Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Journal Sentinel Circulation a Disaster

A decline of 35% in one year and 75% in 10 years for combined daily and Sunday print and digital circulation.

By - Feb 27th, 2023 03:49 pm
330 Kilbourn, where the Journal Sentinel offices are located. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

330 Kilbourn, where the Journal Sentinel offices are located. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The latest circulation numbers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel are jaw dropping.

Its parent company Gannett shows plummeting readership for the many papers it owns, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, one of the national chain’s biggest daily newspapers. The latest Form 10-K report required by the federal SEC and published by Gannett shows the Journal Sentinel now has a “combined” (print and digital) Sunday circulation of 75,061 and a combined daily circulation of 48,158 as of September 2022.

That’s down from a Sunday circulation of 115,026 in the previous year (September 2021), as the prior year’s report by Gannet shows, which is a decrease of nearly 35%, with a loss of nearly 40,000 subscribers

And that’s down from a daily circulation of 75,676 in the previous year, a decline of 36%, with a loss of 27,518 subscribers.

The newspaper has seen its Sunday circulation plummet in 10 years from 299,000 in 2012 to 170,791 in 2018 to 129,887 in 2020 to 75,016 as of last fall. In 10 years the JS has lost 75% of its Sunday readers.

Meanwhile, the paper has seen its daily print circulation drop from 175,600 in 2012 to 111,251 in 2018, 83,628 in 2020 and 48,158 in 2022. In 10 years the JS has lost 74% of its daily paper readers.

The decline for the most recent year may have been even greater because of a change in how Gannett counted: in 2021, it appears, it included “digital access” as a category of subscriber, presumably meaning print subscribers who also have digital access. In 2022, it noted, “digital access is no longer tracked” but “average circulation in print, digital replica” and “digital non-replica” is included.

This puts the latest numbers more in line with those required by the U.S. Postal Service in the “Statement Of Ownership, Management and Circulation” which newspapers must annually publish. The guidelines for this require that “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.”

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)…”

The most recent statement filed by the Journal Sentinel and published in its Oct. 6, 2022 edition of the paper shows that it averaged 56,989 total paid print and digital subscribers in the preceding 12 months, a figure midway between the daily and Sunday circulation figures reported by Gannett.

All of which shows there has been a catastrophic decline in the JS circulation. Though the decline is even worse for some Gannett papers. Gannett’s report shows the combined Sunday circulation for the Detroit Free Press declined from 896,634 to 103,606 in just one year, while the Arizona Republic saw its combined Sunday circulation drop from 320,249 to 95,663.

Gannett has been pushing its papers to emphasize and grow the number of digital subscribers, but that effort has not gone well: the combined numbers for most of its newspapers shows an overall decline, meaning the decrease in print subscribers is not being offset by a growth in digital subscribers.

Just how badly the Journal Sentinel is doing in this regard was revealed in October 2021 when the paper’s annual ownership statement revealed it had just  7,537 “paid electronic copies,” as Urban Milwaukee reported.

And they are actually declining for the Journal Sentinel. Its most recent ownership statement shows it averaged just 6,358 electronic subscribers in the 12 months prior to October 2022, down by more than 15% from the prior year, when the number was 7,537.

Is there any difference between digital and electronic copies? No. Urban Milwaukee contacted Mary Ziegler, who handles the annual statement of ownership for the Madison Cap Times, and she confirmed that the “electronic copies” are the digital edition of newspapers.

This woeful number of digital subscribers is drastically lower than what then-Journal Sentinel editor George Stanley had told Poynter Institute reporter Rick Edmonds in July 2021: that the JS had more than 50,000 digital subscribers. Presumably he was including print subscribers given digital access. (Back when Urban Milwaukee first questioned his numbers a year ago, Stanley never responded to a request for comment.)

But the ugly truth is the JS has lost 75% of its readership in the last decade and has an anemic number of digital subscribers that is actually declining.


13 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Journal Sentinel Circulation a Disaster”

  1. JE Brown says:

    Content has a lot to do with this. Gannett fires local reporters and offers USA Today pablum to readers. It’s not enough. Day-to-day coverage of statewide issues is dismal, although some of the in-depth reporting is quite good. Current articles get lost online within hours, while some items remain on the front page of the news seemingly for weeks. (How long has this article been taking up space?

  2. David Coles says:

    We are counting on you, Urban Milwaukee, to fill the massive void left by the death of the local newspapers. Here’s to continued growth and steady improvement.

  3. Polaris says:

    Ugh—spot-on about some articles remaining on the JS’s e-front page for weeks…

    Does Gannett actually has a profit strategy? From where I sit, it seems to be a slow cutting of costs while eventually selling local property until it is just no longer sustainable. God, I would hate to be in the business of doing that…

    With the Dot-Com boom, so many of the venerable local papers seemed to think that providing content for free online should somehow sustain their print side, or at least keep them relevant. It just made introducing a viable pay wall two decades later impossible. And, by then, local coverage had been decimated.

    I wonder if there is any hope for a billionaire savior or nonprofit ownership like the Philadelphia Inquirer or Chicago Sun-Times. Who could wrestle the JS away from Gannett? The precarious state of local papers impacts the similarly precarious state of civil society.

  4. TransitRider says:

    I think back in the late 1960s the Journal’s circulation was about 600,000 on Sunday and 300,000 weekdays. And that didn’t count the separate Sentinel. On weekdays, the Sentinel had at least 2 editions and the Journal had at least 4 (plus the “Peach Sheet”—a 4-page or so section, only sold in downtown, that was wrapped around the regular paper and featured late-breaking news, closing stock prices and afternoon baseball scores.

  5. DanRyan86 says:

    I agree with the content issue JE Brown brings up. I find better coverage of local news on Urban Milwaukee that is relevant to me more than I feel I get in the Journal anymore. I wonder if there is ever a future where some of the smaller publications around the region can band together under one name while each preserving their respective wheelhouses in their contribution under a consolidated banner. Unlikely, but if the Journal folds that’s going to leave a huge vacuum in the local media space and I would like to see the local publications attempt to move into that space over an outside entity just throwing a national publication into this market.

  6. julia o'connor says:

    I stopped subscribing to the JS just before the Gannett takeover. I get the daily email without access to digital content because I will not underwrite the pablum but have always wondered if I was being counted as a digital subscriber because I received the email.

  7. sheistolerable says:

    Like everyone else has said, there’s no mystery to this. Zero in the way of local coverage other than sports. One or two actually good, in depth features a year and the rest USA today stuff that is about the fluffiest possible look at national news you could get. With relatively low overhead they could have a vibrant, locally focused opinions section, (imagine sewer socialists and WOW county types taking zings at each other’s best ideas), instead they have the hyper-controlled Ideas Lab. If I want to know about Milwaukee school board, planning board, local government and other stuff that affects my life, I go to Urban Milwaukee.

    I will also add that the JS online interface is uniquely awful. Despite being paid up members it logs me out every time I tried to access the website, so over time I just stopped. Forget about remembering your paywall access across platforms like email and Twitter. That hurts their page views and advertising dollars.

    Urban Milwaukee forever!

  8. rbeverly132 says:

    When Gatehouse Media acquired Gannett in 2019, the deal was financed by a New York private equity firm at, I believe, a 12% interest rate. Gannett has since focused primarily on retiring or refinancing that debt through sale of assets (Journal Sentinel building downtown, West Milwaukee printing facility) early retirements, and, of course, reducing the quantity and quality of print articles. The Sports section seems to have weathered better than all others, but printing the paper in Peoria Illinois introduces a deadline that makes coverage of most events a day late. Gannet means to drive print subscribers (at cost now more than the Wall Street Journal) to possibly the most annoying web site on the planet. This is a self induced death spiral.

  9. gerrybroderick says:

    And alternative news sources have declined as well. Local TV news is an embarrassment, offering little to no coverage of local government, but instead fillsing the gaping vacuum with lengthy and precise weather reporting. “its 38 in Oshkosh, 37 in Fond du Lac, 36 in Racine, 39 in Kenosha and a chilly 35 in Cudahy!” Before offering paternal advice as to how to dress in the morning.

    When weather can’t adequately eat up enough air time any violent roadway wrecks will do. Any footage that qualifies as ‘sensational’ enough… from Connecticut to California. Of course local sports coverage benefits from all that, giving us time for a nightly status report on Aaron Rodgers latest turn of mind.

    And I won’t even bother going into detail regarding the fact that what little news there is that may be of value,. is pack into brief bursts that conspicuously interrupt an unending stream of commercials.

    Future hopes of an informed public? Doubtful.

  10. mkeumkenews09 says:

    @gerrybroderick – Amen!

    However, good luck actually getting the upcoming forecast, which is shown for about 2 – 3 seconds.

  11. Polaris says:

    Gerry and mkeum…indeed, and the radar forecast always goes way to fast…what’s the rush?!

  12. danlarsen7007 says:

    A shame, but not unexpected. The JS lost me forever over the crazy and constant cost increases for me as a lifelong customer when “new” customers got great deals. When my print costs got up to over $500 a year, I got pissed off and finally cut the tie. I went digital after seeking out sources I liked. I now get my daily news from WAPO, Waukesha Freeman (still free access and I admit to feeling guilty), and Urban Milwaukee. They give me a good blend of local, regional, and national news at a consistent and fraction of the cost I used to pay.

    I’ve gotta admit I feel a bit sorry for the decline of the fourth estate. It seems to be slowly falling to social media and that surely isn’t working. On the other hand, there are good legitimate digital sources out there if you look hard enough, and they are filling the void.

    Keep up the good work, Urban Milwaukee. You’re filling the void for me and you’re doing a great job!

  13. mchaltry says:

    Outside of the shoddy journalism, the lack of proofreading, the day-late sports reporting, the months-long plastering of Gableman on the front page, the terrible website, the doubling of the font size in the Obits, the dumping of my favorite cartoons from the “Green” page, and unreliable deliver service, what finally pushed me to cancellation was the $80 “additional fees” line they added to my already bloated bill.

    Gordon Gekko would be proud.

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