The man who will run the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s new parent company is in town this week, meeting with executives and others at the newspaper and its corporate offices.
Currently head of the newspaper group at E.W. Scripps, Tim Stautberg (right) will in 2015 ascend to the post of CEO of the new Journal Media Group – the new Milwaukee-based company that will install the JS as the flagship of more than a dozen newspapers across the country in the complex transaction that will cede all of the Journal Communications broadcast holdings to Scripps.
“It’s important for me to build my relationships with the folks in Milwaukee,” Stautberg said in telephone interview Monday from Journal Communications’ offices – emphasizing that that included the corporate level and in the Journal Sentinel’s news operation.
Stautberg casts his mission in the emerging company as “to really serve the 3,600 employees in the 14 communities where we operate with thoughtful leadership.” As the company brings together the Scripps papers with the JS, he says, Job One is “very quickly getting everyone on the same page as we chart our course into the future.”
That future includes a commitment to strong local coverage – including in-depth coverage at which the JS already excels, he says. It also includes continuing to find new ways to make money in a business that has seen returns dwindle over the last two decades.
It doesn’t include a big editorial shakeup in Milwaukee, though, Stautberg says: He asserts he sees no prospects for a management shuffle at the Journal Sentinel.
David Milstead, who wrote about finance on the business desk at the Scripps-owned Rocky Mountain News until the Denver-based tabloid folded in 2009, dealt with Stautberg frequently while covering the Rocky and its eight-year joint operating agreement with the Denver Post.
Scripps kept its hands off Milstead’s coverage of the company, even during the drama surrounding the Rocky’s ultimate demise.
“I tried to write about the situation like I would about any other company,” says Milstead, who now covers investing as a Denver-based freelancer. The paper’s top editor recused himself from reviewing stories when, as a Scripps executive, he was aware of facts Milstead wasn’t privy to – a practice that Milstead says helped him feel more comfortable with the integrity of the process. “I never once removed my name that I recall from a story about the paper because I thought it was embarrassing.”
As the person in charge of investor relations for Scripps at the time, Stautberg was a primary spokesman for the company. Securities and Exchange Commission regulations largely limited what he could say to what was already disclosed in documents filed with the agency. But within that framework, “he was very professional, very well-spoken,” Milstead recalls. “He knew what he was going to say when I asked a question.”
Stautberg was smooth– but not slippery or glib, he says, and never untruthful. “The answers he gave had a certain depth to them.”
Milstead acknowledges that how Stautberg executed his role in those days says little or nothing about how he might influence the paper’s editorial operations. Nonetheless, the qualities he describes were on full display during my 30 minute phone conversation with the Journal Media CEO-to-be.
Stautberg will bring to the task his experience most recently in leading the Scripps newspapers as they move deeper into the digital age. “We have been focused on the consumer side of our business,” Stautberg says, “building our digital products and services to complement our printed newspapers.”
Such “bundled” subscriptions – similar to what the JS has already been doing in providing access via tablet, online, mobile phone as well as ink-on-paper – have had “great success” in winning over the Scripps newspapers’ readers, he says.
“As of today close to 40 percent of our home delivery subscribers have activated their digital accounts and are engaged with us on those other platforms,” Stautberg says. “We’re seeing an increasing amount of time spent with our products. If time spent is a proxy for value, then I'd argue that our relationship is growing more valuable with consumers.”
Editorially, the Scripps papers have been identifying and digging into a handful of “franchise topics,” focusing not only on reporting, but also seeking to serve as community leaders in the search for solutions. For example, in Florida, Scripps-owned dailies The Stuart News, the Indian River Press Journal, and the St. Lucie News-Tribune have focused on environmental coverage of the Indian River Lagoon, both as a recreational resource and as a delicate part of the area’s ecosystem, Stautberg says.
The corporate approach in such efforts is to have “a light footprint,” he says – encouraging execution, facilitating collaboration among various publications, but not trying to dictate content or slant. “Our role is to support the leaders at the local level in making good decisions and allocating resources.”
For JS readers and staffers, such pitches may be intended as reassurance more than anything else. “The newsroom here in Milwaukee at the Journal Sentinel is one of the best newsrooms in the country among daily newspapers,” Stautberg says. “It would be presumptuous for me to be providing guidance as to how they are covering their community.”
And he rejects dismissive assessments that suggest the Scripps/Journal deal breaks the two companies into a “winning” broadcast business and a “losing” print one.
“I think it’s a superficial analysis to declare winners and losers in a transaction like this,” Stautberg says. “The board of directors of both companies believe, and I would hope that the shareholders would agree, that it’s a win-win for everyone to have, at the end of this, two successful local media businesses, each with a particular media focus and legacy. It’s premature to handicap which would be more successful in the coming years, and by what measure.”
There remains one big question, however: What will happen to coverage of Washington, D.C.?
The Journal Sentinel’s bureau is “one of many things that we need to discuss and figure out a plan to be sure we care for that,” Stautberg says.
Scripps also has a bureau covering the nation’s capital. That operation serves both the newspapers and the television newsrooms of the current company. It’s outside the newspaper division that Stautberg heads and will remain part of E.W. Scripps after the Journal Media Group spin-off.
It is possible that Journal Media Group might want to make some use of the Scripps bureau, Stautberg says. But he doesn’t expect to see the Journal Sentinel D.C. bureau folded into the Scripps bureau (“I don’t think that would make sense”), and he also professes no plans to abandon D.C.: “It’s important for us to be there.”
When it comes to knowing just what it means “for us to be there,” however, Milwaukee readers may have to wait until next year.
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Above photo of Tim Stautberg is courtesy of The E.W. Scripps Company.