Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How Gannett Will Shrink the Journal Sentinel

New owners will drastically diminish the size and scope of state’s largest newspaper.

By - Oct 13th, 2015 09:16 am
Journal Media Group

Journal Media Group

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.

All national and international news for its papers is supplied by USA Today. The local paper and its local coverage is simply wrapped around USA Today. It not only saves money on any national reporters a newspaper might have once had, but saves money by not needing editorial staff to put the national/international section together.

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.

Short Take

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Categories: Murphy's Law, The Press

13 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: How Gannett Will Shrink the Journal Sentinel”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    When I lived out east I read the Delaware News Journal, a Gannett paper. The sports section was a joke. It was mostly the USA Today sports section. The paper itself wasn’t much better, though in fairness it does compete with the Philly papers. I also remember the first time I came across the website for one of Gannett’s papers. I thought I had inadvertently ended up at USA Today’s site, and then I realized all of their websites look exactly like USA Today’s site.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    I manage a media imaging department for a retailer, within spitting distant of the Gannett’s press building in Indianapolis, where a lot of their combined editorial services are carried out (around 80th and Georgetown). I get more than a few inquiries every year from people in their employ, that work in similar areas that I control in my company, looking for change. Gannett doesn’t offer bad money for these positions, although Indianapolis is notoriously low paid compared to a lot of other areas of the country, but everyone I talk to wants to leave because of the relentless work structure. It’s like everything you’ve read about Amazon over the last year, without the money!

    I’ve gone into, on here before, how bad the Indianapolis Star is; it’s truly a terrible paper. I’ve realized that many days I’m paying a dollar a day for the crossword puzzle. Their concentration on sub-30 writers, assures that I care very little about almost any human interest story they write about.

    What’s really a head-scratcher, is their forward plan of eventually eliminating the print edition and concentrating on the web version. They are killing their “ancient” subscribers (who want paper) with the tenor of their stories, and the age of their writers, BUT, most of the sub-30’s on my staff never go to the Indianapolis Star on-line at all. The don’t read news, they get their local entertainment news from other sources, and they think the Star’s web design is clunky and obnoxious! I can’t stand to be on it either, there are always boxes popping up and floating around trying to get you to subscribe, or click on an advertiser. Even if the content was valuable, and the stories were long form with updates, their web-site is unreadable! In addition, the sub-30’s in my group will never, and I mean NEVER, pay for content, at least, not local content from this rag.

    I think this is the sad future of the M J/S. I was once two great newspapers, and been a shadow of itself for a while, but this will be the change that finally kills it…

  3. Aaron says:

    Very nice work Bruce. Thank you for taking the time to prepare an article full of facts and what likely will happen to J/S.

  4. BPI says:

    From a community and journalistic standpoint, there are no winners with this deal. But this should open up some opportunities for Urban Milwaukee. Hope you are up to the challenge, and are able to grow.

  5. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    As a journal paperboy 60 or so years ago, I really feel bad to see the demise. I was hoping that it would just improve, as almost daily I can pick apart the editorials and articles for lack of asking the proper questions.
    Most recently its failure to properly cover the damnable John Doe and it’s excesses on 29 Conservative groups without any idea of who actually did something wrong, was horrible. For that they should have fired the editors. But occasionally they covered stories well. County board will get away with murder like it did before our ace reporter, Bruce Murphy, went to work. The small cities can say goodbye, never will hear from them again. State, another lost cause. But lots of blood and guts will be covered.

  6. John Casper says:

    Bruce, I second what Aaron said.

    The timing’s a little strange. I thought I read reports that the Local 51 got “promises” that JMG would not be sold for two years. Any chance this is related to the demise of Gov. Walker’s presidential campaign? Since Gov. Walker couldn’t deliver Wisconsin to the wing nuts, now Gannett will?

    Jeff Bezos paid $250M in cash for the Washington Post because he wants federal contracts. JMG’s balance sheet has zero debt. Wouldn’t the AFL-CIO be wise to buy the MJS? Wouldn’t shareholders give a discount for cash over Gannett stock?

    In order to compete with Bezos for federal contracts, wouldn’t Big Data billionaires like Google’s Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt, Apple, Twitter, FB,… consider buying the MJS and beefing up the Washington bureau?

  7. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I thought I had heard all of the wingnut conspriacy theories, but John, you passed them. Think that the commies took down the TradeCenter from the inside, the little “Eichmann’s”?

  8. John Casper says:

    my $0.02

    1. I’ve never understood why Local 51 didn’t file against Steve Smith for “fiduciary malpractice.” Who did more to crush Journal Communications’ shareholder value?
    1.a He let Charlie Sykes destroy the MJS brand as the “liberal media.”
    1.b He let Charlie and the others give away massive amounts of free advertising to wing nuts. Why buy radio ads when Steve used TMJ’s 50,000 watt “blow-torch,” to give it to you?

    2. After the spin off into JMG, why not take advantage of your paywall?
    2.a promote the heck, nationally, out of your biggest difference-maker, Bob McGinn
    2.b Same with reporters like Meg Kissinger,, who was years ahead with her “Imminent Danger” series.
    Put tape of their interviews on national outlets, NFL Network, ESPN, …(Bob); Charlie Rose, NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, … (Meg) behind your paywall. Bice, Gilbert, Spivak, Egan, Rutledge … that Newsroom has some serious talent.

    The JS is the only paywall in Milwaukee. I thought they should have hired Mike Jacobs when he left TMJ4.

    3. Their Watch-Dog reporters saved the city, county, state, and federal taxpayers a lot of money over the years. Greg Borowski mentioned it once in an interview with Belling, think Mark was going after Meg Kissinger. Steve Smith hid that, “saved taxpayer money,” like everything else good about the JS, “under the bushel basket.”

  9. tim haering says:

    I don’t care what they do as long as they reinstate Joel McNally to staff satirist. Satyrist? Just like the fabulous 80s. Or reignite that Potayto-Potahto column he did with JJ Blonien. They were great! They were the Ackroyd and Curtain of op-edery. JOel, you ignorant slut. They were Martin and Lewis. Who’s your little who’s it? They were Abbott and Costello. The shovel is my pick. Would be worth a subscription all the way out here in brown brown Cali.

  10. John Casper says:

    WI con,

    Eichmann was a “commie?”

    Do you have a link?

  11. Bill Kurtz says:

    One correction: Harry Grant ran the business side of the Journal. (And no I wasn’t there back then to know that.) Otherwise, a very good, sobering piece.

  12. Bruce Murphy says:

    Bill, you’re right, Grant was publisher, I corrected.

  13. Jake says:

    Considering JS Communications has become the propaganda arm of the state Republicans this can only be a good thing that it’s influence is lessened. The substandard journalism and the ability in the state to be the king maker for the state Republicans in both word and radio 620 WGOP has been part of the problem.

    We can only hope the jettison that back Sykes as well, freeing the airwaves from the nasely scum that he is.

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