Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

Journal Sentinel Ads Will Drive Stories?

As ad sales plummet, Gannett wants stories to support advertising initiative.

By - May 25th, 2020 03:49 pm
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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Headquarters. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Headquarters. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, which may explain a plan that seems to mix ads and editorial by the Gannett chain and its newspapers like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Newspapers in America have seen plummeting advertising revenue going back more than a decade, “from $37.8 billion in 2008, when the Great Recession began, to $14.3 billion in 2018, a 62% decline,” as Forbes has reported.

But that was nothing compared to the collapse of advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic, with revenue declining 20 to 30 percent during the first few weeks of the crisis, the story noted. The pandemic “could be the death knell for many newspapers,” Forbes predicted.

In response, Gannett announced plans in March to furlough staff and institute other cost reductions, as Urban Milwaukee reported. The goal was to cut spending by $100 to $125 million this year, Forbes notes. 

This was followed by news of more staff layoffs at Gannett newspapers across the nation in late April. The company declined to offer a number on how many staff were let go, but the Poynter Institute ran a list of more than 70 journalists who lost their jobs.  None were staff in Wisconsin. 

Faced with all this bleeding, Gannett is looking to somehow increase ad revenue and as Poynter reported last week, the company has launched a new “combined ad sales and news initiative… on the theme of how businesses and individuals are preparing for a broad reopening of the economy. The ‘Rebuilding America’ special issues, planned for May 30 and 31, will appear across Gannett’s 260 regional paper network as well as USA Today.”

An internal memo from a Gannett regional editor, obtained by Poynter, offered an overview of “a joint effort between the news and the sales side” that “is being framed as news rather than an advertising supplement,” the story notes. “But it at least tiptoes into deploying the network’s newsrooms (operating at three-quarter strength because of furloughs) to produce a boatload of stories in support of an ad sales initiative.”

“Local newsrooms will be asked to produce a number of geographically specific ‘sidebars,’ tentatively 10 to 12 at the chain’s largest papers like The Arizona Republic and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, fewer from smaller properties…While the memos do not dictate that the editorial content be entirely positive, the thrust is to position Gannett’s USA Today Network as ‘the nation’s source for a powerhouse platform that tells the story of America’s rebuilding economy’,” as the memo puts it.

“The sources who provided the internal memos to Poynter also indicated that NewsGuild chapters are preparing a protest letter this week to CEO Mike Reed, charging that the plans cross an ethical line by linking content so closely to advertising,” the story notes. 

Urban Milwaukee contacted Journal Sentinel editor George Stanley, asking for comment, and has not heard back from him.  

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2 thoughts on “Back in the News: Journal Sentinel Ads Will Drive Stories?”

  1. Dan Wilson says:

    This was an annual project at the Appleton Post-Crescent when I was there, called initially the progress edition and later the annual report, it solicited institutional ads from local industries to be wrapped around a story about that particular industry, naming of course, the various companies, for example each of the papers companies would provide quotes about what they see in the coming year etc. It gave the whole thing the air of a business roundtable and it made a ton of advertising revenue. Reporters hated it because it consumed so much of their time and they had to take time off of their beats. Every reporter on the paper had a list of assignments which were pretty much the same assignments they had the year before. The job became more onerous as staffing levels dropped and the remaining reporters had a larger task. I often wondered if anyone, besides the execs of the various aforementioned business, ever read the monstrosity.

  2. LittleFrog17 says:

    Milwaukee Business Journal does these advertorials. I now come to expect them to be a business-booster rather than straight news.

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