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No More Business as Usual
A new look, new name, new approach and some new people for the Milwaukee Business Journal.
The new look that the renamed Milwaukee Business Journal sported when it landed on newsstands and in some 12,000 mailboxes last Friday is part of a nationwide makeover for the paper and its 39 sibling publications, all owned by American City Business Journals.

“This is really a national effort to rebrand all of our papers,” says MBJ editor Mark Kass. The San Jose edition of the paper was first to get the design changes; Milwaukee was no. 24. By the end of March the revisions will be complete at all 40 papers in the chain, which is a unit of closely held Advance Publications. (Advance also owns more than 20 daily papers nationally along with Condé Nast, which publishes The New Yorker, GQ, Wired and many other magazines.)

Color throughout the print edition, a more magazine-style cover design and a bigger promotion of its five reporters by name are all part of the rebranding. In part, says Kass, the content is being tweaked to reflect the expanding role of the Internet in the MBJ’s operations.

And then there’s the name: The paper has simplified its moniker from the ponderous Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee, to the shorter, new handle – which happens to be what pretty much everyone has called the paper since its founding in 1983.

Part of the new look actually dates back about a year. That’s when the paper began highlighting the paper’s lean reporting staff, with a dedicated page spread for each in the print edition filled with punchy short news stories from their beats and topped with smiling (mostly) headshots.

“Our reporters are our major brands,” says Kass. “They’re a huge part of our success. It’s really about trying to hold them up as experts in their fields.”

Another aim of those pages is to deal with a fundamental change that the paper has made in how and where it reports its stories.

“About six months to a year ago, we became a web-first newsroom,” Kass says. “We no longer hold stories for print; we run them online as they happen.” That might seem like a ho-hum decision these days – the daily Journal Sentinel and increasing numbers of its compatriots across the country break stories online before they go to print. But the MBJ only prints once a week.

“For 25 or 30 years we always wanted to break news in our paper,” Kass says. “Nowadays, in the current world, we can’t.”

Yet it’s hard to shake a first impression
that the publication is going a bit soft. It’s certainly more feature-laden. Because breaking news now runs on the web, Kass says, copy on those reporters’ pages needs to offer something different. That might not always be possible (“you also can't assume everyone's heard that news,” the editor notes). But short lists, graphics and other alternative ways to convey information – echoing a trend throughout journalism – help put “a new twist” on old stories, he adds.

And every week Kass promises a “significant story” that picks up a current business topic to examine in depth. For the first issue, associate editor and retail reporter Stacey Vogel Davis took a look at the future of Grand Avenue under  a piece headlined “Tear Down This Mall.” Though relatively short for an “in-depth” piece, it ventured into a somewhat livelier writing style than the paper displayed in the past. It was also supplemented by four short commentaries about how to fix the doddering shopping center and pointed readers to two more online.

While the paper wants to sell readers – and the sources it covers – on the expertise of the reporting staff, an inspection of the paper’s masthead reveals that in the last few years turnover has been up. Two of the five staff writers are brand new to the publication: Denise Lockwood, late of the all-but-defunct Patch.com, and Alison Bauter, who hit the ground running at the Racine Journal Times a little more than a year ago fresh out of J-school at UW-Madison. (It’s worth noting both have demonstrated talent, creativity and drive in their past positions, and both have solid experience in reader engagement online; that was part of Lockwood’s portfolio at Patch, and Bauter, besides being a smart, probing and highly readable reporter at the JT was also a prolific and attentive Twitter user there.)

Lockwood succeeded Jeff Engel, who left last year for a new opportunity (see below). Engel had joined the paper in 2012 after the surprise departures of longtime manufacturing reporter Rich Rovito and healthcare reporter Corrinne Hess; senior reporter Rich Kirchen took over Hess’s healthcare coverage.

(Full disclosure: Both Rovito and Hess have written for Milwaukee Magazine. Neither one has chosen to speak to me about their former employer.)

Kass declines to discuss personnel moves, saying only that the paper is fully staffed now. He did acknowledge that Wendy Strong, who for several years served as a correspondent on Channel 6 WITI-TV presenting Business Journal segments, no longer holds that position. But the partnership with Channel 6 remains, he says, with a Channel 6 camera in the MBJ newsroom and the operation’s staffs taking turns doing daily on-air bits.

The revised paper includes a food and entertainment page, catering to an interest in lifestyle stories, Kass says. Other additions –  a Q&A with people recognized in various MBJ list features and a monthly column taking readers inside entrepreneurial start-ups – feed readers’ desire for more people news, he adds.

About five years ago, the paper went to a pay wall model. Web-only stories are open to anyone, meaning most breaking news is now free. Print edition stories require a subscription to read online in the first month after publication.

The strategy, common to all American City Business Journals properties, has helped MBJ maintain a steady, if modest, subscription growth in recent years. “We have really held on to our print subscribers,” says Kass – and they (or their employers) pay about $100 a year to keep it coming.

He hopes the paper’s new look will keep up the trend.

Speaking of Jeff Engel... The former Business Journal manufacturing reporter was hired away in November to open a Wisconsin branch of Xconomy.com, a web-only business news site.

Engel describes his new employer as “a news and events company committed to hyperlocal coverage of the high-technology sector, with a focus on cleantech, health IT, life sciences, mobile, and startups.” After starting in Boston, the outlet has launched sites in Denver, Detroit, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Wisconsin.

(Think Patch—but with a high-tech business focus and what sounds to me like a much more sustainable growth plan.)

The focus is on innovation, Engel says, and in Wisconsin, water technology, energy and advanced manufacturing are among the core subjects he expects to cover.


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