Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Shepherd Express to Suspend Print Edition

Will continue online, publisher says. Madison's "Isthmus" suspends operations entirely.

By - Mar 20th, 2020 12:19 pm
The Shepherd Express, March 19th, 2020 edition. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Shepherd Express, March 19th, 2020 edition. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The March 12th Shepherd Express, a free Milwaukee weekly paper, featured a cover that teased “Where to Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Milwaukee.” Pages two and three of the 36-page regular edition included, as always, a lucrative 1-3/4 page full-color advertisement promoting the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino and upcoming performances at its Northern Lights Theater. A full-page of the print run was devoted to an in-house promotion for the “8th Annual Stein & Dine,” set for April 18th. Featuring “unlimited brews, booze, bites and more … from over 100 vendors,” the event is a production of the Shepherd Express, providing a non-advertising revenue stream.

Shortly after the 65,000 or so copies of the paper were delivered to its 1,300 distribution points, most Milwaukee County municipalities, and then the State of Wisconsin, ordered sweeping closures of public places and events to limit the spread of COVID-19. The parade was canceled. Potawatomi’s hotel, casino and its Northern Lights Theater were closed. The Stein & Dine event was “postponed until further notice.”

Also closed: hundreds of taverns, restaurants, coffee shops, and other public gathering spaces. In other words, most places you would normally pick up the print edition of the Sheperd Express are now closed.

In One Week Change Went Viral

Mass closures of restaurants and taverns began this Monday, March 16th, shortly before the Shepherd Express edition of March 19th went to press. The paper scrapped its usual “Dining Out” restaurant review, to announce that “Milwaukee County Restaurants and Bars Ordered Closed, Takeout and Delivery Orders to Continue.” Most tavern and restaurant advertisements had disappeared, including the promotion for Stein & Dine. The paper shrank one-third to 24 pages, and it is likely that the press run was greatly reduced on account of a lack of delivery spots.

On page two, in place of the usual full-color Northern Lights Theater advertisement was a monochromatic block of text. “A Shepherd Express Publisher’s Note to our Readers,” it read, with a subhead announcing “The COVID-19’s Impact on the Shepherd Express Newspaper.” It was signed by Louis Fortis, the publisher of the paper since 1997, its editor and its sole owner.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis is having a real impact on our newspaper. … many places, including venues where you pick up your Shepherd each week, have temporarily closed their doors. People are also nervous about going out. Many of our advertisers are being forced to temporarily cut back their activities or completely close them down for the next month or two.

As a result, for the next several weeks, the Shepherd Express will shift its focus to our website and temporarily [emphasis original] suspend our print edition. This is the first time the Shepherd has temporarily suspended publication in its 38 year history. We have had a website for the past 28 years, but the print edition, distributed at over 1,300 locations, has overshadowed our news website. In some ways that was unfortunate because our news website is one of the most popular and fastest growing news websites in Wisconsin.”

News Even Worse for Madison’s Isthmus

While the Shepherd Express hopes that its website shines now that it is no longer overshadowed by its print edition, Madison’s Isthmus, founded in 1975, and with a weekly press run of 50,000 is apparently shutting down all operations, both print and digital. In an unsigned article entitled “Survival Plan,” and subtitled, “We are Heartbroken to Share this News,” it was announced that:

We have decided that if there is any chance of seeing life on the other side of this storm, Isthmus must go dark for an undetermined amount of time.

We have spent countless hours trying to figure a way through this. We have looked at every creative thing we could do and talked to as many trusted advisors as possible. But in the end, we can’t find a way. Isthmus financially depends on people coming together for concerts, food, drink, lectures, movies and more. And when it all goes away at once, we are left without options.

The Capital Times quotes the owner of the Isthmus in a story headlined, “Madison’s Isthmus a COVID-19 casualty”:

“The problem is the revenue spigot has been turned off,” said Jeff Haupt, who’s owned the publications for the past 5 1/2 years. “There is no revenue. We live and die by where to go, what to do.”

Isthmus, once an advertising powerhouse, reinvented itself several years back when the rise of the internet had newspapers bleeding revenue. The paper adapted by selling tickets and sponsorships for events like Beer & Cheese Fest, Paddle & Portage, an Uncorked wine event, Craft Beer Week and Burger Week, all of which have uncertain futures now that restaurants, bars and public gatherings of all types have been shut down.

In a week, he said, ad revenues have nearly dried up completely.

How rapidly did funds run out? The decision to quit was made after the paper hit the streets. Thus the final edition of the Isthmus makes no mention that it is indeed the last edition.

Back in the old days when a paper went bust, it at least had time to print its own epitaph. Those were the glory years, indeed. We are now in a new era.

[Michael Horne wrote the “Plenty of Horne” column and contributed many other stories in the Shepherd Express from 1988-2000.–Ed.]

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