who said that in five years there won't be a print edition, and it'll all be online?
TC: This is sort of a focus of my column that people don't like to hear. They'll ask me, "Do you like the morning show on a such-and-such a station?" And my answer will be, "Well, I think it's successful for reaching the audience that it aims at."
Whether I like or not is insignificant. But whether this show reaches women 18-34 is the issue. Broadcasting is a business, but because people connect on an emotional level, they think something different. When a morning show is canceled, they think it's a personal attack on them, which (it may have been), but they do it for business reason. Whatever is going to happen has to have a successful business model.
Newspapers are obviously migrating to the Internet. We provide basically the newspaper for free plus more stuff. And the only dilemma is to get advertisers to migrate to that. So, five years from now, I don't even want to make a prediction, but I will say that things are changing so dramatically. We've been really lucky, people who work for the Journal Sentinel -- every day we read about newsroom cuts. Major cuts, like the San Francisco Chronicle cutting 25 percent of its newsroom. Minneapolis has had just terrible gyrations, and we have been a pretty successful outfit. We do a good job, business-wise -- you know, our circulation is dropping, everyone's circulation is dropping. TV news viewership is dropping. Radio listenership is dropping, but that's because those people are migrating to all the other opportunities like OnMilwaukee or satellite radio or podcasting or setting up your own radio station on your iPod. I don't want to make a prediction, but my guess is that we'll be virtually an Internet publication at some point in the future, with maybe a Sunday paper that will be the hard paper that would be a some sort of a weekly, that people would keep around. But I don't know that everything is a straight line. I think there will be peaks and valleys in that evolution.
OMC: We struggle with giving people what they want and what they should want. I'd imagine you don't want to write about "American Idol" as much as you do, right?
TC: "American Idol" is more than popular. It's at different level from any other television show. It averages 30 million people, the next closest show averages 20 million per week. That makes it such a separate thing, and it's a cultural force. It's not just that it's popular, it's powerful. I do pray for the day that it drops out of the top 10, so I don't have to watch it every week. I write about public broadcasting, but I don't focus on public broadcasting. There are people who say, "It's the most serious thing out there, you should be pushing it." Well, it's not really my job to push it, I think it's my job that when things happen in public broadcasting I cover them.
OMC: Do you find it strange that everyone mispronounces your name?
TC: No, it's not strange, because even I don't pronounce it the correct way. My family is from what is now Slovakia. I went to high school in Chicago, and in eight periods, eight different pronunciations. I had a brother who was working in Chicago at the time, and I used the one he used.
OMC: You sound passionate about what you do. Where does your job go from here? Is there room to grow or would you consider moving to another city?
TC: I really have no desire to go to another city. You know, I'm 49, and don't see any point in that unless the Chicago Tribune called me and said, "Do you want to do this there?" But that's not going to happen. The market has changed, but it doesn't matter, I love Milwaukee and I love the people that I work with. So I can't see leaving.
I have no plans to do anything other than what I am doing now. The great thing about this job is that it doesn't get old, because the issue is always changing. You're part of this revolution that we're all watching, and television and radio are a part of that, and I have a front row seat for that change, as we all change how we do what we do, how the definition of news has changed. I write a lot about TV news and how and what it's become, especially the all news channels. At this point, I don't see getting bored. I see no need for a change.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.