Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Journal Sentinel’s Drastic Decline

Sunday and daily subscription numbers continue to plummet.

By - Nov 16th, 2021 10:58 am
In 2020 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel moved to 330 E. Kilbourn Ave. Photo by Mariiana Tzotcheva.

In 2020 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel moved to 330 E. Kilbourn Ave. Photo by Mariiana Tzotcheva.

The decline of daily newspapers really began before the internet. 

Take the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Since the merger of the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel in the mid-1990s, the paper’s circulation dropped steadily, with the Sunday paper dropping from 466,000 subscribers to just over 299,000 in 2012, while the daily paper dropped even more drastically, from 328,000 to about 175,600.

Most of that decline came before the impact of the internet, but the paper’s circulation decline since 2012 has been more drastic and has if anything gotten worse since the paper was bought out by Gannett. The company’s annual reports provide subscriber data for each of its papers and shows these numbers for the Journal Sentinel: 

Its total of Sunday subscribers, which stood at 299,000 in 2012, had plummeted to 170,791 in 2018, dropping further to 147,305 in 2019 and 129,887 in 2020. And these include both print and digital subscribers. 

Its total of daily subscribers, which stood at 175,600 in 2012, had plummeted to 111,251 in 2018, dropping further to 94,171 in 2019 and 83,628 in 2020. 

But it still hasn’t bottomed out. The newspaper’s required “Statement Of Ownership, Management and Circulation” filed on October 1 and buried in the October 7 print edition reported that for the previous 12 months the paper averaged just 67,107 paid print subscribers and 7,537 “paid electronic copies,” for a total of just 74,644 subscribers. 

All told, these are stunningly bad numbers. In less than a decade the paper lost 57% of its Sunday readers and 58% of its daily readers. 

In other reports, however, the newspaper has offered higher digital figures. A report citing figures from the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) listed the Journal Sentinel as having not 7,537, but 15,826 digital subscribers as of the third quarter of 2020. And as recently as July Journal Sentinel editor George Stanley told Poynter Institute reporter Rick Edmonds that the JS actually had more than 50,000 digital subscribers. Stanley has also offered a glowing picture for JS readers, with a May 2019 column declaring that “our paid digital subscriptions have grown by 170% in the last two years.”

So what is the true number?

Is is possible “electronic copies” listed on the statement of ownership are different than digital copies? Here are the instructions from Wisconsin Newspaper Association on filling out this form, which are very explicit: “Remember that paid electronic subscriptions may be included as circulation… A paid subscriber, electronic or print, may only be counted once. A print subscriber with free access to the electronic version of your paper cannot be counted as a paid e-Subscriber.”

Mary Ziegler, who handles the annual statement of ownership for the Madison Cap Times, confirmed that the “electronic copies” are the digital edition of newspapers.

Whereas the figures for the Alliance for Audited Media, as Edmonds reported, include audited figures for print and figures for digital subscribers that may or may not be audited. And newspapers, he noted, showed an “extreme reluctance” to discuss this discrepancy with him.

The annual statement of ownership and circulation is required by the US Postal Service, and leaves no wiggle room. The form warns that “anyone who furnishes false or misleading information… or who omits material or information requested on the form may be subject to criminal sanctions (including fines and imprisonment)…”

Which makes that figure of 7,537 paid electronic copies look rock solid. Not to mention that the total circulation of 74,644 for the last 12 months is in line with the figures in three previous annual reports by Gannett. (George Stanley, per usual, did not respond to my request for comment.)

And if the true number of digital subscribers is 7,537, that means 89.9% of Journal Sentinel subscribers are getting the print edition. Which is a disaster. Most print readers are older people who are literally dying out. This is also a demographic that advertisers are less interested in.

Compare this to perhaps the most successful daily paper in the nation, the New York Times. It recently reported that it has nearly 8.4 million total subscriptions, of which 7.6 million are digital. In short less than 10% of its subscribers get the print edition.

Even compared to other Gannett papers, the Journal Sentinel has a dreadfully low percentage of digital readers. In 2019 “Gannett said that its digital-only subscribers totaled 607,000 — less than a third of its print subscribers. At GateHouse [which merged with Gannett] online subscribers make up less than 20 percent of its print circulation,” as the Boston Business Journal reported.

But how do we know the figures offered by Gannett or Gatehouse or even the mighty New York Times (which does not provide complete digital data to the AAM) have not been inflated? Newspapers typically give free online access to print subscribers and may be tempted to include some of those readers among its digital subscribers, thus counting them twice. Only the statement of ownership and circulation for each paper would tell us the truth.

What we do know is that since 2018 Gannett has been pushing its newspapers to emphasize digital over print subscriptions, with a corporate memo noting that print is “not a vehicle for breaking news,” and the company saved money by not adding extra pages for election results.

But the Journal Sentinel, to judge by its most recently reported figures, has made little progress in making that transition. Meanwhile its print numbers are declining at a rate that, if continued, could put it out of business in another decade.

True, the travails of the JS reflect an industry-wide problem. But it’s clear the decline has been worse for Gannett-owned papers. “Of the 200 daily newspapers at the newly merged Gannett Co. that file print circulation numbers publicly,” as the 2019 Boston Business Journal story reported, “more than 80% are losing circulation at a faster rate than the national average and 10% are declining at twice that rate or more.” 

The Journal Sentinel numbers, as reported by Gannett, show the Milwaukee newspaper definitely fits that pattern. Which is very bad news.

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11 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Journal Sentinel’s Drastic Decline”

  1. rbeverly132 says:

    It appears to us, older demographic print subscribers, that JS is trying very hard to drive print subscribers away entirely. Every year, we get less for more. Coverage of actual news is replaced by more and more Sports. We get charged for pay JS monthly by check. We get charged extra for “special” editions that are impossible to identify. A JS print subscription now costs more than the Wall Street Journal.

    Go online? JS Online is possibly the most annoying web site on the Internet, due to constant pop up ads and refresh. We won’t go there.

    This is truly scary. How will the general populace keep their elected officials in check once all local print coverage is gone? It’s obvious, looking at new redistricting maps at all government levels, that politicians at all levels don’t feel responsible to their constituents. They will treat us like mushrooms and continue to do whatever serves them best.

    We rely on you and the Urban Milwaukee staff, Bruce, for coverage of local and state events. We encourage our friends to read and more importantly, subscribe. Keep up the good work.

  2. NieWiederKrieg says:

    The majority of radio stations, television stations, newspapers, and magazines were locally owned in the 1960’s… Now they’re all owned by Wall Street… And now they all report the same, identical, war mongering lies and propaganda like… Iraq has WMDs… Saddam Hussein attacked the US on 9-11… Iraqi troops are bayoneting babies in incubators in Kuwait… Assad is a bad guy so we have to bomb Syria… Gaddafi is a bad guy so we have to bomb Libya… Arafat is a bad guy so we have to bomb Palestine… Hugo Chavez is a bad guy so we have to destroy Venezuela… Putin is a bad guy so we have to destroy Russia… Chinese people are evil so we have to destroy China… all lies… all propaganda… all war mongering… all the time…

    WTMJ radio was owned by the Milwaukee Journal… WTMJ sent Charile Sykes and Jeff Wagner to Red Arrow Park in 2003 to stage a Pro War Rally for the invasion of Iraq… WTMJ was the headquarters for the Pro Iraq War Movement in the US… Sykes and Wagner drafted a Pro Iraq War statement and it was entered into the US Congressional Record by Republican Mark Green of Wisconsin… https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CREC-2003-03-11/html/CREC-2003-03-11-pt1-PgH1715.htm

    I gave away all my TV sets 20 years ago… I dumped my subscription to the Milwaukee Journal… I never listen to WTMJ or WISN… I hope the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dies a quick death and that it gets buried so deep that it never rises again for promoting never ending wars and for being responsible for the deaths of millions of Muslims and Christians all over the Middle East and Africa.

  3. frank a schneiger says:

    This is a really important column by Bruce, especially for the reasons cited in rbeverly’s comment above. To further understand why this is so important, read McKay Coppins article “The Men Who Are Killing America’s Newspaper’s” in The Atlantic, November, 2021. it is about Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund, that is second only to Gannett in newspaper ownership. As Coppins says, “The model is simple: gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring out as much cash as possible.” Sound familiar?

  4. kaygeeret says:

    Every comment above is true, true and true…

    I am old enough to remember when the Journal had a Washington Bureau and was considered on of the 10 best newspapers in the country.

    When I gave up my subscription – the ad pile was bigger than the “news” pile – I felt bereft for about a minute – -there had been nothing remotely important in the paper for so long I had simply forgotten it was only good for animal/bird poop.

    Profoundly sad and terrifying as we see the ignorance and violence being peddled by ‘social media’

    Part of losing democracy is losing a free, independent and thoughtful press.

  5. Duane says:

    Yes, the Sentinel isn’t very good, from very big things like less local reporting to smaller things like no brief Sunday synopsis on how (and what) congress voted on. But it is still way better than any local TV news broadcast and their endless fluff and mayhem format. And shouldn’t we really be directing our anger at the legislative changes, i.e. loss of Fairness Doctrine and the passing of the Telecommunications Act that have paved they way for the current sad state of affairs with media in this country?

  6. Dan Wilson says:

    It is important to note, as Bruce pointed out, that Gannett papers are declining faster than others. Gannett uses buyouts for the most part to trim its payroll so as a result, your best and most experienced reporters are the first to go, adding to the death spiral. I cancelled my JS subscription three years ago in favor of Urban MIlwaukee because the JS seemed to have developed a blind spot on the Foxconn debacle. Urban Milwaukee, with its limited resources, was able to keep me informed of all the machinations that made that scandal possible. Other Gannett papers around the state have been reduced to skeleton staffs and are not much more than bureaus. By aggregating coverage they are able to put out a product that looks convincing. But you can only keep that up for so long. It is sad. Eventually Gannett will have to give up the subterfuge and go to one state paper with local editions.

  7. frank a schneiger says:

    Dan: be sure to take a look at tThe Atlantic article, “The Men Who Are Killing America’s Newspapers.” Remember the question: “Who is your favorite Menendez brother”? He tries to answer that:Gannett v Alden Global Capital.

  8. kmurphy724 says:

    Subscriber to both Urban Milwaukee and daily JS because I figure the more independent journalists the better – and for as long as possible. Once the old “mainstream” media is gone, we’ll all just be joining one tribe or another and arguing about whose ‘facts’ are true.

  9. AzYooper says:

    Despite the warts, I firmly believe we need to support local journalism. Lower subscription numbers create a spiral of less advertising, less operating capital, and thus a lower ability to have quality personnel reporting more diverse subjects. Home delivered newspapers are going to eventually disappear due to basic economics. So circulation drops are going to be the norm until they, one day, pull the economic plug. It’s an electronic delivery world and newspapers can adapt to that system. A city the size of Milwaukee needs local journalism. Economics will decide whose shoulders that falls on.

  10. TransitRider says:

    Rbeverly132 (post #1), If you read JSONLINE on an Apple computer, there is a simple, effective fix for their annoying, distracting ads. Just use Safari’s “reader” feature.

    When you bring up a news story (not the JS “front page”—this won’t work on the main screen), find the little icon with a bunch of horizontal lines at the left side of the URL field (where you just typed “jsonline.com” a screen or two earlier).

    Clicking this button displays the story in “reader” format—no ads at all, just the text and most accompanying photos If it doesn’t work for some reason (or if you want to see the comments—comments don’t work in reader view), just click that icon again; then you will immediately see the page in its original format (with all the ads again).

    “Reader” format doesn’t work with some websites (if it doesn’t work, the “reader” button shouldn’t appear), and occasionally it drops one of the first 3 paragraphs of a story (with Washington Post stories, for example), but these problems never seem to crop up in JSOnline.

    Read more about Safari’s reader feature here:

    https://support.apple.com/guide/safari/hide-ads-when-reading-sfri32632/mac

    I have set up my computer to automatically bring up EVERY JSOnline news article in Safari’s “reader” mode. I couldn’t stand reading JSOnline without it.

    I suspect similar things are available for Windows computers.

  11. Margaret Crowley says:

    TransitRider, Thank you so much for your suggestion to use Safari’s “reader” feature. I try to read the Journal/Sentinel every day, which is a pretty quick task most days because there is so little content. This should make it less annoying.

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