How Gannett Will Shrink the Journal Sentinel
New owners will drastically diminish the size and scope of state’s largest newspaper.
A year ago, when the buyout of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by E.W. Scripps was announced, I wrote that the deal was all about the Journal’s TV and radio stations, which Scripps soon made part of its own company. The Journal Sentinel and the 13 money-losing newspapers owned by Scripps became a part of the Journal Media Group, which some observers suggested was simply being packaged to sell to the highest bidder.
Sure enough, the sale of the newspaper group came quickly, to the Gannett company, and the proposed deal announced last week will undoubtedly be approved by the old Scripps stockholders who still own the majority of the Journal Media Group stock. This kind of sale was undoubtedly always the plan, whatever the representatives of Scripps said to the contrary last year.
Which brings us to the comments now being made by Gannett, once again assuring nervous JS staff that everything will come up roses for them, just as the Scripps folks did. In a JS story about the sale, Gannett CEO Bob Dickey declared that his company intended to let the “local editors make local decisions on coverage, on how they use their resources,” including making decisions on the level of journalist staffing, adding that he didn’t see this “changing in the foreseeable future.”
Lovely sentiments, but all completely contrary to how Gannett operates. Gannett is famous for cutting the budget and staff of newspapers it buys, for replacing veteran journalists with younger, lower-paid employees, for doing cookie-cutter newspapers subject to tightly centralized corporate rules.
Back in 2008, when the meltdown of print media was still in its early stages, writer Jim Hopkins did a story on the extraordinarily high profit margins of Gannett’s newspapers (based on 2007 numbers), with the Green Bay Press-Gazette leading the pack with a 43.5 percent profit margin. Many of the 80 Gannett papers Hopkins had numbers for were making a profit margin of 20, 32, 30 or 35 percent.
Those fat profits were achieved by constant cost-cutting and maintaining lean staffs, but in the years since then, as the full brunt of print’s economic demise was felt, the company still slashed its staff almost in half. “From 2008 to 2012 Gannett reduced total employment by 20,000 positions out of 45,000 positions,” Hopkins notes. “The vast majority were aged 45 and up because they were the highest paid.”
Hopkins worked for Gannett for 20 years and then did an excellent blog covering Gannett for six years, which he discontinued doing in February, 2014. Gannett, he notes, uses large scale and centralized operations to cut costs. It owns more than 90 daily newspapers — and will add 14 more with this purchase — and more than 1,000 weekly papers. It buys newsprint and office supplies in bulk for all papers, has a few regional customer service centers to replace all the newspaper circulation departments, has giant page production hubs which include centralized copy editing, has cookie-cutter websites for each newspaper (for ease of selling ads nationally) and installs a similar editorial approach at every newspaper.
Typically a newspaper’s publisher and editor are replaced to facilitate all the change. “They like to have their own people in place, who are more familiar with corporate culture. Plus it’s a chance for people within the company to advance,” Hopkins notes.
“In recent years the company has gotten more top-down,” he adds. Yikes.
Not many editors — in the traditional sense — are used. Writers for a particular beat may make story decisions (within Gannett guidelines) and a “writing coach” or “content coach” may edit stories by various reporters. In an attempt to appeal to younger readers, newspapers may have a “beverage reporter” (covering beer and the bar scene) and fashion reporter, while the state capitol desk might get just one reporter.
To get a sense of how much the Journal Sentinel’s staff might be cut, I compared its current editorial staff (editors, writers, photo, design and online people) of 117 people with Gannett papers in two mid-sized cities. The Louisville Courier Journal, in a metro area of 1.3 million, has just 63 total staff covering these same functions. The Indianapolis Star, in a metro area of 1.76 million people, has 89 staff covering these functions. Given Milwaukee’s metro population of 1.55 million, you’d expect the staffing to fall somewhere between the other two cities, meaning the Journal Sentinel loses in the neighborhood of 35-40 staff.
But considering that Gannett also owns 11 other newspapers in Wisconsin (more than it owns in any state but Ohio), there may be other reductions in overlap it achieves between the Milwaukee paper and the 11 smaller publications.
Odds are the people let go will be the most veteran, highest-paid staff, the ones most knowledgable about the community they are covering.
Which departments will be cut the most at the Journal Sentinel? Given Gannett’s centralized copy editors, all 12 of those positions at the newspaper may go.
Enterprise reporting? The Journal Sentinel has 13 staff on its watchdog team. “That’s going to be a luxury,” Hopkins says. “In 33 years, USA Today has never won a Pulitzer.” The Indy Star lists just one investigative reporter (and a list of “watchdog” reporters who are clearly just beat reporters). The Louisville paper lists two, but one sounds like a beat reporter.
Hopkins, who lives in Louisville, says “there’s never been a better time to be a crooked politician or businessman, because so few reporters are keeping an eye on them.”
Business reporting? The Journal Sentinel lists 13 people in this department, including four editors. “Very little of that will be left,” Hopkins says. The Indy Star lists two reporters covering business.
Entertainment and features? The Journal Sentinel lists 12 people. The Indy Star has four people who appear to fit into this category.
Sports? This will probably be touched the least. The JS has 19 people compared to 14 at the Indy Star. Though Michael Horne suggests the overlap in Packers coverage between the JS and the Green Bay daily could cause some reductions. (Please Gannett, keep Bob McGinn.)
If this sounds like more than 35 or 40 JS positions might be cut, that’s certainly possible, because Gannett papers have all these quaint-sounding jobs that will need to be filled like the “Quality of Life Content Strategist,” “Audience Analyst,” “Senior Content Coach,” the “Working for equality, celebrating diversity” reporter (the Louisville paper has two such reporters!) or the all-important “Give Back and Pay it Forward” reporter. And no, I am not making these titles up.
As for the Journal Sentinel’s downtown offices, way too large for its current staff, “one of the first things Gannett will do is sell – or try to sell – the paper’s headquarters and move into cheaper offices,” predicts longtime national media writer Jim Romenesko.
The one thing likely to survive is the relatively new JS printing press in West Milwaukee, which will likely become one of Gannett’s regional presses, printing the other Gannett papers in Wisconsin.
Famed publisher Harry Grant, who created the Milwaukee Journal’s unique employee-owned structure in the 1930s to protect its stature and seriousness forever, must be rolling over in his grave. The slimmed-down, corporate cookie cutter paper the Journal Sentinel is about to become would have been his worst nightmare.
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