Journal Sentinel Shrinks Further
Plummeting circulation, shrinking news coverage, closing government pressrooms.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has informed Milwaukee County it will no longer rent a press office at the courthouse. So there will no longer be a beat reporter on the scene covering county government.
Back in 2001, when the newspaper was scooped on the county pension scandal (by yours truly), the editors vowed they would never be caught not covering the county again. They assigned one of their best reporters, Dave Umhoefer, to cover the county, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for a smaller follow-up story on the pension problems I had first reported.
But by 2014 the paper’s county coverage again fell off the map after Umhoefer’s full-time successor on the beat, Steve Schultze, left the paper. In the last year or so Don Behm has covered the county, but rarely does more than a couple stories a month. It’s become a part-time beat.
The newspaper has also informed the city it will no longer rent the pressroom office in City Hall. The city was once the newspaper’s most important beat, but that hasn’t been true for nearly two decades.
JS Editor George Stanley, when asked about the closings, wrote via email that “In the age of wifi we don’t need them anymore.”
Certainly, you can watch any city or county hearings remotely, but the idea of a beat reporter was that he or she could get nose-to-nose with sources, see how officials interacted, and capture the atmosphere and dynamics of the place where all the action occurred.
In a comment on Facebook, Ald. Nik Kovac called the city press office closing a “Sad day for journalism and city government. We like it when the press is in the building.”
The Journal Sentinel also plans to vacate the office it has long rented in Madison for reporters, but will still have two reporters covering state government from the capitol building press office. It’s all about cutting costs.
This is but one of the many signs of shrinkage at the Journal Sentinel. The disappearance of the paper’s historic archive of stories going back more than a century, and the subsequent news that the public library would have to pay $1.5 million for the archive, suggested new JS owner Gannett was ready to squeeze every dollar it could out of the paper.
The newspaper used to be able to choose from the best syndicated reporting for its national coverage, but a couple of years ago stopped running stories by the New York Times. That may have been both to save money and look less liberal, but it’s meant it no longer publishes some of the best national reporting.
That wouldn’t be so bad if it meant the paper ran more local coverage, but the opposite is the case. There is less coverage of the city, county, suburbs and state government, less business coverage and much less coverage of local arts and entertainment. Now that the paper is owned by Gannett, we get lots of USA Today’s national stories, typically inferior to those by the Times or Washington Post. And some of the paper’s “local” coverage is picked up from other Gannet papers writing something about Wisconsin. Only the paper’s sports coverage remains robust, and continues to create their most popular stories.
The Journal Sentinel’s new website, styled after Gannett’s many other newspapers, feels more like a lifestyle publication than a daily newspaper. Clearly the company’s marketing gurus have found that lighter fare gets more clicks and so that’s the emphasis. Compared to the print Journal Sentinel, where big news still gets big play, the website feels like the place where news stories go to die. The old jsonline news feed, which every politician in town checked several times a day, is gone, and it can be a maddening task trying to find a particular news story.
Almost despite this, the paper still does some good watchdog stories. The recent series on oil pipelines in the Great Lakes by Dan Egan was a revelation, and a good read, rare for the paper’s investigative stories. And the series by Cary Spivak and Kevin Crowe on bad landlords who rip off the city was good reporting and a real service to the community. But the paper’s once wide-ranging, one-man political dirt patrol, Dan Bice, is now an infrequent column that mostly covers Sheriff David Clarke. And the recent departure of business reporter Kathleen Gallagher, one of the paper’s handful of Pulitzer winners, was a bad sign.
Meanwhile, the paper’s readership and revenue have been plummeting. As I reported back in 2012, the paper’s circulation has been in a free fall: the Sunday paper went from 466,000 subscribers in the mid-1990s to just over 299,000 in 2012, while the daily paper dropped even more drastically, from 328,000 to about 175,600. Meanwhile, publishing revenue for Journal Communications dropped by 48 percent in just five years, from $328.5 million in 2006 to $170.9 million in 2011.
All told, it looks like the daily print subscribers have dropped from 328,000 in the mid-1990s to about 116,000 by 2015, with just over 38,000 people switching to a digital subscription. If the Journal Sentinel was once the 800-pound gorilla of state journalism, its disappearing readership suggests the beast is now half that size and losing more heft rapidly.
Perhaps nothing shouts out desperation more than the editors’ decision to bring back the old Milwaukee Journal Green Sheet after an absence of more than two decades, complete with stories it reruns by long-dead contributors like Ione Quinby (Mrs) Griggs, discussing the oh-so-current personal issues of people from several decades ago, and venerable humorist Gerald Kloss. This no doubt cheered the senior citizens who fondly remember those writers, but any readers under the age of 45 must be completely mystified.
Yet the paper hasn’t bottomed out yet. The Gannett deal, I’m told, included a promise not to cut staff for a year, which means layoffs of more reporters could be coming in April. Given how few news stories are now published, it’s hard to imagine there isn’t a purge of personnel coming. The sale of the Journal Sentinel building also seems likely at some point: most of the building is now empty and the shrinking staff could be housed far more economically.
I still read the paper daily, but know many people who no longer subscribe, which would have unthinkable a decade ago. How the mighty have fallen.