Death Watch at the Journal Sentinel
Yet more layoffs, Gannett cuts nationally, facing buyout bid.
Wednesday was like a death watch at the mostly empty offices of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The newspaper’s parent company Gannett was “slashing jobs all across the country Wednesday in a cost-cutting move that was anticipated even before the recent news that a hedge-fund company was planning to buy the chain,” as reporter Tom Jones wrote for Poynter, which covers the media.
And JS reporters were tracking the news about their Gannett brethren throughout the day.
“At the Indianapolis Star, three journalists were laid off, including well-known columnist Tim Swarens,” the Poynter story noted. “Six were laid off at The Record in North Jersey after nine took an early retirement buyout earlier this month… Four were let go at the Westchester (New York) Journal News. Four were let go at the Ventura County (California) Star. Five were let go at The Citizen Times in Asheville, North Carolina.”
The layoffs were probably inevitable because Gannett had a bad fourth quarter in 2018 and “more of the same” was “expected for the first part of 2019,’’ said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for Poynter.
But looming in the background was a possible takeover by Digital First Media, which has made a bid to buy Gannett and argues the company is overspending, resulting in lower revenue and stock returns.
Digital First is like the Darth Vader of the news industry. As L.A. Times reporter Matt Pearce tweeted: “Digital First Media’s hedge fund owner slashes local newsrooms to the bone, soaks them for profits and then spends money on things that aren’t journalism. If they’re knocking on the door, you should lock the deadbolt.”
All of which was no doubt being read by the news junkies at the Journal Sentinel, who knew some cuts would have to be made by the end of Wednesday. But almost no veterans were stepping up to take a buyout. The pressure was on. All eyes were on the office of JS Editor George Stanley and the ugly task he faced: who was getting called to his office, who would the ax fall on?
The departure of Swarens, the well-known columnist for the Indy Star, was a sign that no one was sacrosanct. JS columnist Jim Stingl had been seen as the only staffer with guaranteed protection, as newspapers had long seen popular columnists as a draw to readers and subscribers. But Swarens’ departure suggested those days were over, and no one was safe.
Ultimately it became clear art and architecture critic Mary Louise Schumacher would be let go. Schumacher had won a coveted Nieman scholarship to study at Harvard and under the terms of that deal the winning journalist’s publication cannot lay them off for at least a year. That’s about how long Schumacher was back at the Journal Sentinel before the end came: the paper decided to simply eliminate that position, but give Schumacher the ability to take a buyout.
Schumacher put up a Facebook post announcing her departure and left with grace: “Many regional dailies gave up their art and architecture critics years ago, and I’m grateful that my newspaper made space for what I do longer than most,” she wrote. “Our local newspaper is doing essential work and is in a fight for its very existence.”
Longtime reporter Crocker Stephenson, who is losing his sight, had earlier taken a buyout. And the paper was apparently able to meet its required body count — for now — by including the departure of Steve Jagler, who left voluntarily some time ago for a job as a corporate media spokesperson.
Nowadays one of the biggest stories for journalists is their own demise. The outrage over the ever-rising body count was expressed by Bernie Lunzer, president of The NewsGuild-CWA, in a statement to Poynter: “Gannett is choosing the low road here — a direct result of the hostile efforts at a takeover by Digital First Media. DFM is once again causing grievous harm to an industry it pretends to be a steward of. Both companies have lost sight of the critical product they are meant to provide — journalism. Newsrooms that could be preserved are being decimated for Wall Street when there are productive paths forward. Let’s find a way to sell these properties to the communities they serve before it’s too late.”
This suggestion has been offered before, but is easier said than done. The changes in news industry are coming so fast that most communities may be too bewildered to even know how to respond. Most people by now understand how the death of classified ads has killed daily print newspapers, but have no conception of Google ads and other national and international online ad marketers have ratcheted down the price of online ads, dealing a second, equally mortal blow to the business model of newspapers and all media.
In short, you can expect more layoffs to come at the Journal Sentinel. These are sad days indeed for journalists and readers who care about the news.
Correction: An early version of this story incorrectly reported that Debby Davis took a buyout. She did not and is employed at the paper as a Producer/editor of projects for its Politifact stories, not as a copy editor. We apologize for the errors.
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