Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Journal Sentinel Abandons Print Readers?

Paper’s circulation plummets as owner Gannett pushes switch to digital.

By - Nov 20th, 2018 11:27 am
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Headquarters

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Headquarters

Is the Journal Sentinel abandoning its print readers or are those readers ditching the newspaper? 

20 years ago the paper had more than 300,000 daily readers. By 2009 that had dropped below 200,000, as the paper reported and by this year its daily print edition “fell below 100,000 for the first time” and was down by 27 percent from just one year ago, as the Milwaukee Business Journal detailed.

At the rate of decline, the print edition could be dead in five years. Or less.

Meanwhile the paper’s corporate owner, Gannett, is pushing toward print oblivion. Gannett “is throwing the digital switch,” as a story by Ken Doctor for Nieman Lab reported, pushing print readers to switch to the online version of Gannett’s papers. In time for the November 6 election and “across its 109 local markets,” readers were directed “to head to its digital sites for results, “to embrace real-time media for real-time news.”

“When long-time readers of the Des Moines Register, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, or Fort Myers News-Press open up their papers” on Wednesday, the day after the election, “they’ll see hardly anything in the way of results,” story predicted. “Even on Thursday, when nearly all vote totals should be in, don’t expect to see newsprint used when cheaper pixels can do the job; the complete election results will be online, Amalie Nash, executive editor for local news at Gannett’s USA Today Network, told me.”

In fact the Journal Sentinel did have coverage of the top elections on Wednesday morning, but advised readers to go online for the results of most elections. 

“With more copy editing and page layout handled by chains’ centralized hubs, and with more newspapers relying on shared or outsourced printing facilities, the days of getting evening stories into the print paper are already gone in many markets,” Doctor writes. 

“‘We have a 7 p.m. close in most of our markets,’ Nash told me. If you’ve ever wondered why today’s print newspaper headlines often reflect news that feels days old, that’s why.”

That would explain why the Sunday Journal Sentinel lacks most of Saturday’s college football scores: “any night game is simply listed as late game with no score, eviscerating the drama of the top 25 results,” as I’ve written. “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.”

The Gannett corporate memo pushing its papers to emphasize digital noted that nowadays print is “not a vehicle for breaking news,” and they save money by not adding extra pages for election results. 

As for these paper’s loyal print readers, more than a third of Gannett’s print subscribers are aged “70 or above in many markets,” Doctor notes. “We’re having trouble finding drivers now — fewer papers to deliver, wider geography to cover, good job market,” one news executive told Doctor.

My delivery guy told me the same thing: his route was increasingly spread out as more subscribers cancel, meaning my paper sometimes arrived after breakfast. I stubbornly held on as a print subscriber, but finally went digital some months ago, because there wasn’t enough sports coverage most mornings to last me through my cereal. 

Newspapers that have switched to digital only have found they lose a lot of those more devoted print readers, as another story by Nieman Lab found.

And even those who buy a digital subscription generate less revenue, as a February story by the Poynter Institute noted: “Gannett, like others, is emphasizing paid digital subscriptions and raised its total to 341,000, a 49 percent increase year-to-year. But that kind of paid digital growth typically depends on low introductory offers and other deep discounting. So declines in higher-priced print subscriptions translate to a net revenue loss.”

The Journal Sentinel’s introductory offer for a digital subscription is 99 cents a month. Hard to pay for many reporters at the price point. 

Journal Sentinel editor George Stanley has now taken to writing columns urging people to become Journal Sentinel subscribers with columns telling us “subscriptions support local journalism”and “local reporting helps find better ways.” But is anyone who is not a subscriber reading such columns?

Stanley’s columns noted the JS has “the state’s largest reporting team tracking breaking news and events.” True, but many reporters go a long time between stories as the local/state news section is so small, with so much of the paper carrying USA Today stories. “We have the state’s biggest team of reporters finding valuable business and investment news,” he wrote, but nine of 12 stories in Sunday’s business section was national content from USA Today or the Associated Press. “We have doubled down on investigative reporting,” he assured readers, but the number of watchdog stories has greatly declined in the last few years. 

Meanwhile the Sunday editorial section is now called “Ideas Lab,” which has meant longtime Republican operative turned regular JS columnist Christian Schneider was let go, along with weekly free lancer Emily Mills, a liberal columnist. For his diligence in championing Republicans, Schneider was quickly rewarded by the Walker administration with a job as communications director for the state Department of Transportation. That’s the beauty of ending the civil service system: the Republicans can always reward a party loyalist.  

Meanwhile the sad decline of the state’s largest newspaper means it will continue to reduce its total staff of reporters, while also replacing higher paid veterans with greener, younger writers. The economic model for journalism is broken and no publication in the state has been hit harder than the Journal Sentinel. 

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6 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Journal Sentinel Abandons Print Readers?”

  1. TransitRider says:

    It’s interesting to note that the 2 cities Amazon chose for HQ2 still have meaty print newspapers (Washington Post and NY Times).

    And in the NYC metro area, there are, by my count another 10 or 11 local general-interest English-language dailies (depending whether you count the Wall Street Journal).

  2. Thomas Martinsen says:

    Although the Mke J/S is a skeleton of the late, great Milwaukee Journal, I continue to subscribe because I have had a paper to read with breakfast since I was a boy. I faintly hope that some sort of newspaper can continue to be delivered to my door.

    I will miss the thoughtful and thought provoking opinion pieces by Emily Mills, but I am glad that Christian Schneider’s reactionary shill is no longer aggravating me when I read what is left of our major local paper.

  3. Lee Bitts says:

    This is sad. The Internet has killed a lot of revenue generating businesses. A major example is the music industry. Musicians can’t make livable incomes off of recorded music anymore. Think of the millions of jobs that have been lost as a result of it. Anything that can be copied can be distributed for free. And most human beings want everything to be free for them. If grocery stores couldn’t lock their doors, people would help themselves to all the free food and beverages they wanted and wouldn’t feel any guilt about robbing the stores blind.

    I can see how modernization and advanced technologies make all kinds of free content possible. And no one cares about the loss of jobs as a result. No one cares!

    The daily newspaper in print should not be dead. But it is because people can read all the news they want for free on the Internet and they can watch free news videos as much as they want. Also, many news videos are designed to be entertaining and pleasurable to watch. So that’s another Internet perk.

    There’s really nothing to say. This is the way it is and will remain until climate change sinks it all. I guess that’s all, Folks!!

  4. Thomas Martinsen says:


    “I feel your pain.” Your post reminds me of some lines from a song by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings:

    “Everything is free now/ that’s what they say/Everything I ever done/Gonna give it away/
    Someone hit the big score/They figured it out/They’re gonna do it anyway/Even if it dosn ‘t pay …”

  5. Lee Bitts says:

    Thomas: Thanks for posting that. Those verses express exactly what I’m thinking and feeling about this topic.

    Looks like a good band, too. I will be checking them out.

    I still love a newspaper in hand. It’s a nice feeling. Do millenials value this type of experience? I don’t want to stereotype them but it feels like the older folks (which includes me) are the last of a generation in this respect. No doubt there’s a lot of older people who are indifferent about this so maybe my opinion is in the minority.

    Have a good day, Thomas. Thanks again..

  6. kmurphy724 says:

    As a life-long subscriber to the paper JS, I will be sad to face my mornings with a screen rather than the paper. I have seen my subscription as a membership fee – a small price to pay for the kind of monitoring a health democracy needs. But I have also thought that many newspaper media companies simply don’t know how to adapt. The people who ran them – run them still at Gannett I’d guess – are making horse and buggy decisions in a motor-car age, it seems to me. The JSOnline web site is sub-par, even if the content remains excellent. And the JS was very late to pick up on their core value – local news! Something that can’t easily be generated by news aggregators like Google or Bing. I would advise to stop trying to be all things to all people, that is, stop trying to be a 20th century newspaper. Start over. With a base of 100,000 subscribers – huge in today’s media environment – build something new.

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