Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Inevitable Decline of the Journal Sentinel

The newspaper has unique strengths, but will that be enough to stop it from going out of print?

By - Sep 16th, 2014 11:25 am
The home of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The home of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Newspapers are rarely honest when reporting themselves. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described the deal between Journal Communication Inc. and E.W. Scripps as a merger, but it’s really a buyout, with Scripps stockholders getting the majority of the stock, as I’ve written.

And when the Tribune Company unloaded its newspapers, as NYU journalism professor Clay Shirky has written, the New York Times ran a story with the headline “The Tribune Company’s publishing unit is being spun off, as the future of print remains unclear.”

Unclear? Shirky, in a scathing blog post for Medium, ridicules the notion that there is anything the least bit unclear about the future of print: “Maybe 25 year olds will start demanding news from yesterday, delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide “Click to buy” is for wimps. Mobile phones: could be a fad. After all, anything could happen with print. Hard to tell, really.”

In fact, Shirky notes, “the future of the daily newspaper is one of the few certainties in the current landscape: Most of them are going away, in this decade.”

Then he runs a graph based on statistics from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), tracking the extraordinary rise and fall of ad revenue for newspapers, which grew from just under $20 billion in 1950 to $65 billion in 2000, only to plummet to about $22 billion in 2012, including both print ($19 billion) and online ads (a measly $3 billion).

Print ad revenues have fallen 65 percent in a decade, Shirky writes, and it’s only getting worse: “2013 saw the lowest ever recorded, and 2014 will be worse.”

To casual observers, the Sunday edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel looks like a gold mine: all those advertising inserts that tumble out from the paper. But they are actually a bad sign, because these are all advertisers no longer willing to buy display ads within the paper and only paying the much cheaper “insert” fee to be tucked into the paper. “From the advertiser’s point of view,” Shirky writes, “the nation’s newspapers have become little more than a blue-bag delivery service, with a horoscope and enough local sports inside to get people to open the bag.”

Still, those inserts are generating enough money so Sunday newspapers can subsidize the rest of the week’s papers. (In the case of the Journal Sentinel, the Wednesday paper and its Food section also attracts a lot of inserts.) But these will inevitably disappear, Shirky writes: “Stores like Kroger’s and Safeway already offer online coupons direct to customers. This digitization is progressing as print circulation decays… As digital alternatives become attractive while print circulation withers, business will start to shift their money away from inserts. When the inserts go, Sundays won’t prop up the rest of the week. When Sundays turn bad, the presses will become unprofitable.”

And once that happens, go back to those figures on ad revenue. Newspapers nationally will be left with that online revenue, now about $3.5 billion (in 2013), compared to $65 billion in 2000. Yes, some newspapers are making additional money through online pay walls and other schemes, but that comes nowhere near making up the difference.  As newspapers convert to online only, they may be able to afford a tiny fraction — perhaps less than 10 percent — of the staff they once had.

Under that scenario, the buyout of Journal Communications could actually help its newspaper, since it will be part of a chain, to be called Journal Media Group, which will be able to save some money by consolidating some functions for the 14 newspapers it will own.

The Journal Sentinel also has one other thing going for it: the paper’s extraordinary penetration of its market. It has for decades been near the top of all newspapers in the percent of all adults in its market that subscribe to the paper. In the most recent rankings by Scarborough Research, the JS ranked first among the top 50 markets for both daily and Sunday paper in the percent of its metro-area adults who subscribed.

Precisely why the newspaper has long done so well is not clear. Back when I was editor of Milwaukee Magazine, Erik Gunn did an interesting column that offered some possible reasons: more people raised in the city, more older readers, and perhaps a readership that likes to “eat its vegetables,” meaning they are more concerned about local news than in other cities.

Perhaps. But if you take a look at the “most popular” stories at jsonline for the month, week and day, the majority are typically sports stories. This is a a town that loves sports. Milwaukee ranks fifth among Major League Baseball towns in the percent of adults who “follow” (on radio or TV) their baseball team regularly. As for pro football, Green Bay ranked first in the NFL in the percent of adults (84 percent) who follow their team, and I suspect the percentage would be nearly as high in Milwaukee (which wasn’t studied in the Forbes story). The Packers may be the closet thing to a religion there is in Wisconsin, and its cerebral high priest is JS sportswriter Bob McGinn. The traffic jsonline gets for Packers coverage is phenomenal.

The newspaper’s remarkable market penetration makes its Sunday inserts more valuable, but probably only means the decline in this revenue will happen more slowly here. The paper’s Packers coverage also means it may do better than some newspapers in building online subscriptions. But in the grand scheme of things, that merely means the newspaper might be able to afford a slightly bigger staff than comparable papers. If the projection of Shirky and others is correct, the Journal Sentinel will be going out of print and shrinking to a vastly smaller publication within this decade.

Categories: Murphy's Law

10 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Inevitable Decline of the Journal Sentinel”

  1. art hackett says:

    Do you think the fact that the J-S spends enough effort on enterprise reporting, much of it involving critical issues to Wisconsin such as the condition of the Great Lakes and the failings of the health care system, to win multiple Pulitzer prizes several years running, might have something to do with people being willing to pay for it? I’m a Sunday subscriber and I had a heck of a time getting my paper delivered a few months back…my annual renewal came due during that period, but I value that paper enough that I wasn’t willing to walk away from it just to prove a point.

  2. Tyrell Track Master says:

    It depresses the hell out of me that these dinosaurs continue – in bloody 2014!!!! – to keep their heads in the sand. But I am still very optimistic about the future of media, journalism, and the business models that will eventually figure out how to thrive. Good lord! is already better than the JS on most days at least as it comes to urban issues!!!

    I’m sure you guys are not making a living off this yet but it’s only a matter of time before that gets figured out. These dinosaurs need to just nuke themselves and start over. A true clean slate might be the only way, but alas, there are too many vested interests and people afraid to take a gamble… sad, sad, sad….

  3. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Sixty years ago I peddled the Journal in LacRosse and thought it to be a good newspapers. It seems like it keeps going down hill, all the time, missing the biggest stories, incomplete research and horribly biased. it deserves to die.

  4. Observer says:

    I agree with you WCD. Christian Schneider, Rick Esenberg, Aaron Rodriguez, James Causey, Jonah Goldberg, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Ross Douthat, Rachel Campos-Duffy. The list goes on and on. Oh for a liberal like Joel McNally or even a middle of the roader like Eugene Kane to give us a little diversity. Soon this once great paper will again endorse the man that gave our state a rapidly growing deficit, now at $1.8 billion. With more tax cuts forecast, who knows what next years budget will be. At one time the paper would expose flim flam men like Walker. Todays paper turns a blind eye to cronyism and incompetence.

  5. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    In addition to the demographic and technological differences that make a physical newspaper less likely to be bought these days, the J-S had badly sullied itself with events of recent years. With all the attention that state politics has gotten, you’d think the J-S would use the opportunity to shine, but it’s at that moment when they decided to let their right-wing radio station drive the bus for content, caring more about ad revenues than attracting readers through quality content, and they killed a ton of their credibility in the process. After the events of the last 3 years, many of us aren’t going to spend a dime on that biased rag (and yes, I’m partly saying this out of hope that Scripps personnel sees it, and recognizes that it’s a real problem).

    When you’re having to be constantly corrected by bloggers because you’re too scared to stand up to the money power of Scott Walker and company, you’re being derelict in your duty. So those of us who smell the Journal-Sentinel’s BS head to places like this to get a straighter story. This article by Charlie Pierce quoting Fighting Bob telling off corporate newspaper heads 100 years ago rings as true today as it did in 1912.

  6. PMD says:

    I know the paper wants opinion columnists from different political persuasions, but I do not understand how Christian Schneider is on their payroll. It is an embarrassment. He could be Walker’s PR person. I don’t know that an opinion columnist has ever shilled so consistently and forcefully for a specific politician. He gets what 3 columns a week in the state’s largest daily paper to push the governor’s agenda. He isn’t a good writer and never has an original or provocative thought, and merely regurgitates state GOP/Walker talking points. There has to be far more interesting conservative writers out there far more deserving of three columns a week in the JS. Does he just know the right people? Someone please explain it to me.

  7. David Ciepluch says:

    I am sad to see it go. I have been a reader since 8-years old in 1958. I canceled my subscription nearly two years ago after their endorsements of a fascist and extremely biased and dishonest editorial and some of the news or lack of reporting. In written communication between an editorial writer, it became apparent that he just made his material up. I had always thought that written letters to the editor were selected for publication based on content opinions based on facts, not all pure fabrication and rant. I know writers have opinions but this made me realize that MJS was not worth the paper it was printed on.

    So I made a decision to move onto other sources.

  8. David Ciepluch says:

    At least a few years ago, The Shepherd Express had a higher circulation number than MJS. They were both around 186,000. I can no longer find this data posted. Kind of telling right there.

  9. PMD says:

    That’s probably due to only one of those publications providing special ads in the back. Said publication is also free. I wouldn’t read any more into it than that.

  10. Kyle says:

    I have to agree with PMD here. Being free, and allowing certain ads not found in the other paper are big advantages. I’ll also point out that circulation is through the roof toward the end of the month in the summer, about the time students are moving.

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