Among the throngs of reporters who descended on Weston High School in rural Sauk County on Sept. 29 to cover a shooting that claimed the life of its principal was the Wisconsin State Journal's Lisa Schuetz, one of the most aggressive journalists in town.
Schuetz, 44, was hired full-time by Madison's morning newspaper in January 2001 as a general assignment reporter split between the city and business desks. A State Journal story announcing her hire boasted that she graduated with "high honors" from the UW-Madison with a degree in family and consumer journalism from the School of Human Ecology. (Actually, the UW says, she graduated 19 months later, in August 2002.) Prior to that, Schuetz had written for, among others, The Badger Herald, the Monona Community Herald and Madison Magazine.
When she laid on the charm, Schuetz was engrossing and clever, even boisterous and fun. But she could also be abrasive and rude. She radiated what one acquaintance calls "naked aggression and ambition."
This mix of qualities helped advance Schuetz's career - but also led, ultimately, to what one newsroom source calls her "abrupt, dramatic, shocking" departure from the State Journal.
Early on, Schuetz impressed her editors enough to earn a full-time gig on the city desk, assigned to the police beat. She made the most of it, breaking stories that relied on her skill at using public records and getting sources to open up. But her headstrong manner led to frequent run-ins with colleagues, competitors and sources.
"Lisa is one of the gutsiest reporters I've ever worked with," says longtime Madison journalist Jennifer Miller of WIBA-AM radio. "But she had the tendency to rub people the wrong way."
Still, Schuetz asked tough questions and brazenly objected when she did not get straight answers. She won reporting awards for spot news coverage and for a feature story on eating disorders. And her reporting on a police officer using a Taser gun on a local high school student sparked a bona fide scandal that led to several investigations and a police policy change. After several years covering cops, she was reassigned this summer to county government and suburban news.
When news broke of a shooting in a tiny school district about 70 miles northwest of Madison, Schuetz was one of several State Journal reporters dispatched to the scene. Little did anyone know that this would be her last assignment.
It was, of course, a media feeding frenzy. Reporters poured into the building, clamoring for information, vacuuming up details from the scene. TV crews broadcast live from the building, interviewing students and staff. CNN carried live an emotional address by school superintendent Terry Milfred, who choked back tears as he expressed hope that principal John Klang would survive several gunshot wounds. (Klang was pronounced dead later that day.)
A lot of things were uncertain in those early hours. Talk began circulating that the shooter was a 15-year-old student named Eric Hainstock, but no official announcement had been made.
Several sources, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, relate what allegedly transpired. While inside the school - technically a crime scene - Schuetz discovered a piece of artwork that bore Eric Hainstock's name hanging on a wall.
The artwork would make a great visual, and Schuetz, it's said, wanted a State Journal photographer to snap a shot of it. But she didn't want to draw the attention of her competitors.
So Schuetz purportedly removed the artwork from the wall, stuffed it in her coat and went into a bathroom to take a closer look. When she emerged, a school official was waiting. Someone had seen Schuetz remove the artwork and reported her to school officials.
News of this breach, the story goes, was relayed by superintendent Milfred to his son, State Journal editorial page editor Scott Milfred, who told the paper's editors. (Terry Milfred did not respond to an interview request.)
Schuetz remained in Cazenovia throughout the day and attended a candlelight vigil that night. The next day, her byline appeared with other reporters' bylines on two stories.
But by the following Monday, Oct. 2, Schuetz was suspended. A week later, she returned to work, only to be summoned to a meeting with editors and fired. Schuetz stuffed some belongings into a bag while editors stood watch. She was then escorted from the building.
Some say Schuetz complained afterward that she wasn't given a chance to explain her actions. Another source says Schuetz refused to sign a statement admitting that she made a mistake.
Schuetz did not respond to interview requests, made through intermediaries. State Journal managing editor Tim Kelley also declines comment: "I always welcome questions about the newspaper, but this is strictly a personnel matter."
Reporters, like other professionals, are prone to making mistakes but capable of learning from them. In the days since these events, there has been debate among journalists as to whether Schuetz's punishment was excessive.
One view is that she stole evidence from a crime scene, a line no journalist should ever cross. A more favorable interpretation is that her action harmed no one and was driven by a desire to give her paper an edge. Some even speculate that in rough-and-tumble media markets like Chicago or New York, Schuetz's gumption might have earned her newsroom high-fives and supervisory slaps on the back.
None of Schuetz's former State Journal colleagues who spoke to Isthmus in the past two weeks would defend her actions.
Yet some are not entirely comfortable with her being canned. At a tense staff meeting on Oct. 13, State Journal reporters asked editors whether, as one reporter puts it, "If we make one mistake, will we be fired?" Apparently, the firing stirred newsroom anxieties, and heightened perennial concerns as to whether editors in newsrooms understand the pressures faced by reporters in the trenches.
"People are feeling pressure about their jobs and don't think they're getting support from management," says one reporter. City editor Teryl Franklin, who purportedly broke down crying during the tough questioning at this Oct. 13 meeting, didn't return a phone call.
But Schuetz's situation may be more complex. Some think her actions were seen as the final straw in a series of missteps, seized on by editors eager to sever ties.
"As smart as she is, she never learned to get along with others," says one staffer. Adds another, "She had a horrible relationship with our bosses, and it caught up to her."