Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Journal Sentinel 20 Years Later

What is it about April Fool's Day? 20 years after the Journal-Sentinel merger comes its absorption into a chain of dailies.

By - Apr 1st, 2015 03:23 pm
Journal Communications Inc.

Journal Communications Inc.

Twenty years ago The Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel published their final editions mourning their demise as separate entities.

Good night, Milwaukee — See you in the morning,” read the headline in the Journal, the city’s afternoon paper, on March 31st.

And then there was oneGONE TODAY, HERE TOMORROW,” shouted the Sentinel’s headline, in an issue dated Saturday Morning April 1, 1995, and designated on the cover as “The Last Edition.” Given the date, if might have been taken as an April Fool’s joke, which it certainly was not.

The Sentinel was the older of the two, and was founded in 1837 by Solomon Juneau, who had also founded Milwaukee two years previously. The Journal was the newcomer, published since 1882.

The papers each had large staffs by today’s standards, and competed for scoops ferociously, with the Sentinel being published in the morning, while the Journal’s afternoon schedule permitted  same-day news — provided it was not released too late on the same day.

Journal reporters would complain when a source had released a story on “Sentinel Time” — that is, for publication the next morning.

The Sentinel reporters would complain when they would have to wait until the day after to cover a story carried in the Journal that afternoon. The competition was intense, and the newsroom cultures were also different. The Sentinel, published 6 days a week, was considered the scrappier of the two, perhaps a heritage of its previous ownership by the Hearst chain.

The Journal, with its Sunday edition, and front page editorials, benefited from a larger circulation and greater page count. It ran numerous scholarly features on a regular basis, received 5 Pulitzer prizes and was ranked among the nation’s 10 top newspapers by Time Magazine during mid-century. It had the Green Sheet, where the funny pages were!

In 1950, the advertising volume for the Journal was 44,649,869 lines — the largest of any newspaper in the world. The Journal retained that rank until 1954. Not only did it have the most advertising, the Journal was able to charge the highest rates in the nation, due to its astounding market penetration. At its peak in the 1960’s, the paper printed around 400,000 copies on weekdays and had an all time Sunday peak of 564,217 in 1967.

Both the Sentinel and the Journal were pioneers in AM radio, opening WISN [Sentinel] and WTMJ [Journal] in the 1920’s, and were pioneers in television broadcasting, with the Journal’s WTMJ becoming Milwaukee’s first television station in 1947.

The two papers came under joint ownership in 1962 when the Journal bought its rival from the Hearst Corporation, leaving its broadcast divisions behind.

At that time the Journal corporate stock was held by a unique employee-ownership arrangement set in place in 1937 by publisher Harry Grant. Only a small minority of the shares — about 15 percent — remained in private hands, mostly Grant’s and the founding Nieman family’s.

Most employees happily purchased the maximum number of shares of stock they would be allotted each year. The Marshall & Ilsley Bank would lend them money for stock purchases on an interest-only, no down-payment basis, and the annual dividends would cover the expense.

Unitholders could borrow money based on the value of their holdings. Both executives and pressmen could send their kids to college.

Upon retirement, employees would liquidate their holdings over a period of time, usually at a great advance to the original unit price. Meanwhile, the papers’ advertising revenues, and the income from the television and radio stations kept things going quite prosperously.

By 1995, cracks in the Journal Company’s condition were apparent. In an era of dwindling newspaper circulation, customer reading habits and increasing media alternatives siphoning advertising revenue, the board voted to merge the two papers into a single morning daily known as The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In his signed farewell letter as editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel, published on the front page of the paper’s final edition, Keith Spore wrote:

“… Telling you what is going on is a huge responsibility — especially at a time when local television news has largely become an exercise in pandering for ratings and when radio talk show hosts aggrandize themselves by screaming that everything is black and white.” (This description would be just as apt today.)

“We pledge to keep telling you what is happening, whether you like it or not,” the Sentinel editor added, scrappy to the end.

Over at the Journal, writer Frank Aukofer was given the assignment to write the paper’s epitaph, and he did so in appropriate style and form. He quoted Ray Kenney, a former colleague who “used to grouse about the way newspapers described their own demise.

“‘They always say a newspaper died,’ he complained, where if it were any other business, it would be said to have ‘collapsed, or folded, or merged, or simply gone out of business.’

“At the risk of offending a departed colleague, it will be recorded here that The Milwaukee Journal died today.”

Yet Another Era Begins Today

For the past two decades, the Journal Sentinel has faced challenges not known at the time of the merger, even though distant rumblings were on the horizon. The internet, and the advent of the 24-hour news cycle has subsequently upended journalism at all levels.

Online publications like Urban Milwaukee have benefited from the disarray in traditional journalistic economics, as have other publications.

Change has also come to the paper’s corporate entity, Journal Communications, Inc., a publicly-traded concern founded in 2003 after an initial stock offering dissolved the old employee-owner structure.

Late in 2014 it was announced that the Journal and Scripps Media Corp., which also owns television and radio stations would “merge.” A new entity, Journal Media Group, came into being today, April 1st, 2015, exactly 20 years after the papers merged. It will publish the heritage newspapers of Scripps and Journal Communications.

But unlike the Journal Sentinel of the past two decades, the papers are on their own, and will not have the broadcasting stations and their lucrative revenue streams. The Journal’s television and radio stations will now belong to Scripps. Charlie Sykes and the rest of the broadcast gang will have new bosses.

Once again the transition comes on April Fool’s Day, and once again it means a shrinkage of daily newspaper resources, just as the merger of the Journal and Sentinel  meant a reduction in the number of reporters.

It has been nearly a century since the papers did not have a broadcast component in their corporate structure. And, this may not be the most propitious era in history for print-only journalism as a media corporate model. Urban Milwaukee editor Bruce Murphy offers a rather dour and data-oriented view of its prospects, while Journal Sentinel reporter Paul Gores landed the unenviable task of writing about it for his newspaper, and naturally sees a very sunny future.

Back in the last edition of the Sentinel, its weather column was written by John Malan, a WTMJ weather reporter, who is still on the job, and has, at least until now, continued to write regular brief weather essays in the merged paper.

“No joke: This won’t be the last column,” he said then.

Will the Journal Sentinel still look to television reporters to write its weather commentary now that it owns no television stations? Will it be “Gone today, here tomorrow?” Or, “Good night, Milwaukee?”

Categories: Plenty of Horne

One thought on “Plenty of Horne: Journal Sentinel 20 Years Later”

  1. Radiodog says:

    Now sell the building so we can build a new arena 🙂

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