Op Ed

Where Will We Get Our Journalism?

Journal Sentinel’s dramatic decline leaves huge void to be filled.

By - Mar 17th, 2017 10:13 am
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

It is not going to fly, but Gannett is trying to put a positive spin on its continuing contraction of its news operations in Wisconsin.

“There will be enhanced news content across the sate of Wisconsin,” said Pamela Henson, regional president of Gannett Wisconsin Media, to some of its news people recently.

She based her statement on a regional reorganization of its 11 newspapers in central and eastern Wisconsin (disclosure: my grandfather was involved in starting the dailies papers in Appleton and Green Bay, and my father, family and I worked there).

Sharing stories generated by the staffs of those 11 papers has been going on for some time, and it makes a lot of sense. Why not use a good article about Lake Michigan pollution written by Dan Egan for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in the other Gannett papers along Lake Michigan – Green Bay, Sheboygan and Manitowoc?

But the integration of the staffs cannot offset the tough decisions Henson has made that greatly reduce the resources for Gannett’s USA Today Network Wisconsin. Those include:

  • Continuing staff reductions across the Gannett network. As an example, Pulitzer Prize winner Kathleen Gallagher recently left the Journal Sentinel , where part of her beat was the startup economy. She is unlikely to be replaced. At its peak, the two Milwaukee papers had more than 300 journalists. One source said the bargaining unit now has about 100. As advertising and subscription dollars continue to run off, more staff reductions are likely.
  • Elimination of the editorial page in the Journal Sentinel five days of the week. Heavy Green Bay Packer coverage can’t make up for analysis of the political environment. Readers may not miss the anonymous editorials, but they will miss the insightful columnists. Letters to the editor are not a substitute for experienced journalists. The newspapers are shadows of their former selves, driven by relentless revenue erosion.
  • Elimination of a separate Journal Sentinel business section and a smaller news hole for business news. Weekly business publications in Wisconsin will fill part of the gap.
  • Local coverage has been sharply curtailed, especially in the suburban areas. That retreat puts the onus on local papers for coverage. Their business prospects have improved.

Gannett is trying to make the best of a sharply declining demand for print journalism. It is shifting resources to its web-based offerings, but pop-up adds on its web sites can’t make up for lost full page ads in the papers, for the erosion of its classified ads in the face of on-line competitors or for the loss of subscriptions as young people take their news on their smart phones.

As late as the 1980s, the Journal once had more than 450,000 subscribers on Sundays and the separate Journal and Sentinel combined for more than 400,000 daily readers. Its latest daily circulation has been reported at about 150,000, and Sunday circulation has dropped by more than one-third.

A ray of light in a gloomy picture is that many of Gannett’s best journalists, those who write the real news day in, day out are still writing for the 11 papers. We need them more than ever to cut through the spin for excessively partisan and divisive politicians. We need them to put straight the garbage that spews out in the web world and the Trump Administration’s portrayal of what is going on in the world.

For the most part, TV news is thin a best. It picks up stories from the newspaper staffs and reworks them TV reporters do little serious digging.

Fortunately, there are some new sources of hard news. Some are writers for non-profit organizations who try to tell it straight. Some are hired guns for leaders of particular causes, and their messages have to be filtered, much like partisan news sources have to be filtered in many parts of the world.

Despite the disdain of the Trump Administration for journalists who bring up uncomfortable truths, our democracy needs to deal with realities.

Do we as citizens want to know if Trump has major business dealings at stake with Russians? We do, and we won’t find out from the administration.

Do we need to know about threats to the Great Lakes, which hold 20% of the world’s fresh water. We do. We won’t find out from an Administration that just cut the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to the bone.

Do we want to know if Asian carp are making their way up the Chicago River into the Great Lakes? Journalists will track that story. That barrier program is also in jeopardy.

Do we need to know if NAFTA is a positive or negative for our economy. We won’t learn the reality from Tweets.

The answer may lie in non-profit journalism, where news people are endowed much as college researchers are. The Marquette Law School has supported a handful of journalists, for example.

That’s in effect what the billionaires are doing when they buy money-losing major newspapers. Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post is one example. Many billionaires have decided to give away the bulk of their fortunes. What better place to put their money than in the survival of American journalism?

It is a long shot to hope one of those benevolent billionaires buys the 11 Gannett papers in Wisconsin.

John Torinus is the chairman of Serigraph Inc. and a former Milwaukee Sentinel business editor who blogs regularly at johntorinus.com.

Categories: Op-Ed

7 thoughts on “Op Ed: Where Will We Get Our Journalism?”

  1. If JSOnline was getting the attention it needs to be a functional replacement…I might forgive them for some of their hard copy shortcomings. But it sucks…search doesn’t work…stories are hard to find…too many videos resulting in frozen browsers (and it doesn’t matter whether it’s Chrome, IE or Firefox)…and annoying pop ups or pop overs essentially making the site unreadable. My renewal notice is sitting on my desk and they are making a decision issue out of what used to be an automatic action.

  2. Tabitha says:

    The Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel should have headstones made out of the old bricks of their headquarters, which will probably be torn down for re-development soon. Selling out to USA TODAY (and adopting their on-line format) was the final blow. No-one even reads or comments on half the stories anymore, because the access platform to them is so wanky. They are overwhelmed by pop-up ads and video commercials that you cannot skip for 15 or 30 seconds, and are the new norm. If this is the format that they ‘think’ will get millennials (and those of us baby boomers that still read newspapers) they have another guess coming. And reporters that file stories from home that do not even get out into the field to investigate don’t help newsworthiness to any degree either.

  3. Art Hackett says:

    Last August I moved to Cedar Rapids Iowa where the locally owned paper, The Gazette, is doing a bang up job covering state and local government. They recently launched a civic journalism program statewide similar to the We The People program I worked on in Wisconsin. It’s not as big but I’ll give it time.
    When I pick up my papers tomorrow morning there will be a Gazette and a Gannett owned Des Moines Register. The Gazette will have more pages even though Cedar Rapids is smaller and Des Moines has a booming economy,
    When I worked in Iowa in the late 70s the Register controlled the news agenda for the entire state. Now, I don’t even bother to check their website most days even though I’m paying for it through my Sunday only subscription.
    I’m not privy to the Gazette’s finances but I sense they’re doing OK. It shows what you can do if you don’t have the debt service Gannett picked up trying to build a national monopoly in a business that’s on a downward slide already.

  4. Joe Wilson says:

    It’s easy to complain about the print media and their balky on-line efforts but how many of those doing the complaining actually pay for it? I would just as soon get all my news for free but understand the proposition that good reporting costs money and some of that money needs to come from the news consumers. Gannet/JS need to do their part and make sure the print version is compelling and necessary while the online presence can’t simply be an after-thought or venue for multimedia advertising. Without a compelling reason to log-in behind a paywall JSonline will become more irrelevant than it already is. If I can’t easily navigate the site to find what I am looking for (example, an online version of the sports on tv & radio section in the print edition’s sports section), I’ll find somewhere else to get my information and spend my subscription dollars. Why should I pay to read letters to editor instead of thoughtful commentary by professional journalists when there are these things called Facebook and twitter that give me the same thing for free.

    Since subscribing to the JournalSentinel gave me access to the Washington Post online I access the WaPo multiple times a day. Why? I subscribe to a number of their topical e-mail updates that make me aware of current compelling articles and commentaries on their site. The Post gets to track the kind of things that interest me and use them to bring me back to their pages over and over again. What do I get from the JS? Nothing. How hard would it be to have a daily Wisconsin Politics or Opinion e mail newsletter letting me know what’s new on the website?

    As a paid subscriber to online versions of the Wall Street Journal and NYT I receive a steady diet of updates and breaking news emails that drive me to their sites. It keeps me informed and engaged with the publications. Maybe it’s time for Gannett to take a look at what their competitors are doing.

  5. Kurt Rogahn says:

    How ’bout that. I, too, live in Cedar Rapids, where I moved in 1978 to work for The Gazette after having worked for John Torinus at the Post Newspapers, a string of suburban weeklies. However, I left the newspaper a dozen years ago as it, too, began a slide. Though we went into classrooms in the 1980s and ’90s teaching about the role of journalism, our lessons did not stick. Still, although the same kind of circulation and advertising slides here mean The Gazette is not what it once was (a slew of mid-career reporters were axed several years ago, and coverage of the school board and city council has grown particularly sparse), it sounds like it is doing a much better job than my hometown Milwaukee papers. I’m not sure even non-profit journalism can save a society that cannot distinguish between real and “fake news.”

  6. Chris Daniels says:

    Worthy perspective on non-profit journalism, but this piece by Mr. Torius epitomizes the very reason why so many people no longer respect the media. That, in turn, is the very reason why newspapers and TV stations are shrinking in terms of people resources.

    Until the media return to the integrity (at least to a humorous level of bias) behind both sides of a story r at stop trying to spoon feed Americans by shaping their thoughts, you will continue to see a downward spiral of readers and viewers. Just look today at another “we know it all” headline in the NY Times, “Why Letting Go, for Trump, Is No Small or Simple Task.”

    Isn’t this the very headline the media should write about themselves?

    Regarding Russia and Trump, several investigators have already said there is no evidence, yet that is buried in the 10th paragraph or left out all together on TV. Yes, Americans also have a right to know about Hillary Clinton’s server, President Obama flying millions overnight to Iran, the Clinton Family Foundation–but the media NEVER go down those paths. Until you do, your audience and staff will keep shrinking.

    The greatest stories are the ones you never tell… still waiting for how a businessman defied all odds against the media and is the first President to make the White House as a non-politician. AMAZING story… winning 31 of 50 states. Waiting, waiting,.

  7. Vincent Hanna says:

    Chris you are peddling alternative facts and living in an alternate universe. The New York Times broke the Clinton email story. Do a Google search and see how much media coverage that and the foundation received. There have been countless election postmortems talking about how Trump won by appealing to rural and poor white people. What is the media supposed to do when people like you outright lie and claim they aren’t writing about exactly what they are writing about? They can’t win with people like you.

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