[UPDATED] Milwaukee Journal Sentinel warns about political conversations in the newsroom

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel deputy managing editor/local news Thomas Koetting sent this memo to colleagues:

In walking around the newsroom I’ve picked up on a few political conversations that made me uncomfortable. I spend part of every week responding to readers who are convinced we have a political agenda. I often tell them that not only is there no agenda, but we really don’t talk about personal politics at all. With that in mind, I understand that discussing the latest developments with campaigns and candidates is part of our job, and in many cases is part of the news judgment process. But bringing personal politics into the discussion is another matter. Let’s keep that to ourselves. — Tom Koetting

Koetting wasn’t in the newsroom when I called this morning, so I sent an email with a few questions.

UPDATE: Koetting responded late Friday afternoon to my email:

I was out of the office and am just catching up with your note.

Thomas Koetting

I did not warn against newsroom political conversations. I said just the opposite — that “discussing the latest developments with campaigns and candidates is part of our job, and in many cases is part of the news judgment process.”

What I did add was a reminder to keep personal politics out of it. I don’t know how the people around me vote, and I don’t want to.

I haven’t checked your website, so I don’t know why this would generate interest. It’s pretty basic.

Does your newsroom have a no political-discussions rule?

The full memo is after the jump.

Local News Update
September 26, 2012

We’re in the process of a number of Local News staffing changes, and although some have been fairly well known, most have actually only been formalized in the last few days.

· Larry Sandler will work his last day at the newspaper this Friday. In just shy of 30 years at the Sentinel and then Journal Sentinel, Larry earned a reputation for precision with words and attention to detail. He could explain a wide range of issues in an understandable manner, whether he was writing about state or local politics, high-speed rail or tax assessments. His stories were clear and readable. He was a sounding board for other reporters in the room, and cared deeply about making the newsroom a good place to work.
· Eugene Kane also will work his last day at the newspaper this Friday, but his 31-year association with the Journal and then Journal Sentinel will not come to an end. Eugene will write a weekly column for the Sunday Crossroads section, and will continue to maintain his blog. He has been a valuable voice in our community, particularly in his nearly two decades as a local columnist. He took principled stands on lightning-rod issues, and for many readers was a singular advocate for matters close to their hearts and minds. He handled more challenging exchanges with readers than the rest of us combined, and did it with grace and honesty. His community outreach, especially with young people, was exemplary.
· Laurel Walker worked her final day last Friday. In her 26 years with the Journal and then Journal Sentinel, Laurel became the voice of Waukesha County, both in her columns and her news coverage. She brought integrity and passion to the job. A gifted writer with an eye for detail, her work could be forceful, witty or touching as she brought to life the characters and characteristics of the community she loved. Every time I talked with her, she always – and I mean always – framed our discussion with how best to serve readers.

Beyond those departures, I want to update you on some internal moves:
· Early in Gary Krentz’s illness, I announced that for the time being, Becky Lang would move into the hub, and Tom Tolan would move back from the copy desk to take over the health/medicine/religion team. I now want to underline what I think has become clear: Becky and Tom are wonderful in these roles, and will continue in them indefinitely.
· Jan Uebelherr has officially become part of the Local News staff, writing obituaries and In the Moment section cover pieces. We’re delighted to finally have her aboard. She brings a lyrical style grounded in rich, thoughtful reporting; earlier this week, an interview subject contacted me to say how wonderful she was during their discussion.
· Mike Johnson has moved to the copy desk full time beginning this week. A longtime anchor of our suburban coverage before moving to the hub, Mike has shown tremendous range in covering an array of subjects and issues through the years. He recently adjusted his schedule to help out one day a week on the copy desk, and – no surprise – excelled. Now, with the need greater than ever, he’s taking his considerable talents to that part of the room full-time. We look forward to him helping make our stories better.
· Jim McLaughlin completes his Marquette University/McBeath Foundation education internship on Friday. Jim brought the special perspective of having been in the classroom with Teach for America. He contributed much-needed suburban school coverage, and covered a lot of bases to help free up Erin a bit. A fall MU education intern has been selected and will start soon. Details to come.

A few additional notes:
In walking around the newsroom I’ve picked up on a few political conversations that made me uncomfortable. I spend part of every week responding to readers who are convinced we have a political agenda. I often tell them that not only is there no agenda, but we really don’t talk about personal politics at all. With that in mind, I understand that discussing the latest developments with campaigns and candidates is part of our job, and in many cases is part of the news judgment process. But bringing personal politics into the discussion is another matter. Let’s keep that to ourselves.

A number of you took the recent newsroom vacuuming as an opportunity to clean out your desk area. Let’s continue that effort, and really make this a more comfortable work environment. Look around; if there are things you don’t need or haven’t cleaned in a while, please deal with them. If there are items that don’t seem to belong to anyone, but just linger for months and years, discard them. Your neighbors may not say much, but my guess is it will be appreciated.

Finally, when the editor of the Star Tribune visited our office recently, she asked what the secret was to our adaptability to change. “It’s the people,” I said. When editors from around the country approached me at the recent APME convention, they asked what the secret was to our doing such great work. “It’s the people,” I said. When a student from Middle Tennessee State interviewed me for a project, she asked what kept me in journalism and what I still loved most. “It’s the people,” I said.

These continue to be challenging times in our business, and in our newsroom. Rarely have so many changes, demands and opportunities intersected all at once. Let’s continue to deal with them together, and not forget to have some fun along the way. Remember, it’s the people.

Thanks.

–Tom

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