“Is anything new?” Pressroom asked a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel journalist recently. The reply was steeped in mordant humor: “No, other than the grim sense of foreboding, the constant speculation about who’s staying and who’s going, the fear about if and when and where the ax will fall, and the comments about the stench of death […]

“Is anything new?” Pressroom asked a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel journalist recently.

The reply was steeped in mordant humor: “No, other than the grim sense of foreboding, the constant speculation about who’s staying and who’s going, the fear about if and when and where the ax will fall, and the comments about the stench of death hanging over the place. Really not much at all.”

In July, the Journal Sentinel announced that another employee layoff was needed, the second in less than a year. At least 24 from the newsroom – including notables such as TV critic Joanne Weintraub,religion writer Tom Heinen,columnist Mike Nichols,investigative reporter Mary Zahnand cartoonist Stuart Carlson – decided (some reluctantly) to take a buyout and leave. All told, the company laid off 68 employees. In the wake of continued circulation declines and a stock price that’s plummeted to one-fourth of its value over the last four years, the departures only add to the pall at Fourth and State streets.

Nationally, newspapers are slashing staffs – from the mighty New York Times to the modest Modesto Bee. In August, the 85-paper Gannett chain, with 10 outlets in Wisconsin, announced 600 layoffs nationwide. Paper Cuts, a blog that tracks newspaper downsizing, counts over 8,000 jobs lost this year through late August, more than triple the total for all of 2007.

And mainstream dailies aren’t alone. Isthmus, Madison’s alternative weekly, laid off its executive editor and a staff writer. “We’re right on the break-even area,” Publisher Vince O’Hern tells Pressroom. “We’re not in danger of going out of business, but it’s a challenge.”

Other alt weeklies, especially older ones in bigger cities, are also having trouble, though smaller and younger ones are less affected, says Richard Karpel at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

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Blame the Internet but not only for competing with news. Free or cut-rate online classified ads have slaughtered the industry’s cash cow: jobs, housing and cars are all hawked much more efficiently on the Web. “It used to be newspapers would get as much as 50 percent of their profit from classifieds,” says Ken Doctor ,a media consultant in California. “The classified model is broken.”

The economic downturn in retail, autos and real estate has only added to the trouble as have soaring newsprint prices. “It’s been sort of this perfect storm,” says Journal Sentinel Editor Martin Kaiser .

As staffs get slashed, daily papers everywhere are handing off national and world coverage to a handful of big guns the New York Times, the Washington Post, the TV networks and the JS is no different. Kaiser and his colleagues across the country reason that the one thing keeping people reading their papers, online or in print, is local news they won’t find elsewhere.

“The paper of the future may be slimmer Monday through Friday Ð a quicker read,” Kaiser says. But he remains hopeful the Journal Sentinel will retain its high readership, especially on Sunday. And he vows to keep the paper’s commitment to fielding one of the largest investigative reporting teams in the country, lauded recently by Editor & Publisher and American Journalism Review.

Meanwhile, Madison’s Capitol Times and Superior’s Daily Telegram have essentially turned into online publications (both dailies cut back to weekly or twice-weekly printing). So far such transformations are rare, but more are likely to come.

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Perhaps the most radical change is that newspapers are capitalizing on the Net’s immediacy. “Newspapers are now competing directly with radio and television in the breaking-news business,” notes Madison newspaper consultant David Stoeffler .

Newspapers had long ago ceded breaking news to TV and radio, positioning themselves as the medium for depth and analysis. Now one of the JS’s most prominent features is its Newswatch blog that runs like an old news ticker atop the paper’s Web site. An “Internet hub” now dominates the newsroom, with flat-screen TVs that track online readers’ interest in stories. Daily papers are becoming more of a visual medium: the JS is adding videos (usually for lighter features rather than hard news) and multimedia slide shows.

The JS now has fewer than 250 newsroom employees, down from 355 after the Journal and Sentinel merged in 1995. It’s still the largest staff of any journalism outlet in the state. But how to pay for it?

No one in the industry can agree on the answer. Some papers are part of conglomerates that subsidize them through the profits of other divisions (for now). Others are charging for additional content, such as archived articles or niche publications. New, nonprofit news operations are getting foundation grants in the manner of National Public Radio.

But gone for good are the fat publications and big newsrooms of the 1980s and 1990s Ð in Milwaukee and nationwide. “Five years from now, newspapers will be considerably smaller enterprises,” says Doctor. “In the size of their companies, their newsrooms, and their daily newspaper product.

“The question is, how small?”

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