Call me a progressive skeptic, but the news that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is to become a member of the largest media conglomerate in the nation does not bode well for the state of journalism in the state of Wisconsin.
If the lite news quality of USA Today, Gannet’s most prominent franchise, is any indication, (at the moment, some of the leading national news stories at the USA Today website are “Racy reads too hot for some schools to handle”, videos called “Woman fired gun at this shoplifter while he ran away” and “A third of vegetarians admit to secretly eating meat while drunk”, as well as an article on a Delaware tragedy it took two journalists to compose: “Punkin Chunkin canceled for second straight year” ), there may be some corporate pressure placed on the Journal Sentinel editors to keep the shareholders (and conservatives) happy.
Shareholders of the Journal Media Group will be happy to learn that they will get a 44.6% raise per share from this merger. Are JS journalists and readers happy?
JS Publisher Elizabeth Brenner reassures the doubters:
“We’re still here. We make our decisions and run our newsrooms out of Milwaukee, not anywhere else. We serve our advertisers and subscribers out of Milwaukee, not anywhere else. And we support causes that are important to our community from this building. So all of that, it’s not going to change.”
Of course, the latest corporate media merger is all good from the perspective of the current corporate leader of the Journal Media Group, Tim Stautberg, via the Journal Sentinel:
“This transaction marks a critical next step in the transformation of our industry as we build local media brands that matter at a time when operational scale is a competitive advantage,” Tim Stautberg, president and chief executive officer of Journal Media Group, said in a statement. “Both Journal Media Group and Gannett are guided by a vision of strengthening lives and communities, and we’ll be better stewards in our local markets by sharing ideas, content and best practices among our new and larger family.”
Ah, yes, “local media brands that matter.” Matter to whom? Readers in need of information and intelligent perspective or corporate shareholders? But don’t worry, because getting bigger means better stewardship and a “new and larger family” in which to share “ideas, content and best practices.” Which hopefully will not mean shrinking the Journal Sentinel’s current family of reporters and editors and other employees in the name of “operational scale” and “competitive advantage.” Stautberg denies any change in editorial control, saying “But at the end of the day here in Milwaukee, it’s going to be Betsy Brenner, (Editor) George Stanley — the local leadership — that’s going to be making the decisions about how to operate and run this newspaper.”
What could possibly go wrong? Print journalism is under technological attack, and the best way to help newspapers survive is to . . . go digital? Cut staff in the name of efficiency? Dumb yourself down? Don’t be silly. Who would want to tarnish the noble ideals and general excellence of newspaper journalists for the sake of profit? Gannet, apparently, according to a piece from the Columbia Journalism Review back in August of 2014. Consider what happened to the Gannet-owned Indianapolis Star:
“The Star, like The Tennessean, will cut about 15 percent of its newsroom. To learn that, though, we must turn to the Indianapolis Business Journal. The IBJ reports that “the cuts include five of the Star’s 11 photographers and the entire staff of the copy desk.” The 124 staff members will have to reapply for 106 new jobs . . . “It’s like we’re getting ready for the Hunger Games,” says one Star staffer. “It’s awful. Worst I can recall.”
And here’s what one top Gannet executive had to say about transforming journalism the Gannet way:
“Readers become the assignment editor instead of the more conventional assignment editor of the past. We’re converting roles to coaches. They [reporters] don’t need people looking over their shoulder, they need help growing their storytelling skills. Instead of assignment editors, we’re going to have content coaches.”
So having polled readers and found that stories about puppies and football (especially puppies dressed up in football jerseys) are most popular, the “content coaches” will grow the storytelling skills of reporters to make sure the requisite cuteness and/or toughness has been conveyed to an appreciative audience. I jest, but when capitalism and journalism become too comfortable with each other, the inevitable result is bad journalism.
But let’s look on the bright side: As Bob Dickey, president and CEO of Gannet put it, “Our merger will combine the best of each of our organizations to create a journalism-led, investor-focused company which will provide substantial value to the shareholders of both companies. This transaction is an excellent first step in the industry consolidation strategy we have communicated to our shareholders.”
If you ask me, that’s a very investor-focused bit of good news.
P.S.– Read Erik Gunn’s piece at Milwaukee Magazine on this issue, which includes the insights of a former Gannet business reporter at USA Today.