Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Journal Sentinel’s Circulation Problem

The statistics point to underlying problems. Meanwhile, some stories are undermining the brand.

By - Nov 19th, 2012 10:57 am

Earlier this month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported some good news, a significant growth in the number of its digital subscribers, who now make up nearly one-fifth of subscribers. The bad news was that it has so far had little impact on revenue, which is down from a year ago.

Journal Communications Headquarters

Journal Communications Headquarters

The online revolution continues to kill newspaper readership and revenue. Nationally newspaper revenues plummeted by 51 percent since 2006, dropping from $49.3 billion in 2006 to $23.9 billion in 2011. During that time print revenue dropped by $26 billion and online revenue rose by less that $600 million, replacing less than two percent of the lost revenue from print. Wow.

The decline in publishing revenue for Journal Communications was almost as bad: it dropped by 48 percent, from $328.5 million in 2006 to $170.9 million in 2011.

Since the merger of the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel in the mid-1990s, the paper’s circulation has been in a free fall: the Sunday paper has gone from 466,000 subscribers to slightly more than just over 299,000 in 2012, while the daily paper dropped even more drastically, from 328,000 to about 175,600.

But beginning in 2012, the paper ended free online usage and began a metered system that requires you to pay after you view a certain number of articles. (It’s free for print subscribers.) That began pushing a lot of folks to sign up and 19 percent of daily subscriptions now come from online and mobile subscribers. When you add in digital subscribers, the Sunday and daily circulation actually rose by 3.5 percent and daily by nearly 10 percent in 2012.

But how many of those digital subscribers have simply switched from print? JS Publisher Betsy Brenner says the company’s data shows that “few readers ‘drop’ print for digital. Older readers prefer the printed paper; younger readers pick up the digital edition.  And we have nearly 12,000 ‘digital only’ subscribers. Over 70% of those ‘digital onlys’ live outside of the area where we deliver a printed Journal Sentinel.”

That sounds good. But the data in the JS story covering this shows that daily print circulation declined by 7.9 percent, or 13,217 subscribers, while Sunday circulation dropped by 8.2 percent or 26,753 subscribers. My guess is that most of these folks just switched to digital subscriptions, meaning many traditional, older readers are making the switch, despite what Brenner says. Otherwise, there was a dreadful drop off in print subscribers in one year, which could be even worse.

Less print readers means you must charge less for your print ads, which still make far more than digital ads. And any growth in digital readership that involves transitioning your current, older readers to the online product doesn’t solve the problems of an imperiled business model.

The Journal Sentinel’s online and print market penetration is still impressive: Pew rates it as sixth best among newspapers nationally. But this is a comparison to other media entities having a huge problem drawing younger readers.

All the statistics suggest younger Americans are not following newspapers like their parents did.  National blogger Alan D. Mutter, who held editing positions with a couple top newspapers, takes a dim view of the prevailing trends:  “Unless newspaper companies find ways to connect to younger audiences,” he predicts, “there is a clear and present danger that they will be marginalized to the point of irrelevance.”

Ben Poston’s Last Hurrah

The key value of the newspaper — the main thing that can drive readership — is the community’s trust in its accuracy and fairness. The newspaper has been undermining its reputation with its run of increasingly ridiculous stories on how the Milwaukee Police Department handles crime data. The stories are an obvious attempt to embarrass Police Chief Ed Flynn, who has clearly gotten on the bad side of the paper’s editors, and all have been written by reporter Ben Poston, who is leaving soon for a job with the Los Angeles Times.

The latest story was co-written by John Diedrich, but the results weren’t any better. The newspaper made it Wednesday’s top story and jumped it from the front page to two full pages inside, with all kind of sidebars and graphics, all to tell us that just 2.4 percent of all burglaries over a period of six years were wrongly reported as thefts.

Off-hand, this sounds like a brief for page two or three of the Local section. Needless to say, the 2.4 percent figure wasn’t run in the headline, for fear no one would read the story.

Why does the story not matter? Let me count the ways:

-The report shows these kind of mistakes were also made under Flynn’s predecessor, chief Nannette Hegerty (and at about the same rate), undermining the idea the JS originally tried to perpetrate, that Flynn was cooking the books;

-Burglary and theft are both property crimes, so it would not affect the total number of property crimes reported by the department;

-Nor would it change the significant decline in property crimes reported under Flynn;

-Nor would it change the 6.5 percent increase in burglary on Flynn’s watch that was previously reported. That’s because the error rate on reporting burglaries was about the same every year, meaning the overall rate of change wouldn’t go up or down.

The newspaper tries to bury this last fact, reporting that “The yearly average of misclassified burglaries under Flynn is slightly higher than the last two years of the term of previous chief.” If so, the difference must be microscopic. The story says burglaries increased 2.4% over the last four years (on Flynn’s watch), but the 900 wrongly reported burglaries over all six years (when a total of 37,638 was originally reported) is also a 2.4 percent error rate. So the error rate was almost exactly the same under the two chiefs. To hide this from readers, the newspaper doesn’t provide a sidebar listing the number of misreported burglaries. Apparently there was no room for this in the huge, two-page spread.

To compound this foolishness, the newspaper suggests the misreported data could hamper crime-fighting efforts and managed to find one expert,  Eli Silverman, a professor emeritus (presumably meaning he’s retired) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who says, “If they don’t have a record of a pattern of burglaries, then more people are more likely to be burglarized.” But they do have a record, one that was accurate for 97.8% of burglaries. Exactly how much would that hamper crime fighting?

The story is an embarrassment. When you begin to do articles that hide the truth from readers, you are undermining the very reason people buy the newspaper.

Short Takes

-The cost of a digital subscription is 99 cents a week, or $51.48 per year, compared to anywhere from $130 to $180 a year for print (the paper seems to be very open to negotiating). Digital, of course, eliminates the high cost of paper and printing.

-My story on the need to end duplication in county government generated lots of interesting comments and debate. Readers are divided on whether — and how — to reduce the size of the county board. The comments deserve a more considered response by me at some point. The issue, I suspect, is not going to go away.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

15 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Journal Sentinel’s Circulation Problem”

  1. jimspice says:

    The Journal/Sentinel, like almost every print newspaper out there, simply doesn’t “get” digital advertising. They are sitting on 150+ years of daily content, X2, that could be producing revenue a nickle at a time from across the globe in perpetuity, but continue to court the local big-bucks banner ads for today’s front page. I’m not saying there’s no place for that in a comprehensive plan, but as a part, not the whole. They did, in fact, wisely participate in Google’s erstwhile archive digitization project (, so should have access to at least what was produced there. The should complete the project themselves.

  2. Stacy Moss says:

    On Flynn….. why aren’t people mad at the MJS? They are insulting to their readers.

  3. Deborah Darin says:

    The MJS is a biased, right-wing paper, pretending to be fair. It is sad, and harmful to the state of Wisconsin that we have one large, insular paper, still in the pocket of the likes of Walker and his cronies. Its editorialism infects nearly everything in the contents, despite having some good reporters. I was so happy to be able to quit the paper, so tired of being angry at how “news” was delivered, and what was left out. Members of my family use the online version for sports; otherwise we read the NYT in print, and other things online. I blame the MJS for a lot of mis-, dis-, and lack of information over the years, which has poisoned the politics of the state and held us back from growing a regional economy. Can’t even endorse Obama for president — so absurd, so cowardly, so bought and paid for, face it!

  4. Frank says:

    It’s time to reinvent the newspaper. MJS should start with their front page. (Both print and digital) And not to be biased… UM should freshen things up also. 🙂

  5. Jeff Jordan says:

    If MJS wanted to increase revenue they should charge people who want to comment on their online articles. The screaming, flaming, Sykes wannabe’s,who pollute the comments sections of their online articles, are obviously angry people who need to bash each other with insults and characterizations. My question is, would they put any of this stuff in the print version of the paper?
    Even though they say they have a policy, they don’t appear to care what people put into their comments. The reason they don’t monitor or try to edit any of the garbage that goes into these sections is that for every rude and insulting verbal pillow that’s flung there is that all important “click” that generates traffic and money. If they charged for comments they might find the magic revenue stream that the newspaper industry desperately needs.

  6. Dave Reid says:

    @Jeff I love it… Please leave a quarter.

  7. C A says:

    I don’t remember when it happened, perhaps when the Journal and Sentinel merged, but the JS now writes stories that appear to make people want to stay away from Milwaukee. Their stories are either slanted in such a way as to portray all local government as bad or to to show how suburbanites takes their lives into their hands by venturing downtown or anywhere in the City. I am apalled by the emphasis on the “bad”. It appears as if the JS has made a decision to expand their readership into the suburban and exburban areas by making them justify any preconceived “scary” ideas they might have about life in the city of Milwaukee. I decreased the number of days of my subscription and think I likely will completely eliminate it. If I thought they would write in a more unbiased way, I would reconsider, but I just see the JS becoming less truthful and more sensationalist. I am willing to pay for better journalism….not scare tactics biased against the city.

  8. Dan Armstrong says:

    I too would like to see the JS online comments moderated. It’s pointless spend any time composing anything to post there, since any thoughtful comments are buried in piles of invective which no thinking person would wade through.

    In another example of ridiculous and misplaced journalism at the JS: we’ve almost dropped our subscription many times going back to when we began subscribing in the early 2000’s when the JS repeatedly ran front-page articles about deep tunnel spills without a shred of context. I can only guess that the idea of the MMSD and the deep tunnel as bogeyman originated with talk radio conservative ranters who resented the money spent on environmental regulation. These allegations of MMSD as a top national polluter became a talking point for Jim Sensenbrenner in a town hall meeting, finally shown as false (but not, I’m sure, putting the matter to rest) by Politifact.

  9. Dave Reid says:

    @Dan I agree the way MMSD is covered just doesn’t tell the actual story.

  10. Keith Schmitz says:

    To add to Debrorah Darvin’s comments, the Journal should be held responsible for it’s starry eyed adoration of Paul Ryan. The guy is totally an empty suit. The Journal launched the false narrative that he is some kind of serious policy wonk, when all along his policies are not only bogus, but very dangerous to the progress of this country.

    Go back a little further to the Thompson administration. Prior to the advent of Tommy, the Journal was a fierce watchdog of local government. Remember how it brought down Richard Nowakowski over a pittance around postage stamps?

    With the advent of the Thompson, the watchdog yanked its teeth out. This gave him and his acolytes Scott Walker and Scott Jensen free rein to corrupt this once squeaky clean state.

    However, none of this explains the drop off in circulation. In reality, money can be made off the internet. The sales departments with traditional print publications don’t know how to do it.

  11. DHRichards says:

    Cutting back from a morning Sentinel and evening Journal, to me, was the beginning of the end.
    I like a morning paper, but Journal Sentinel is an evening paper in the morning. I would pick up the morning paper in a newspaper box, and have the evening paper at my door after work. Gone. And I agree that they have lost their range of editorial vision, as well as content. Spin without the facts is not news. The egos of both the reporters and the editors get in the way of reporting.

  12. Denny Caneff says:

    As someone living in a city with a ever-more mediocre daily paper (Madison/WI State Journal — now on par with the UW’s Daily Cardinal), and in a state where most all the other dailies are Gannett franchises, I have considered MJS to be the state’s best daily newspaper. (I know what some of you are thinking: “That ain’t saying much.”) I’m a mostly happy digital subscriber who can’t get frothed up as many folks do about the editorial page; it’s not that I agree with it, I just don’t think it’s the most important function of a “daily publication” (newspaper) any more.

    Accurate and fair reporting IS, however, and I’m dismayed to read Bruce’s analysis of the Flynn story — something I totally missed, not having read it (and not caring, living over here in my Madison bubble). Something else I totally miss, and quite intentionally: MJS’s reader comments. I echo the sentiments of others in this space. The mindlessness of those comments give me more cause for concern about the mental health of Wisconsin than do the editors and editorial writers of the MJS.

  13. PaulS says:

    The attempted Flynn attack harms the entire City–and leaves us with muddied waters. JS makes it more difficult to assess his progress as Chief. Clearly he’s made some sweeping positive changes in the culture of MPD–but the strip search charges, recent death-in-custody case, and his complete bumbling of necessary community relation building contact on the north side are deeply troubling.

    Another great story JS totally missed was the last 14th Aldermanic district race b/n Jan Pierce (a first-time candidate, underfunded) and Tony Zielinski (the life-term, not-quite-Democrat pol endorsed by Union-busting Piggly Wiggly owner Paul Butera–who also donates to Zielinski’s anti-sweat shop PAC; an entity that shares all its officers with Zielinski’s political campaign). The most important part of the story was voter turnout. There were more votes cast in this District than the other south side districts combined. Pierce earned more/as many votes as the other south side district’s winners. And Zielinski spent 6 figures to cling to a seat that pays far less than that. Where does the money come from?

    So there’s a theme here: JS is the paper of record of necrophilia, old school this/old school that. A paper clinging to a business model that croaked when the names “Steve Jobs” and “Bill Gates” were first inked, and one wedded to political zombies. I recommend ‘Dance of the Living Dead’ as its motto, not because it’s particularly clever, just reporting the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.

  14. Sue says:

    So much in agreement with the comments here. I don’t trust the paper at all, and the recent editorial on the Kelly Rindfleisch sentencing, which included the sentence “We have no idea if there is more here than meets the eye” simply reinforced my frustration. Really? No idea? Then why not find out? Isn’t that your job? Wisconsin bloggers have been putting the pieces together, as carefully as any journalist, for months before the J/S allowed Dan Bice to write a sentence. And they’ve been turning out to be right in their reporting and conclusions most of the time.
    I find it odd that a paper that courts conservative readers by advertising a community columnist as one who “makes liberals see red” and is about the only ‘person’ in Milwaukee that doesn’t know by past experience what Scott Walker is up to, is still dismissed as a liberal rag by the Charlie Sykes crowd. Oh, other than Charlie Sykes is part of the chorus trying to kill a part of his own company.

  15. Mike Bark says:

    It’s funny that people somehow think the MJS is a right-wing propaganda machine.

    Dan Bice must not have gotten that memo. He spent the entire US Senate Race ripping Tommy Thompson.

    The problem with the MJS is they lack compelling content. Who is the great columnist anyone want sot read? Jim Stingl? Eugene Kane? Laurel Walker? Michael Hunt? This is a paper that thought it was a good idea to have a “community columnist” as if people care what Peggy Shultz thinks about mass transit. They tried to be cool with features like “Single and Loving It” and “The Cool Pool” which focused on what vapid people were planning on doing over the weekend.

    Add a lack of compelling content to not understanding that the media has changed and it’s no wonder they are in a death spiral.

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