Local newspaper leadership a relic of the past

When my grandfather, dad, uncle and aunt ran the daily newspapers in Green Bay and Appleton from the 1930s to the 1980s, it was the heyday of print journalism. The papers were fat with news and advertising content. They invested in full staffs of fine journalists, some of whom made their way to careers on the metro papers in Milwaukee.

They were close to being to unregulated monopolies, with competition only from broadcast and free shopper’s guides. As a result, profits were excellent.

So much so that local newspapers sold for 40 times earnings, an astronomical multiple. Those prices were hard for second and third generation owners to pass up, and most didn’t. They sold and hit the beach. From today’s perspective, they were smart sellers. They may not have seen the Internet disruptions down the road, but their timing was near perfect.

The buyers in the 1980s and into the 1990s were newspaper chains like Thompson and Gannett, which wanted even higher profits. Operating margin percentages in the mid-to-high 30s were not good enough. Editorial staffs were cut; journalist pay went lower; pages sizes were reduced to save paper costs; and the operating margins went into the 40s.

The Post Corporation newspapers in Green Bay and Appleton first sold to George Gillett, a hot shot deal guy who immediately flipped them to Thompson, which later sold them and other Wisconsin papers to Gannett.

The newspaper chains had a good run time until the Internet torpedoed their business segments.

If they had recognized they were in the information business, not just the news business, they would have preempted Craig’s List, Zillow, Urban Spoon, Monster, Nexus and Lexis. They watched with disbelief as those new players and their ilk stole their advertising bases.

Their inability to adapt to disruptive innovation carried over to news as Google and web-based startups jumped past them. With the exception of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, publishers are working desperately to monetize their content. Less than 10% of their revenues come from their on-line operations.

Steve Smith, former CEO of Journal Communications, essentially declared defeat when he split the company in half in early 2015, one half going into a broadcasting company and the newspaper half merged with the E.W. Scripps chain.

Gannett_logoA half year later, that chain has been sold, this time to Gannett, which will own 96 papers.

The Milwaukee JournalSentinel had already been repeatedly downsized prior to the Scripps merger, including a round of cuts before the deal closed. The editorial staff is now about one-third of what it was in the combined newsrooms of the Journal and Sentinel in the early 1990s.

Even though coverage has shrunk, what’s left of the journalism is still excellent, thanks in large part to local ownership.

Gannett spokespeople, of course, are saying nothing will change in terms of local control of the editorial content. Chalk that up to corporate-speak.

(An aside: I once interviewed for the Gannett publishing job in Wausau with a high level female executive. The waiter in the executive restaurant in the Gannett Tower in Rochester, New York headquarters did a number on me. The lady exec ordered a glass of red wine for lunch, which surprised me, but I followed suit. Arriving at the table, the waiter slipped and dumped both glasses of red wine into her lap of the executive. She was wearing a white skirt. From there on, the interview was a disaster that she surely wanted to forget. I didn’t get the job. Not even a rejection slip. I might have dodged a bullet.)

The Gannett formula has been tight cost disciplines — skimpier papers, smaller staffs, publishers rotating in and out every five years or so. You can see it plainly in its ten Wisconsin newspapers, pretty thin specimens all.

The chain headquarters is in now near McLean, Virginia, near the center of national power. Expect the major resource and personnel shots to be called from there. The M7 Region has lost a corporate headquarter, never a good thing, though community and state leadership from The Journal has been on the wane for a decade or more. It is a given that the corporate staff will be gone. The downtown offices will be sold.

There will be some advantages from the conglomerated Gannett operation in Wisconsin and across the country. On the plus side, the Gannett newspapers in the state will share stories. The local news holes will be partially filled by stories from elsewhere. On the down side, that will allow the chain to employ fewer local news reporters.

What will happen to the fine JournalSentinel state and national bureaus in Madison and D.C.? Will Craig Gilbert, the paper’s excellent national political reporter who covers Wisconsin angles, survive? He could be absorbed into Gannett’s D.C. office.

The JournalSentinel has an excellent Madison bureau that could be consolidated with Gannett’s bureau there. A position or two could then be cut from the combined bureau.
Will Gannett give a reporter a beat that covers nothing but the Great Lakes, which face critical challenges? Doubtful.

In general, I am not optimistic about the quantity and quality of journalism for Southeastern Wisconsin going forward.

The bloggers can’t make up for that loss; most do opinion, not news. And broadcast reporters don’t dig very deep. Public radio and TV news are resource scarce; they do some reporting but not a lot.

There are a lot of new sources of news, such as the Kaiser News Service on health care issues. But, like news sources in other parts of the world, most have a worldview that is not objective.

I was hoping a benevolent billionaire would buy The Journal/Sentinel, but it didn’t happen.

Sorry to be so gloomy, but it’s hard not to be look back to days when print journalism was confident, well-resourced and passionate about their home towns.

It was so much fun that news guys like me should have paid for our privileged positions. We didn’t make much, but were paid enough to get by and we had front row seats at the circus.

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  • David Newby

    John, I’m a little surprised that you didn’t mention the highly respected pre-eminent news service of our time: the BBC. If such a well-resourced (though threatened) news operation (generally considered “objective”) could survive in a country as politically divided as our own, why not here? Instead of simply throwing up your hands and mourning the demise of both local and national reporting and investigative journalism, why not noodle some alternatives? (And incidentally, other–much smaller–advanced European countries also spend hundreds of times more than we do on public news media, with results similar to those of the BBC.)

    • JohnTorinus

      I thought about including the BBC example. Everyone there pays a “license fee” to BBC, and it works as a stable source of funding. Maybe more public funding is the answer. How about a tax on political TV advertising? You use the public air waves for putting out your message; you pay for good journalism.

      • David Newby

        Glad you’re thinking about options, John. Tax on political TV advertising sounds good–but would, I suspect, run into 1st Amendment Freedom of Speech barriers (especially with our current Supreme Court’s position on the 1st Amendment). Think up some additional ideas, and get that braintrust of yours active on this issue!

  • Bill Kraus

    Newspapers generally, the Milwaukee papers particularly were more than a communication medium. They were citizens. Citizens with clout. The other place were we have lost citizen participation is in campaigning. Recruiting, slating, and campaign management was the province of citizen volunteers who didn’t need pollsters. They knew the voters. They were voters themselves. Strangers from afar are delivering our information and our political leaders. The democracy is amiss.

  • Rich Eggleston

    Maybe what John, Bill and David are talking about is the dumbing down of democracy. People aren’t the citizens they once were if their thumbs have calluses from texting. Using abbreviations online may be leading to abbreviated thinking, a willingness to absorb what the tube and the screens all around us are saying without participating in the political debate that the newspaper once engendered. I don’t think people are any dumber than they were when I chose journalism as a profession in the 1960s, but society is making it more difficult for them to communicate on a level much more eloquent than a grunt. Sorry too to be a gloomy Gus, and I too miss the status I once didn’t deserve.

    • JohnTorinus

      We should start a club of grumpy, ink-stained geezers.

  • sam martino

    Sadly, the impact may well be less watchdog journalism and a loss of the investigative team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As a former State House reporter, I also have watched the decline in coverage of the State Capitol over the years from the shrinkage of the media, particularly the loss of UPI and the merger of the Journal Sentinel.

  • Bill Stokes

    Bill Stokes–My tenure in the business–1958 to 1994 was a wonderful ride, full of excitement and warm reader relationships. Some time ago I started a book with the opening line, “Newspapers are dead and I don’t feel too good myself.” I would finish it, but who reads books! Good story, John.

    • JohnTorinus

      Hi, Bill,

      We traveled some of the same paths. It was a gas. I remember the old cockers on the horseshoe copy desk at the Minneapolis Tribute where I started. They had ashes on their lapels from the always in the mouth cigaret, and one had a flask in a brown paper bag in his suit breast pocket. They loved chopping up my rookie stuff.

  • jim Lenfestey

    John – a perfect obituary. Reminded me of when i worked for the StarTribune in Minneapolis the 90’s, a happy heyday. I left in ’98 to write books, the Cowles family sold same year to McClatchy for $1.4 billion, was sold again late 2006 for $530 mill, in 2009 filed for bankruptcy, bounced off the bottom with your longed-for local billionaire buyer in 2014 for circa $100 million, making some money today, wages on rise a bit. These #s tell the stark value collapse, as internet ate revenue. Twin Cities now has an online daily as well, Minnpost, founded by former Strib publisher, using NPR non-profit model, employs a few former Strib staffers full-time, many as free-lance, funded by a few ads, contributions, grants, relentless fundraising.

  • Tom Torinus

    Tom Torinus

    Well said, John. I too am an old newspaper man and newspaper romantic. I, too, was privileged to work in what always felt like a higher calling. I sense there is a real grieving going on in those who remember their good local newspaper. (That’s fewer and fewer of us every day, of course.) The newspaper was fundamental to a community’s spirit. Each day it held up to the community an image of itself, and each day reinforced that image. It was a vital way in which a community knew who it was, found its self-confidence and gathered its hope for the future. Other institutions are supposed to do that, too. Government is supposed to do it, and politicians. But they have generally become small and pernicious. The church once held a civic vision. That too has become hidebound and fractious. Maybe the decline of newspapers is related to the decline of our other institutions as holders of vision and spirit and character. They seem to have happened in about the same time period.

    Just musing here. I have no fix. I do trust that we as a people will once again fine new institutions and re-create old ones in a way that will let us be our best selves together, as our old newspapers did.

    • JohnTorinus

      I agree that we need to find new ways to sustain and build the sense of community.

  • Kenny Lippold

    Good Morning John, my dad worked with your dad John and Vic Minnehan at the Post-Crescent. He started off as a linotype operator and loved it. It was indeed a team atmosphere there and its fruits were the quality of the product. When Thompson moved in, that was the beginning of the end. I worked there from ’75-’77 in the composing room putting ad’s and pages together both for the Post’Crescent and the Post papers distributed throughout the Milwaukee burbs. Here’s some names that may bring a smile to your face as we remember the good old days; Arlen Boardman, Bill Knutson, Phil Behl, Tom Ruesch, Bernie Peterson, Majia Penikis, De Coster, et.al. Sadly, what used to be, will be nevermore. Great blog John. Take care.

    • JohnTorinus

      Those are great names to remember. We did some good work together.

  • Jerry

    John why don’t you and your friends do all citizens a service and form a reporting consortium and include some former legislators like Sen. Dale Schultz and Tim Cullen and kind of syndicate a weekly column about what is really going on in the Capitol. Presently even the best reporters are only allowed to report what each party says relative to bills not what is really behind this legislation that now is mostly kept secret from the public. What a breath of fresh air it would be to get the opinions of the veteran journalists mentioned here along with the political insights of some retired or forced out to pasture legislators! Newspapers used to be about the truth but in today’s age truth is given a back seat to information. Truth should always be at the forefront of reporting.

    • JohnTorinus

      Interesting suggestion. Let’s see what the reaction to your comment brings.