Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

We Hate You Steve Smith

No, reporters at the Journal Sentinel are not happy about all the layoffs. And they clearly blame the company’s CEO.

By - Dec 11th, 2014 11:48 am
Pants On Fire.

Pants On Fire in the newsroom bathrooms

These are not happy times at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The newspaper just went through another round of staff buyouts.  And more layoffs are expected once the paper’s new owner, E.W. Scripps, takes over. Morale at the paper has probably never been lower. No one’s position seems safe and some are predicting the final meltdown of the paper — to an online-only publication — could come soon. The departure of the paper’s long-time editor, Marty Kaiser, only underlines the perilous condition of the newspaper.

Under the circumstances, its nice to have someone to blame and Steven J. Smith, chairman and CEO of Journal Communications, is made to order for the part. A little home-made poster, which I’m told has been posted in the newsroom bathrooms, offers a parody of the paper’s politifact column, giving Smith a “pants on fire” rating, for his announcement that “everyone wins,” when it was announced that E.W. Scripps would be “merging” with Journal Communications.

In fact, this was a purchase of the company, with Scripps getting the majority of stock in the deal.  And while Smith was already a millionaire before he actively pursued a deal with Scripps which will give him a huge payout, JS reporters keep getting hit financially. The ever-shrinking newsroom has seen an additional 12 percent cut in staffing, the poster declares.

Smith was the first company CEO who didn’t come from the newspaper side of the company, and he led the company’s transition from a privately held to publicly traded company. This led to a horrible drop in the value of the stock, thereby hurting countless staffers, who had long relied on the stock to fund their retirement. Many argued the transition to a public company was inevitable, while detractors argued Smith hoped to generate money he could use to buy more TV and radio stations.

As for his pursuit of Scripps, while the sale of Journal Communications may have been inevitable, some would argue that a better company might have been found. Scripps has made it clear its main interest is in broadcast journalism. Of course, the interest in newspapers at this point is not very high.

Regardless, Smith is the captain leading the Titanic into the iceberg, but he isn’t going down with the ship. He’ll be rowing away in a lifeboat laden with gold, one more victor in a country beset with the biggest wealth gap in its history. It could have made a wonderful watchdog story for the Journal Sentinel.

5 thoughts on “Back in the News: We Hate You Steve Smith”

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    ..almost any entity in Milwaukee that gets bought from an out of state source, is going to get creamed. This has been going on since the late 60’s. The profit leaves the area, and goes to shore up the cultural institutions of the city where the owners live, and the locals are treated like rube slave labor, with their benefits cut and raises stalled. To the victor belongs the spoils, and everybody that sells their locally grown company to a national player (after managing it into the ground), is doing so to enrich themselves and get the payout they never earned while they were messing the company up; and they’re screwing the city. Welcome to Milwaukee/Wisconsin, last stop before outsourcing to China…You should be so lucky to become Scripps central facility, like the Gannett national office on the north side of Indianapolis. Hard work, long hours, no money, but at least you’ll have a job!

  2. tomw says:

    I think it was the Sunday Times (NY) which had an article on how a very similar thing happened to a steel company in Ohio. While there it was “activist investors”, it’s essentially money folk sucking the dollars out of enterprises and leaving the rest of us behind with unemployed neighbors. Bruce, isn’t the issue not that some newspapers aren’t profitable but that they aren’t profitable enough for the “activist investor” class?

  3. George Mitchell says:

    Will there be a new M.E. to replace George Stanley? Or is the Kaiser “retirement” a cost-saving move? Who would want to be M.E. under George, operating with him hovering over your shoulder?

  4. Bob chernow says:

    This is not the normal buy out bonus to a CEO? Rather it is Smith’s retirement plan. His past salary and bonus were way out of proportion for the company or his performance, which was gutted with very bad decisions, including buying overpriced stations. Yes, some of his decisions came on the heel of a sickening economy, but that was balanced with expensive political campaigns. I know Steve. He is personable, but every time I think of him, I hear that old French proverb: “pity those who must follow the blind standard bearer into battle.”

  5. Mark Pfeifer says:

    Clearly they are doing major cuts and this week I noticed the Op-Ed reductions and the state/city pages reduced and moved to the A section. Still, I would be quite surprised if they went online only anytime soon as the article predicts. Very few major market papers have done that to date and they do dominate the nonbroadcast media market in Milwaukee.

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