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Another Buyout
The JS retrenches yet again. Plus, questions about a new news service.

Last week Journal Communications reported a 24 percent drop in net income. This week, the Journal Sentinel announced a new round of buyouts.

“Our company is continually examining our staffing based on business conditions and our longer term outlook,” JS Publisher Betsy Brenner told employees in a letter distributed Monday. “Midway through 2011, this means adjusting these levels to align with our revenues.”

The paper’s “Voluntary Separation Program” is open to employees in both the news and operations departments – the latter an area that includes production, circulation operations and prepress. Employees have until Aug. 19 to sign up.

Those who go for it can get two weeks of pay for every year they’ve worked for the paper and medical coverage for six months.

Pressroom Buzz has learned that newsroom employees are being told they aren’t the principal target this time. Editor Marty Kaiser told a newsroom meeting on Monday, says one insider, that “this is aimed much more at the production and circulation departments.” Newsroom buyouts could number fewer than 10. Additionally, the paper has the option of turning down an employee’s buyout request.

The Business Journal reported (subscription required) last week that the Journal Communications’ publishing group, which includes the JS as well as other print media, has already cut 120 positions through attrition this year.

Meanwhile, as both AV Club and OnMilwaukee.com’s Tim Cuprisin have noticed, in reporting last week on the company’s drop in income, Brenner indicated the likely emergence of a pay wall at the newspaper next year.

It’s a rapidly growing strategy, led by The New York Times’ reintroduction of a pay system earlier this year.

As Paid Content recently noted, the Times’ new system has in six months garnered as many paid subscribers as its old “Times Select” model did in three years.

And Tuesday morning The Business Journal broke the news that Journal Communications was selling a Florida community paper.

UPDATE: Speculation in the newsroom, Pressroom Buzz has learned, holds that the buyout plan may have been triggered by a question that investor Mario Gabelli – who’s been accumulating Journal Company stock – raised in last week’s earnings conference call: Namely, whether the drop in earnings would lead to layoffs or job cuts.

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When the Wisconsin Reporter news service first appeared, the outfit caught my interest. Given its sponsorship by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity -- a North Dakota-based conservative group -- I wondered if it would turn out to be a front for conservative commentary in the guise of news reporting.

Bill Lueders clearly had similar questions when, as then-news editor at the Madison alt weekly Isthmus, he wrote a short item last year about the new operation. Lueders noted that Franklin Center’s President Jason Steverak had served

stints as regional field director for the pro-free-market Sam Adams Alliance and executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party. But he says the Franklin Center has no political agenda beyond its belief “in as much freedom of information as possible.”

Lueders noted that the Franklin Center’s funding remains secret, in contrast to other nonprofit news outlets such as the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, where Lueders now works. Meanwhile, Media Matters for America, the liberal press watchdog group that regularly pillories Fox News and others, has published two attacks on the Franklin Center’s conservative ties. And Washington Monthly examined the Franklin Center in depth in a story by Laura McGann of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab.

In the months after I read Lueders’ short article, I kept an eye out for Wisconsin Reporter stories, which are provided free of charge to local papers around the state (including the Kenosha News, where I work part time as a copy editor). I was particularly curious whether stories would betray a strong ideological slant.

In my casual review, it looked at first like many of the stories really were played down the middle. Last week, though, Capital Times Editor Emeritus Dave Zweifel fisked a recent Wisconsin Reporter piece examining campaign donations to Republican and Democratic state senators who face recall elections this month. The Reporter’s piece took the angle that 25 percent of the funds going to three Democratic senators came from out of state, while out-of-state funds to the six Republican senators amounted to less than 7 percent.

As Zweifel pointed out:

It was a unique way of spinning numbers, using percentages to negate the fact that the Republican senators had pulled in twice the amount of out-of-state money as the Dems.

He continued:

The story went on to report that “unions continued to funnel money to recall efforts,” but never mentioned the funds coming from corporate PACs, right-wing anti-gay and pro-life fronts and other cultural war organizations that have made a habit of spending lavishly on Wisconsin races, including this spring’s Supreme Court contest between David Prosser and JoAnne Kloppenburg.

Concluded Zweifel:

...it’s yet another endeavor by opportunistic conservatives to jump in to fill a void created by the economic woes of traditional media. Media that want to use the stories can do so for free. You have to take your hat off to conservatives for being creative in spreading their message and masking their true identity.

Milwaukee Magazine alum Jim Romenesko picked up on Zweifel’s column. Romensko also published an email from an anonymous reader who recounted a five-point questionnaire that came when the reader had applied to work for the Wisconsin Reporter.

The questions:

1. How do free markets help the poor? How do government programs help the poor?

2. How does government policy sometimes lead to unintended consequences?

3. Name a good education reform idea that Wisconsin should consider.

4. What is the best way to turn Wisconsin’s economy around?

5. Do higher taxes lead to balanced budgets?

I thought something was off when they asked me to answer these policy-based questions, Romenesko’s reader noted. Seemed counterintuitive for a journalism job.

But one respected journalism educator suggests editors -- increasingly hard-pressed for resources -- can still make potential use of material such as that from Wisconsin Reporter. Al Cross, of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, writes:

...my advice to editors and news directors would be to judge each of the stories individually, with a careful eye and a sharp edit, and use a tagline giving the source of the story and the center’s background. Sometimes the best place for a story might be the opinion page. Local news outlets need more news on state issues, but it needs to be trustworthy.

I sent some questions to Wisconsin Reporter about all this. If I hear back, I’ll post an update.

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And in a few other items of interest this week around the media world.

Sports Trades: The Green Bay Press Gazette and the Wisconsin State Journal have announced a plan, reported in the Business Journal, to trade sports coverage, with the Green Bay paper covering the Packers while the State Journal covers UW sports.

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What’s in a label? PolitiFact, the fact-checking franchise at the Journal Sentinel and nationwide, has dropped the classification “Barely True” in favor of “Mostly False.”

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Missed Message? Mother Jones observes that the resurgence of Scandinavian ultra-right-wing politics, which drove the man who committed the Norway massacres, were among the underlying targets of the late Steig Larsson, author of the trilogy that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yet, writes MoJo’s James Ridgeway: ... this part of his message never quite got through. Instead, the world stood in shock this weekend as Norway fell victim to precisely the kind of extremist violence Larsson had warned about.

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Whang Dang, Sweet Poon -- Never Mind: Joe Strupp of Media Matters thought he’d scored an interview with rocker Ted Nugent. Nugent’s people pulled back after Strupp emailed his questions.

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