Journal Sentinel’s Post-Gannett Decline
As feared, it’s mostly become a local carrier of USA Today stories.
For decades, my favorite part of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was the Sunday sports section, particularly during the football season. I loved reading Bob McGinn, arguably the best football writer in America, whose reporting on the Green Bay Packers was typically terrific, filled with insights and inside information. He had more sources among pro football scouts, coaches and personnel people than any writer in the country and always garnered good quotes and pithy nuggets of information. And when it came time for the Super Bowl, McGinn’s preview was smarter and more illuminating that what you’d get from any other publication, from Sports Illustrated to the New York Times.
But last June McGinn retired, and the JS sports page is much poorer for the loss. There is no dearth of stories on the Packers, just a shortage of smart reporting and writing. Tom Silverstein can be good, but he was always a distant second to McGinn, and none of the other writers do much more than tell you things you already knew from watching the game.
The most dramatic part of the sport section was McGinn’s Tuesday story grading the Packers, a veritable clinic on how every player had performed or not, and how that affected the team. Without that weekly insider’s take, it’s impossible to understand how the Packers are really doing. McGinn, by the way, is still doing that, along with his game day feature and other stories at a new website he has created, BobMcGinnFootball.com. It’s well worth the $3.99 a month.
Even home teams get short shrift: Late Bucks or Brewers games are no longer covered to the end of the game in the next day’s paper. Last Saturday’s Bucks game was covered not the next day, but in Monday’s paper, the story buried sheepishly at the back of the sports section.
And when the Bucks game does get a full story, the paper still runs the capsule on the Bucks game which is part of the USA Today package of NBA results. Apparently the sports page is thrown together so quickly no one can bother to trim the repetition. It gives you the feeling it’s not the hometown newspaper, but some generic paper done by outsiders, as do the stale USA Today sports shorts that are sometimes thrown in. The local newsroom, JS president Chris Stegman told the Milwaukee Business Journal, is now managed by the Gannett corporate office in Virginia.
The paper’s printing/production often seems slovenly. The ink seems grayer and harder to read. Sometimes the “Green Sheet” is missing the green tinted paper. Sunday’s sports page had only black-and-white photos after the front page, due to some glitch, with photos so foggy and lacking in detail it was embarrassing.
The decline in news content at the paper, which began before Gannet’s purchase, has continued under the new owner. A few years ago JS stopped paying for syndicated New York Times stories, probably to save money, perhaps also to make the paper look less liberal, but that meant it no longer runs some of best national and international coverage to be found. Now all the national and international coverage (and even some of the state coverage) comes from USA Today, which is typically second rate. Watch how often the national TV news stations quote a Gannett story versus one by the Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal. Almost never.
In the last few years the Journal Sentinel has eliminated the state and local news section, dropped the business section on several days, dropped letters, op eds, editorials and the entertainment section on most days, combined the Sunday Crossroads and Business sections and merged the entertainment and books sections. The NOW weeklies that covered the suburbs have been compressed into just seven tabloids that barely cover anything: The North Shore section that once covered a few suburbs (mostly Whitefish Bay, Shorewood and Glendale) has now added Mequon, Cedarburg, Port Washington and all of Ozaukee County.
There are almost no beat reporters left at the paper, whatever their title on the JS staff list. Tom Daykin still covers the hell out of real estate, but no other reporter covers their beat like this. State capitol reporters Patrick Marley and Jason Stein did a good job covering the Foxconn development. I respect their reporting, but they miss a lot and rarely report on the connection between campaign donations and proposed bills and policy changes.
After the JS was scooped on the infamous Milwaukee County pension plan of 2000-2001, which has cost taxpayers several hundred million dollars (and still counting) the newspaper made county government its number one beat, and vowed never to make that mistake again. But in the last few years, as Urban Milwaukee has done more coverage of the city, the paper has put far more emphasis on covering City Hall, and has relegated county government to a part-time beat worthy of about one story every couple weeks. As for the city coverage, Mary Spicuzza does a good job — when she’s given the chance.
The newspaper has no dedicated obituary writer and prominent people pass away with no story, the most recent being Judge Robert Landry, who served for decades as a Circuit Court judge and was involved in the creation of UW-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
The newspaper has been hollowed out after suffering nearly a decade of staff reductions. I count only about 35 reporters covering news and business (plus about 10 editors in those areas). Still, they could be covering a lot more, but don’t, presumably because there’s no room in the shrinking newspaper. The Monday and Tuesday papers are so incredibly thin — a friend calls it the Daily Pamphlet — they sometimes have just a few local and state stories per day.
Finally, the Journal Sentinel archive of stories, perhaps its most important asset, disappeared a year ago, as we reported, and still hasn’t returned despite promises it would. That’s a huge loss to the community, one that a local owner would never tolerate.
In August 2016, Stegman told the Business Journal he had “zero plans” for staff cuts. Eight months later the Journal Sentinel had announced another round of layoffs was coming, as the Business Journal reported.
McGinn tells me emphatically that he left the newspaper to escape the daily paper grind, and I believe him. But he was reputed to be the highest paid JS reporter, so his departure helped solve the need for staff cuts. Veteran sports reporter Charles Gardner also retired at the same time. A couple months before this business reporters Kathleen Gallagher and Tom Content left for jobs outside journalism and JS investigative reporter Ellen Gabler was hired by the New York Times. The paper looks like it also shed a couple editors, and recently longtime editorial writer Ernie Franzen took a buyout.
If you look online for a Journal Sentinel subscription, you’ll find all the emphasis is on print subscriptions, suggesting this is still how the paper makes most of its money. But is anyone under the age of 45 still reading print? It’s hard to imagine the paper declining further, but that seems inevitable, as the subscription price continues to rise – my brother was recently quoted an annual price of $330 — while the product’s value declines. In short, it’s very likely this sadly sinking newspaper still hasn’t hit bottom.
If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.