Sunday, April 26, 2009

Timeline | Anatomy of a disaster in Wausau, Wis.

This is a story about what happens when a newspaper fails its most basic function: to serve as a watchdog over government. In late December, the 20,000-circulation Wausau Daily Herald named a local government official its Person of the Year -- despite signs he's been bullying local residents.

When a reader criticized the official -- Dean Zuleger -- in anonymous comments on the paper's website, Zuleger sent the citizen a threatening letter to his home address, using the citizen's real name. There's evidence the
Daily Herald gave that personally identifiable information to Zuleger. What follows is a timeline of these events.

Dec. 28
The Daily Herald publishes a feature profile and accompanying editorial announcing that it's named Village of Weston Administrator Dean Zuleger (left) the paper's Person of the Year.

The village has about 12,000 residents. Zuleger is chosen over six other candidates, including an 89-year-old woman who donated $100,000 plus land for a new animal shelter, and the head of a food pantry who saved the non-profit by leading a successful $500,000 fundraising drive.

Both the profile and editorial include red flags that should have caught the attention of editors -- and Publisher Michael Beck.

The headine over the profile says, "Zuleger's intensity earns him 2008 honors." From the profile: "At times this intensity shows itself in anger, or the occasional verbal outburst. Zuleger doesn't hold grudges, and often his anger disappears as quickly as it flared up. But it does flare up. 'That's a weakness in my life. I've got a temper,' Zuleger said. 'Quite frankly, I'm sometimes embarrassed by that.'"

From the unsigned editorial: "His temper sometimes gets the better of him -- and we here at the newspaper know of that firsthand. Daily Herald reporters and editors have been on the receiving end of his outbursts more than once. He doesn't always take criticism well -- that noise you hear right now is his teeth grinding as he reads this sentence."

The profile and editorial do not mention the fact that Zuleger is one of the state's highest-paid city managers: His base pay is $118,000 a year. And he's about to get a bonus on top of that.

Many Wausau residents were angered by the paper's Zuleger honor. Negative comments posted online became such a problem that the paper apparently removed all of them, and shut down commenting entirely. We know this because of a letter the Daily Herald published within a week.

Jan. 6
"Online comments were horrid,'' says the headline over that letter: "I would like to ask that next year the Daily Herald not hold a 'Person of the Year' award because, frankly, I do not want to go through the hurt of knowing that I live in a community that can be so outright horrid to its recipient. . . . I have known the inaugural winner, Dean Zuleger, almost my whole life and consider him my friend. . . . What I don't understand is why many of you feel the need to be so blatantly cruel in comments left on the story online."

Jan. 16
Getting named Person of the Year likely didn't hurt Zuleger's standing with the village's elected board of trustees. "Village Administrator Dean Zuleger was awarded a $5,000 bonus for meeting 2008 performance goals outlined in his contract,'' the paper reported, in a story that noted the bonus was "unusual" in the area. The Daily Herald then quotes the village's finance director saying something absurd: "John Jacobs, finance director, said the bonus did not increase village expenses because officials found offsetting savings on a state contract and in the municipal building budget."

A Daily Herald reader isn't convinced: "The only reason that he got this bonus is because everyone is afraid of him,'' the reader, zachoaray5, says in a comment on the bonus story. "I wish somebody could just take a stand for once!"

Jan. 23
In a new editorial, the same editorial board that declared Zuleger Person of the Year now discovers something it didn't know. "It was a surprise to learn that the Village Board had rewarded Zuleger with a $5,000 bonus on top of his $118,000 annual salary,'' the editors say. "This is the same Village Board that grappled with a $32,000 budget deficit last fall. It's the same group of people who increased the property tax rate to balance the budget and cut 1% from all department budgets to build a contingency fund. Awarding the bonus was the wrong decision for two reasons: Weston taxpayers simply can't afford such financial rewards right now, and it is imprudent public policy. Elected officials shouldn't tell taxpayers the budget is so tight it requires more money from them just to keep operating, then turn around and find money for an extra pay raise for their top guy."

But having declared Zuleger its favorite, Beck and the rest of the editorial board now have no choice but to stick with their guy: "Let us be clear about one thing, however. This editorial is not a criticism of Dean Zuleger and certainly not of the work he has done these past eight years for Weston taxpayers,'' the editorial says. "Zuleger easily could point to tens of thousands of dollars he has saved taxpayers over the years, and hundreds of thousands in new revenue he helped to generate by encouraging growth. On top of that, Zuleger says he told the board he did not want the bonus. When the board insisted by approving it, he gave part of the money to charity. And we should point out that although he is paid handsomely, Zuleger deserves credit for freezing his own salary this year. Rather, this is a criticism of the idea of awarding bonuses and automatic pay raises to public employees with little regard for the current state of the local economy."

Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write gannettblog[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green rail, upper right.

Daily Herald]


  1. That's a "disaster?"

    Jim, dude, seriously -- you're really starting to make a fool of yourself. You already screwed up a bunch of other details today.

    You need to cut back for a while -- perhaps to zero.

  2. I'm usually a big supporter of yours, Jim, but I have to admit that 12:40 AM has a point.

    This is no "disaster." Hurricane Katrina was a disaster. 9/11 was a disaster. The Titanic was a disaster. People died.

    One guy getting a sternly worded letter from a public official is not a "disaster."

  3. Jim wears a big supporter, but there's plenty of room to spare.

    Word ver: irack -- how many of the morons here spell Iraq.

  4. Come on, 12:55 AM - grow up a little.

    If you can't talk like an adult, just go back to the kids' table.

  5. 12:40,

    Jim is damn right it's a disaster. Read again his first line after the headline: This is a story about what happens when a newspaper fails its most basic function: to serve as a watchdog over government.

    If you think it's OK that a newspaper handed over a Web reader's name to a government official who clearly tried to intimidate him into shutting up, then you shouldn't be in this field.

    Are the issues that important or the quality of the Web reader's comments that great? No, absolutely not.

    But the history of First Amendment law and newspaper's claims to protecting the weak against the powerful are built on ugly and unfortunate cases.

    I don't support Nazis, but I'll defend to my death their right to march in Skokie.

    I don't like Web posters calling Zuleger fat, but I'll support their right to take criticism of a public official where they will.

    This is a big issue, and Jim is right to give it the attention it deserves.

    There's a lot of railing on this site about our corporate interests, but those aren't even worth discussing if we begin to act as agents of law enforcement or government.

    If we begin selling out our readers, particularly online, to government, then we might as well all give this up and begin working for municipal newsletters.

    This was a shameful act by the Daily Herald, and someone should be held accountable for it before it destroys the credibility of the rest of Gannett newspaper and Web sites.

  6. Newspaper reporters/staff are no longer needed for watchdog journalism. The public can take care of themselves using modern technology.

    Jim thinks he is a watchdog for Gannett employees but he is more like a stray digging through garbage and finding nothing.

  7. The Internet leads the print press increasingly these days.
    If the Wausau paper editors and reporters have any marbles in their supporters, they will NOW do a story about the firestorm raised on the Internet over their "person of the year."
    However, they may not do it. Newspapers hate it when they BECOME THE NEWS, instead of just taking notes and reporting the news.

  8. Hey, you midnight trolls.
    Get a clue.
    This isn't a blog about Jim. Who he is and what he does is irrelevant to us.
    We find the topics he chooses interesting and informative.
    We like what he digs up.
    We aren't so thrilled with the petty criticism that has turned up lately. We're curious what's behind it and increasingly believe it is a campaign to discredit the blog to incite derision when Jim speaks up (if he's allowed to) at the meeting.
    What else would foment such unimaginative derision?

  9. This is a disaster?

    Oh, really now.

    You have got to be kidding.

    I can tell you about disasters.

  10. DId I mention no body cares? Let's get real news like how corba is lacking and pensions are lost.

  11. While I think that the word disaster is too strong a word, this is a piece about how the watchdogs of public officials became lapdogs of public officials...and how it was so easy to roll the supposed watchdogs.

    How can any so called journalist not understand this?

  12. Since when do local newspapers award "Person of the Year" honors? I've never been in a community where this is the norm (and I've lived and worked in some teeny-tiny places). Those usually come from the chamber of commerce or some other booster organization.

  13. To 5:50 and 9:43 a.m. you are right on. All the bells and whistles and javascript on the Web sites can't blind us to the fact of what a true newspaper is supposed to do, and not do. Shine the light, damnit, don't roll over for some small-town wannabe politician.
    Wausau has egg all over its face and it will be interesting to see how they wipe it off.
    It's a true embarrassment to those of us in the trenches trying to do the right thing every day in an increasingly difficult environment.

  14. "Jim thinks he is a watchdog for Gannett employees but he is more like a stray digging through garbage and finding nothing."

    That's exactly what is happening here.

    Has Jim been spayed or neutered?

  15. "It's a true embarrassment to those of us in the trenches trying to do the right thing every day in an increasingly difficult environment."

    Are you talking about this blog? It is pretty sad.

    Maybe Jim will have a better day today. Maybe he won't create numbers to suit his writing needs. Maybe he'll check into what information is available before he launches an attack and makes himself look foolish. Maybe he won't throw around loaded words like "disaster."

  16. Sounds like lots of corporate and management folks on here attempting to make Jim look foolish.

    Jim has done the right thing by sharing the Wausau story. If anything, it should serve as a wake up call to people who post on Gannett sites and a learning lesson for those who manage them.

    I've seen Gannett publishers so connected to the local politicos in their communities that people end up going to prison for crimes they didn't commit simply because a publisher didn't want to upset his local "politico" friends and let the newsroom do more investigating. In the end, the guy wrongly put in jail was released. And, it turned out that there had been a serial killer on the loose. Thanks bunches Michael Kane!

  17. "Sounds like lots of corporate and management folks on here attempting to make Jim look foolish."

    Do you read? He already took care of that, all by himself.

    He made up numbers. He ranted about information that's already available to the public.

    He succeeded in making himself look foolish.

  18. He succeeded in making himself look foolish.

    4/26/2009 1:26 PM

    He succeeded in croud sourcing.

    You on the other hand Mr./Ms. 1:26 and countless other posts... Have succeeded in showing that you have nothing better to do with your time than rant on Jim about issues you clearly misunderstood the goals of.

    You are clearly the fool, with a permanent kool-aid IV drip. Expect to cover your own costs when it's ripped out your arm just before security escorts you from the building.

  19. YES! This is a disaster on a journalist level.

    What I want to know is: Is what this newspaper did in releasing the name a violation of the much-balleyhooed Gannett "ethics policy" that all newsroom staffers are supposed to sign and abide by as if it were federal law?

    And if so, why isn't Gannett coming down like a ton of bricks on this newspaper?

    Oh wait, Gannett only selectively enforces its "ethics policy" when it suits corporate. I forgot.

  20. 2:04:

    You should buy a dictionary. It might come in handy.

  21. Dude, guess you heard about the girl who backed into a propeller?


  22. I'm a Village of Weston resident. It amazes me how the Wausau Daily Herald treats the Village of Kronenwetter, but gives Weston praise, when both municipalities suffer from some of the same maladies. Some local businesses are treated horribly by Weston. The businesses have no recourse but to take it, because if they were to complain they would effectively be blackballed.

    Also, for a government entity to go to a newspaper to research someone who is critical of them and for the paper to supply information to the government, for the purpose of threatening the offending person, is facist.

    Granted, Zulegar has done some good things for the Village, but he's known as a bully, is arrogant, will lie when it suits him and therefore makes his share of enemies.

  23. I hope this hasn't fallen off the radar. It prompted a memo from Gannett legal. It was a shameful sell-out of a reader.

    Has anyone paid a price for this? Even Gannett acknowledges, indirectly, through its memo that it was wrong?

    What's happening? And is everyone in Wausau so cowed they won't give up information?

  24. Unfortunately in Central WI, this kind of thing is more of a regular thing rather than a once in a while thing.

    Gannett compromised the privacy of one of their CUSTOMERS, their READERS. They literally took the US Constitution that gave them the rights they currently have and stomped on them. Unfortunately just like they are used to doing this to their customers their customers are used to be treated like this as well so I would guess that nothing will happen to Gannett, nothing will happen to the employee at the paper that disclosed the information and certainly nothing will happen to the city leader that sent a threatening letter to a poster that was only exercising their rights as AMERICAN citizens.


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

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