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Opinion: Sale of Journal-Sentinel doesn’t bode well for the Post-Crescent

Updated — It was only a formality, but shareholders of Milwaukee-based Journal Media Group on Tuesday approved the company’s $280 million sale to Gannett, the publishing company that owns the Appleton Post-Crescent.

It’s sad to see another independent newspaper voice in the state be sold, and I fear that as Gannett absorbs the Journal Sentinel into its Wisconsin operations, the Post-Crescent will lose even more of its local voice.

I remember delivering the Post-Crescent as a kid, when we delivered it on bikes chucking newspapers onto porches as we whizzed by.

My first freelance jobs were with the Journal-Sentinel.

Now both are owned by Gannett.

Those papers were as much community institutions — like the local school, church or library — as they were a simple a marketing business.

But it’s not just nostalgia, it’s the loss of an independent voice and viewpoint that should be most worrisome.

I was talking to someone the other day who complained about what she read on Facebook because “you can’t trust the mainstream media anymore.”

Believe me, that’s a problem when people think random posts on Facebook are the mainstream media.

Although they fall short on occasion, professional journalists are trained to search for facts, for what really happened. No other institution in our communities takes on that role.

And competition always made that search for the truth more compelling.

But with today’s sale of the Journal Sentinel’s parent company, that competition lost one more player.

There are many great journalists at the Post-Crescent that I admire, but there aren’t enough of them for the size of the market they cover.

That means stories left untold, rocks left unturned.

“Today’s vote is an important step toward enabling our portfolio of local media brands to better navigate the transformation of our industry and continue to serve readers and advertisers with quality content, products and services,” Tim Stautberg, president and CEO of Journal Media Group said in a statement today.

Seriously? Local media brands? The daily newspaper used to mean much more than that.

Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee wrote in October when the deal was announced that the Journal-Sentinel likely will lose staff in a hurry.

“This sounds like more than 35 or 40 JS positions might be cut,” he wrote. “But considering that Gannett also owns 11 other newspapers in Wisconsin (more than it owns in any state but Ohio), there may be other reductions in overlap it achieves between the Milwaukee paper and the 11 smaller publications,” he wrote.

“Which departments will be cut the most at the Journal Sentinel? Given Gannett’s centralized copy editors, all 12 of those positions at the newspaper may go.”

“Enterprise reporting? The Journal Sentinel has 13 staff on its watchdog team.”

The easiest change to predict is with Packers coverage.

Currently, Gannett’s Appleton and Green Bay papers compete with Lee Enterprises’s Wisconsin State Journal and the Journal-Sentinel for game-day and enterprise reporting.

It should come as no surprise if Gannett sheds some seasoned members of their sports or photo staffs once the Journal-Sentinel crew comes onboard.

In a story published today in the Nation, Dale Maharidge, a journalism professor at Columbia University, chronicles the human impact of the changing newspaper business.

He writes:

“For most of the past century, journalists could rely on career stability. Newspapers were an intermediary between advertisers and the public; it was as if their presses printed money.

“The benefit of this near-monopoly was that newsrooms were heavily stocked with reporters and editors, most of them passionate about creating journalism that made a difference in their communities.

“All of that is now yesterday’s birdcage lining. The sprawling lattice of local newsrooms is shrinking—105 newspapers closed in 2009 alone—whittled away by the rise of the Internet and decline of display ads, with the migration of classified advertising to Craigslist hitting particularly hard. Between 2000 and 2007.

“Meanwhile, what remains of print journalism is shifting, morphing into a loose web of digital outfits populated by a corps of underpaid young freelancers and keyboard hustlers, Twitter fiends and social-media soothsayers. Gone are the packed newsrooms. And gone, in many cases, are the older journalists.”

Russ Kendall, a former photojournalist, founded a Facebook group called What’s Your Plan B? a site for journalists who have been laid off, haven’t been laid off yet—which is everybody else—and those who have gone on to create a successful Plan B.

I’m a realist, and I know the market is changing and consumers don’t support independent news print newspapers anymore.

But with fewer professional voices out there, it remains up to readers to demand good solid journalism no matter where they are getting their news.

~Dan

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Dan Plutchak
Dan Plutchak, born and raised in Kaukauna, is cofounder of Kaukauna Community News.
https://www.facebook.com/KaukaunaCommunityNews
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