Bob Heisse led the Kenosha News through the tumultuous aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake, who was shot multiple times in the back by police, sparking weeks of unrest and violence.
He’s now moving to La Crosse as the newly appointed executive editor of River Valley Media Group, which includes the La Crosse Tribune and Winona Daily News.
Heisse’s tenure as editor of The Kenosha News included a controversy over an incendiary headline that resulted in the only full-time black staffer at that newspaper resigning.
Daniel Thompson, who was the newspaper’s digital editor, quit because he thought a headline inaccurately portrayed a demonstration in support of Blake’s family, with potentially dangerous consequences. The headline read: “Kenosha speaker: ‘If you kill one of us, it’s time for us to kill one of yours.’”
Thompson felt the headline unfairly picked out one brief moment at the demonstration that stood in stark contrast to a deluge of calls for peaceful protest at the event, including from Jacob Blake’s father. He was also concerned about the damage the headline could cause, coming just days after Kyle Rittenhouse had been charged with homicide in the deaths of two protesters in Kenosha. Thompson decided to text Heisse to voice his anger.
“I don’t even know if I can associate with the company after that,” Thompson texted Heisse, according to screenshots of the conversation. “I need to calm down, but I wanted you to know immediately.”
Heisse responded: “Yes you should calm down. That is a public threat, and it is an exact quote at a rally that was to that point totally on message.” Thompson replied: “Then I quit.” Heisse responded by asking for Thompson’s letter of resignation. Later, Heisse did change the headline, which he had not written, but he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Nothing was wrong…I just felt after a while that I would just change the headline.”
Heisse is originally from Pennsylvania, and earlier this month gave an interview to a publication from his hometown of Lancaster in which he discussed the issues around the headline, which he acknowledged was a “little bit insensitive.”
“If a white man said what the Black man said, it would be huge news and nobody would be complaining about the headline,” Heisse added.
Thompson told The La Crosse Independent that Heisse’s comment about how the reaction would have been different if the story had involved a white man was disappointing but not surprising.
“I just saw the quote and thought that makes sense,” Thompson said. “That’s pretty much typical of a what a middle aged white man would say.”
The La Crosse Tribune article on Heisse’s appointment highlighted his leadership of the Kenosha News during the protests after Blake was shot by police.
“I’m extremely proud of the work we did in Kenosha, in most challenging times. It’s hard to leave, but I am honored to accept this wonderful opportunity in the River Valley,” Heisse stated in the article.
Thompson, meanwhile, said he personally bears no ill will toward Heisse. But he said his former boss’s record should be scrutinized by the public.
“I think you should always look at whatever leader is coming into your community,” Thompson said. “Just like we scrutinize new police chiefs or other officials, you should also scrutinize a new leader at your newspaper.”
He said that before the incident with the headline, he’d generally gotten on well with Heisse, who was editor of the newspaper during a period of cutbacks.
“A lot of people would think I’m angry and I resent Bob. I don’t,” Thompson said. “He was a pretty good boss overall.”
Thompson’s resignation quickly became a viral news story. He set up a GoFundMe page and soon raised $45,000, part of which he’s using to launch a new journalism project called Uptown Observer that will cover Kenosha.
Back in La Crosse, Heisse will replace Rusty Cunningham, who announced his retirement last week after 41 years with Lee Enterprises.
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