For years, Oak Creek Mayor Richard Bolender has heard the same complaint about his town’s newspaper. The Oak Creek Pictorial “is a nice little newspaper, but there’s very little in it about Oak Creek,” he says. Now there’s likely to be even less. Community Newspapers Inc., owned by Journal Communications, has slashed its stable of […]
For years, Oak Creek Mayor Richard Bolender has heard the same complaint about his town’s newspaper. The Oak Creek Pictorial “is a nice little newspaper, but there’s very little in it about Oak Creek,” he says.
Now there’s likely to be even less. Community Newspapers Inc., owned by Journal Communications, has slashed its stable of suburban weeklies, merging 18 publications into just 11. The Oak Creek Pictorial has been merged with the papers that covered Cudahy, St. Francis, South Milwaukee and Bay View. Some 15 jobs have been eliminated, out of roughly 140 (full- and part-time) at CNI. The company says this will be partially offset by “at least” 10 new jobs providing new online content.
As a result, the CNI papers are likely to become more homogenized, eroding the distinctive identities separating local communities, and offer less reporting of vital issues.
CNI was born a half-century ago when Duane Dunham started The Pictorial in what was then the brand-new municipality of Oak Creek. Dunham gradually stitched together a thriving chain of weeklies in the suburbs surrounding Milwaukee. Though owned by one company, each of the 21 papers was relentlessly local, hiring reporters who often worked out of their homes to cover local schools and government.
In the early 1980s, says Dunham, a Milwaukee Journal executive took him to lunch. Would he be interested in selling CNI? “I said, ‘Oh, no, the feds would be on my tail in no time,’” he recalls. Instead, Dunham went on to sell CNI in December 1986 to Sun Media Corp., which ran a similar ring of weeklies in the Cleveland suburbs. Eleven years later, in 1997, Journal Communications bought CNI from Sun.
The deal added to Journal Communications’ local media might. But onlookers wondered when, more than whether, the parent company would cut overhead by piggybacking the suburban papers with the daily. Declining circulation at both the daily Journal Sentinel and the CNI weeklies made this more likely. By March 2006, CNI had a combined circulation of 51,110, down by about 15,000, or more than 20 percent, since September 2000.
In January, Journal Communications announced that it was bringing CNI under direct control of Journal Sentinel Publisher Betsy Brenner. In June, CNI and the Journal Sentinel teamed up to launch a half-dozen Web sites, all dubbed “Now,” covering Brookfield and Elm Grove; Germantown; Mequon and Thiensville; Shorewood; Waukesha; and Wauwatosa, with plans for a dozen more by the end of this year. In August came the decision to cut the number of print weeklies nearly in half.
A former CNI manager says publications with strong commercial bases (to support advertising), good demographics and “highly literate” populations have -generally been spared. Thus, papers in Brookfield, Elm Grove, Franklin, Greendale, Hales Corners, Muskego and Wauwa-tosa will continue. “They’ve strengthened the North Shore paper” – which covers communities from Shorewood to Brown Deer and is now adding Mequon-Thiensville – “and they’ve vastly improved the Wauwatosa paper,” the source notes. Meanwhile, Greenfield, New Berlin and West Allis newspapers are being merged, along with the South Shore publications. Reporters are spread increasingly thin. Just one covers Germantown and Menomonee Falls, for instance.
Greenfield Mayor Michael Neitzke questions why the Greenfield Observer was merged with weeklies from West Allis and New Berlin – the latter in Waukesha County – instead of more logically with Greendale, Franklin and Hales Corners. “It seems they made their decision based on circulation numbers as opposed to the synergies between cities.”
The newly combined “Now” Web sites use material from CNI publications and Journal Sentinel suburban reporters, but much of the content comes straight from readers, free of charge: blogs, submitted photographs, unfiltered press releases. Indeed, while the old-fashioned news generated by journalists is listed down the left-hand side, it’s the press releases that occupy the site’s prime real estate at the top and center. (CNI referred inquiries to Sharon Prill, vice president of interactive media and marketing, who did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.)
The often folksy material from readers brings into cyberspace the kind of fare found in old country newspapers that reported on who was in the hospital and who had guests for Sunday dinner. And much of the old bread-and-butter of weeklies – what the common council or school board did last week – can be found online on governmental Web sites.
But will readers do the more time-consuming research to find this information? And what about coverage of civic controversies and po-litical campaigns? Simply posting press releases with no reporting “seems to be failing all of us,” says Neitzke, depriving readers of a cohe-sive understanding of the issues.
The best journalism has always helped set the civic agenda – not telling people what to think, but rather what to think about. It remains to be seen whether these new, reporter-lite Web newspapers can fill that role.