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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