OnMedia: A year away from newspapers
Saturday marks the first anniversary of the last time I walked out the door at 4th and State, ending 23 years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and nearly three decades in the traditional news business.
I couldn't be happier with my decision to take a buyout and go to OnMilwaukee.com. There's a connection here to the audience that seems more intimate than it did in my newspaper days. And there's a flexibility that's lacking in a big, bureaucratic newsroom.
But 12 months after leaving the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I wish that things had changed more dramatically than they have at an institution I still care for.
I obviously have no say in the matter -- although I continue to hold a chunk of Journal stock, the remnant of what was supposed to be my retirement until the stock market -- and the newspaper biz -- went south.
First off, let's talk about some of the basic problems facing newspapers. Spare the baloney about the Journal Sentinel being too liberal (or too conservative, for that matter). That's not the problem facing newspapers.
Frankly, newspapers haven't really been selling news or opinions for longer than any of us have been reading them. Newspapers sold readers to retail advertisers, and sold classified ads to individuals.
News was often an expense, rather than a profit center in this old business model.
Classifieds have collapsed and the print retail ad market is down and not coming back. The cost of buying a newspaper, originally designed to cover little more than production and delivery costs, isn't enough to support large staffs of reporters and editors.
That's a done deal. It's over. The old days aren't coming back.
Theoretically, the Internet was a way to eliminate production costs and allowed newspapers to concentrate on advertising revenue. But the Internet ad dollars just aren't there the way they used to be for the print product. That makes it unlikely that a news operation the size of the Journal Sentinel can make a complete transition to an Internet-only product.
Newspapers seem to be falling into line with a plan to charge for readers to read them online. With the changing view of what "news" is, that seems like a doomed proposition. Sadly, for many readers 140 characters on Twitter may be enough to tell them what's going on. Are enough readers going to pay enough money to support the large staffs required to put out traditional news products?
None of this, of course, is unique to Milwaukee. It's happening everywhere as a generation has shifted into a new way of consuming news, and even new definitions of what news is.
So, let's focus on Milwaukee and the position the Journal Sentinel holds. It is the serious news operation in town. It's staffed by some of the finest reporters I know, like Pulitzer winners Dave Umhoefer and Raquel Rutledge, talented writers like Meg Kissinger and Jim Stingl, and the top Packers expert in the state, Bob McGinn. Dan Bice rattles the political cages regularly, and Eugene Kane shakes things up in his own way.
That's a lot of expensive journalistic talent working at a shrinking operation.
But the newspaper they work for is part of the same company that has a radio station, WTMJ-AM (620), that last week went all-weather during the Deluge of 2010, and a TV station, Channel 4, that holds a strong position in the market even if it's no longer No. 1. It's strongest reporters, people like Charles Benson, are as good as any newspaper reporter, and better than many.
I simply can't understand why Journal Communications doesn't brand itself as THE place for news in Milwaukee, whether it's radio, TV, the printed page and -- in the point that would unite the three products -- the Internet.
The non-news parts of WTMJ-AM and Channel 4 (on radio, it's conservative political talk and sports talk on Channel 4, it's entertainment programming) would go on as they normally would.
A more unified news strategy capitalizes on all the strengths of what I'm calling Journal News, in all its various forms. And each of those arms of the news product would promote the other, rather than compete with them.
The WTMJ call letters, of course, originally stood for "The Milwaukee Journal," although they've become as meaningless as KFC or ESPN (originally the Entertainment Sports Programming Network).
There's costly duplication between the newspaper and radio and TV (staffs have been cut enough so there's far less duplication between radio and TV than there used to be). An example of this came during the O'Donnell Park parking structure accident that left a 15-year-old boy dead.
Channel 4 knew the age of the victim (originally rumored to be a small child) in time for its 10 p.m. newscast. The Journal Sentinel didn't have that age until late the next morning. In a breaking news story, that bit of information is important, and there's no reason why Channel 4's information wasn't in the Journal Sentinel and at JS Online.
While Journal Sentinel reporters are appearing on Channel 4 regularly, they tend to be dispatched to the earliest hour of the evening news block, which begins at 3 p.m., when the audience is at its smallest. It doesn't look like a real effort, but a stunt.
A consolidation of Journal News can't be directed from the newspaper's newsroom or from either of the broadcast entities. It has to come from higher up in the corporation, with a new news executive who understands that this would be a single news team operating on four different platforms.
It would result in conflicts, of course, as different news philosophies collide. But birth is a painful process, and we're talking about the birth of a new way of selling the news.
It's time to stop talking about how the world is changing and the newspaper is going to have to change. The world has changed forever, and it's time for the news biz to recognize it.
A guy who gets it: Operating in another environment, restaurant owner Joe Sorge has used various aspects of social media: Twitter, Foursquare and Facebook, as tools to build a community and get access to the traditional media for AJ Bombers, his Water Street hamburger restaurant.
He's my guest on this week's TV edition of OnMedia, available starting today on Time Warner Cable's Wisconsin on Demand Channel 411.
In the meantime, here's a quick look at Sorge in full social media mode:
"I simply can't understand why Journal Communications doesn't brand itself as THE place for news in Milwaukee, whether it's radio, TV, the printed page and -- in the point that would unite the three products -- the Internet." The answer is simple: Steve Smith - the man a recent Milwaukee magazine article had someone calling one of the worst 5 CEOs in America. He's run that company into the ground - all aspects of it.
No one could call the Journal "too" liberal or "too" conservative. They are so middle of the road, it's sicking. The Journal does not report news. They print useless stories. One of the main articles today is "offbeat couple gets married". Who cares? Other stories have a bit of news to them but then the majority of the article is about the "touchy, feely" human aspect. Report the freakin' news!
I am a person has read the paper since before I had a Milwaukee Sentinel paper route and the paper managed to lose me as a subscriber in the last year. There are a few basic reasons for this: - The Internet certainly has not helped things. If you need breaking news stories you'll get the information quickly on the Internet or from television. The paper has never really figured out a way to transition into this age. - The biggest problem with the Journal is content. If you're a political junkie you have no doubt noticed how poor the paper's editorial page is. Yes, the editorial page has a liberal bias, but the real issue is the quality of the opinions. They have one day that is simply devoted to letters from the editor. They devote a column a day to a "community" columnist who often writes about some obscure topic that only that person cares about. Their main conservative columnist is a guy who they got off the copy desk. James Causey often writes about "slice of life" types of things rather than anything thought provoking. In short, the editorial content is not good. I don't agree much with the New York Times editorial page, but I will read it because guys like Krugman and Friedman are compelling even when I do not agree with them. I'm guessing some liberals will appreciate some of the editorials in the Wall Street Journal. - The last problem the Journal has is that they do not have very good judgment in the news department. They have gone on ad nauseum about BPA. Does anyone really care about BPA? While Rutledge and Uemhoefer have done decent investigative stuff it is not uncommon to see the Journal scooped by guys like Bruce Murphy or Mark Belling. In short, the paper does not give a person a compelling reason to buy the product. If you want sports news you can go to espn. If you want entertainment news onmilwaukee and the onion's Milwaukee site are superior sources. If you want hard news, chances are you can get it elsewhere. If you want thought provoking editorials, chances are you won't find it in the paper. If the paper wants to survive, they have to understand that local coverage is where they can beat everyone if they want. They should be able to break local stories better than anyone and quite frankly they do not. They should be able to do entertainment better than this site does and they don't. Even the sports stuff is nothing special compared to the alternatives. Certainly the changing advertising landscape has not helped, but without compelling content they will continue to lose readers.
Makes sense to me. The Journal long ago gave away its news crown in pursuit of being the local version of USA Today. It abandoned what it should be: a complete source (the "complete" meaning all media) source for hard news. When you're being scooped by radio and tv-- well, that doesn't help your credibility. I really miss the pre-implosion Journal. Of course, I'm old enough to remember when the town's PR flacks would line up on State Street to wait for the (afternoon) Journal to emerge from the presses.
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