Where Will We Get Our Journalism?
Journal Sentinel’s dramatic decline leaves huge void to be filled.
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.
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.