In Marketplace Commentary

Yeah, the paper is thinner. So what?

Let's stop worrying about the daily newspaper

It's easy to pick on newspapers. Readers do it, advertisers do it, and even the President does it. Sometimes we at OnMilwaukee do it, too.

Print media has become a punching bag, and when it comes to the medium of dead trees, it's earned all its detractors.

However, despite the tact of newspapers shunning their evolution into the digital space up until way too recently, people should stop bemoaning or celebrating their perceived death.

You may be surprised to read this from me, but claiming newspapers are dead is, at best, myopic, and, at worst, just wrong. They simply occupy a different place in society now.

Let's look at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Whether it's locally owned or powered by Gannett, the daily newspaper is first and foremost a business. Businesses exist for many reasons, but turning a profit is front and center. Consider that in February, Gannett reported fourth-quarter net income of $24.6 million, up from $20.4 million a year earlier. If the sky is falling, there's a long way left to fall.

Some will say that it's all about money now. That's black-and-white thinking, pun intended. Integrity matters a ton, but Milwaukee's newspaper hasn't compromised that, despite its shrinking newsroom – one that will likely get smaller after Gannett's layoff freeze ends this spring. Should, for example, the Journal Sentinel's parent company – which owns the papers in Appleton and Green Bay – reduce some of the overlap with its slew of reporters writing the same Packers game stories? Yeah, that's just good business.

A year ago, the organization's new president Chris Stegman told the Business Journal he wouldn't cut reporters after its contract expires with the Local 51 of The Newspaper Guild.

"It's not changing – I committed to that," said Stegman.

Well, I don't blame Stegman if he's changing his mind. According to the Business Journal, the union's numbers declined since the early 2000s when the bargaining unit stood at more than 300. The Milwaukee union now represents about 100 employees. And last week, I spoke to a senior staffer at the paper. He looked deflated and didn't know how much longer he'll be employed there. Downsizing isn't unique to the newspaper industry, and really, no one should take any jobs for granted right now.

Still, taking pot shots at the newspaper is just petty. While we wish it did, neither newspapers nor cable news networks nor OnMilwaukee exist solely to inform the public about every single thing it needs to know. Because of the industry-wide hubris and mismanagement that have led to fewer resources, they can't do it like they used to. The fact that publishers can monetize world-class journalists is almost anachronistic – the big money is now in native advertising, sponsorship, promotions and events. Pulitzer Prizes and page views don't pay the bills, although the Journal Sentinel is awash in both. Hyper-local is hot and still a buzzword (one that we've shouted since 1998). When companies think small, they get big. Embracing this works.

In other words, it's time we get off our collective high horse and re-examine the role of the fourth estate.

The idea that any daily paper or the Journal Sentinel is the standard bearer of all things local news and journalism is about as outdated as reading car classifieds printed on paper. Great media hasn't disappeared; rather it has morphed into more diverse outlets and vehicles. Adapt or disappear.

I asked Thomas Koetting, the Journal Sentinel's deputy managing editor of enterprise and storytelling, if his publication is adapting. He said it is.

"Our challenge, in some respects, is to straddle two worlds as technology and reader habits transform how news is consumed," he said. "We want to meet the needs of readers who continue to depend on the tradition and feel of having a daily print newspaper in their hands. We also want to continue growing a digital audience that demands an ever-changing mix of text, videos, podcasts, interactive graphics, photo galleries and more."

George Stanley, the newspaper's editor, said as much in a Feb. 27 piece on the front page of the Journal Sentinel. "Changes to the printed newspaper are unsettling to us as well as our readers," he wrote. "We make them reluctantly to keep the costs of print and delivery in line with print revenue."

But a thinner Journal Sentinel means that it's not wasting its time with replicating news that can be found elsewhere and better. And while there are certainly places for improvement, the Gannett web template blows away the old JSOnline. It's finally set up to make some real money; the paper version of the paper is just a companion piece now to desktop and mobile.

Wrote Stanley, "We focused on trimming costs for national syndicated content that our readers can get from other sources so that we can use our resources on the kind of reporting that only we do in Wisconsin."

"It's no secret that declining revenue has forced us to make cuts along the way. No one takes joy in that," said Koetting. "But the answer is to focus not on what we've had to give up, but on the coverage we excel at, and that our data shows engages readers most: investigative and explanatory reports; sports analysis; profiles of interesting people and events; urgent coverage of breaking news."

Our own Dave Begel doesn't completely buy it, and the former Journal columnist lamented this on OnMilwaukee last week. He quoted Peter Goldberg, a retired assistant chief in the public defender's office in Wisconsin: "I feel sorry for the remaining good staff journalists, who must be heartsick to be stuck in a dead-end disaster that is the Gannett excuse for a newspaper. And I weep for Milwaukee and Wisconsin, supposedly 'served' by this misguided excuse for journalistic enterprise."

But why do we think it's our right to be "served" by any for-profit companies? Is Goldberg the same type of consumer who thinks that all news should be free, and that ads are just an intrusion?

Not to get too far off topic, but I'm not a big fan of paywalls, since many can alienate the paper's most loyal fans. To the publishers, I say sell more creatively and don't take your problems out on your readers. Unless your product is stellar, a paywall rarely works. The Washington Post pulls it off – largely because Jeff Bezos can bundle The Post with Amazon Prime and offer free six months of access. Their model is working because the product is so good that many of us will pay for it when our trial is over.

But in Milwaukee, if you're not willing to pay for a one-stop shop, you can find your news pretty easily.

As content consumers, we have tons of options now, depending on the medium we're craving. The old Journal Communications model of owning the market with a monopoly didn't work. Readers and advertisers are better off with a diversified local landscape that includes JS, OnMilwaukee, local TV, WUWM, the Business Journal, Biz Times, Milwaukee Record, to name just a few. Are any of these as good as the Journal or Sentinel of yore? Does it matter?

"We can't be everything to everyone anymore – and honestly, I'm not sure newspapers ever really filled that role," said Koetting. "But by focusing like a laser on core subjects, we can build a new generation of readers."

As a publisher with almost 19 years in this market, I'm pretty happy with how things are shaking out. The paper will be part of the mix for a long time to come. If readers have to look a little harder to find great content, that's not necessarily such a bad thing.

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