A JS alum, whose family was part of the paper for more than 80 years, reflects on the Gannett deal.
I stopped by Holy Cross Cemetery over the weekend to see if there was any evidence of my grandfather rolling over in his mausoleum.
Not so far.
Why he might do that: On Tuesday, stockholders voted at a special meeting to assure that the successor to the Journal Company, which Irwin Maier, my mom’s dad, had a hand in leading from the 1940s until the 1980s, will be acquired by Gannett, the biggest newspaper company in the United States. The deal is not quite final – but the sale is expected to close by the end of the month, assuming regulators approve.
If and when it does, it will mark the first time the Journal Sentinel – the union of the 134-year-old Journal and the 179-year old Sentinel – will have a home office other than in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Gannett is based in McLean, Virginia.
The company has not been an entirely local operation for the past year, since Journal Communications merged with the E.W. Scripps Co. and the merged company spun off the Milwaukee-based Journal Media Group, a combination of the JS and the dozen-plus Scripps daily newspapers around the country. It was JMG’s stockholders who just approved the sale to Gannett. The deal was a good one for them – the $12-per-share price was a 44 percent premium on the stock price on Oct. 7, when the announcement was made. But will it be a good deal for employees, and for readers? That remains to be seen, though Gannett is known for its lean operations.
I went to the stockholder’s meeting Tuesday, and it lasted less than 10 minutes. JMG Chairman Steve Smith announced that more than 92 percent of the voting shares approved the merger.
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My grandfather’s first job at The Journal was in 1924. The advertising department hired him on contract to sell ads for a special section marking the construction of the newspaper’s new building, which still stands at Fourth and State streets.
Irv went on to a fulltime ad sales job, and then rose to become publisher, president, CEO and chairman of the board of the Journal Company. In those days, metropolitan daily newspapers dominated the local media scene far more than they do today, and newspaper publishers were often among the small group of men (yes, men) who ran a town. Irv was an example of this. As a founding member of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, he was in on the construction of the Zoo, the old County Stadium and what’s now called the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. He played a role in luring the Brewers to town from Seattle in 1970; and he helped form an inter-racial civic group (“We Milwaukeeans”) during unrest in the 1960s. My late uncle Vic Maier told of going over to Irv’s house during the city’s worst civil disturbance, in 1967 – rioting that resulted in the National Guard being called out — and finding him meeting with Gov. Warren Knowles, Mayor Henry Maier and County Executive John Doyne.
At the newspaper, Irv was a Journal executive in 1937 when then president/editor Harry Grant instituted employee ownership, with the purpose of preserving local ownership of the paper. And he was in charge when the Journal bought Hearst’s Milwaukee Sentinel after a strike shut that paper down in 1962; he often said afterwards that his goal had been to keep two newspapers serving Milwaukee. I always thought it was ironic that the 1995 merger of the two papers was announced not long after Irv’s death in the fall of 1994. The 66-year-old employee ownership plan ended in 2003, when the company went public with an IPO.
Memories of my grandfather were part of why it felt so damned weird for me to walk away from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the end of 2014, after working there for a total of 24 years. And it’s also why it feels so surreal now, watching from the sidelines as Gannett prepares to take over. I never ascended to anywhere near the level Irv reached at the paper; I was a copy editor, a reporter and an assistant metro editor in the newsroom over the years. But I guess partly because of my grandfather – and certainly because of my regard for the people I worked with at Fourth and State – I’ve always felt linked through the heart to the paper’s ups and downs.
The downs are well known. As with daily newspapers all over the country, the Journal Sentinel’s hard-copy circulation and advertising revenue have declined over the years, and because of that, so has the size of its staff. Its employees have gone through repeated downsizings – the most traumatic of which (at least for us journalists) were the Journal-Sentinel 1995 merger and the Great Recession downsizing of 2009, when we lost a good portion of the newsroom staff. My 2014 departure was part of a smaller downsizing, in which more than a dozen experienced newsroom employees departed. (Full disclosure: most of us with a generous severance package.)
But the ups are significant, too. For the last 10 years, the JS has been one of the best regional newspapers in the country. The reporting and editing talent in that newsroom has been outstanding, I can tell you as someone who has worked with them all. At a time when the rest of the industry was cutting back its coverage, the Journal Sentinel doubled down on investigative reporting and projects, and that reporting won three Pulitzer Prizes in four years.
The daily product can be just as outstanding. I’m thinking especially of the front page of a Wednesday paper in late January, when a team of nine staffers reported extensively on the indictment of a young man accused of planning a terrorist attack in Downtown Milwaukee, Craig Gilbert wrote from Iowa about Donald Trump bowing out of the last Iowa debate, and Guy Boulton profiled Epic Systems’ founder, multibillionaire Judy Faulkner, who had pledged to give 99 percent of her family’s wealth to a nonprofit foundation.
It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t worked in a newsroom, but there is often great exhilaration in producing this daily mirror of the city. When a big story breaks, people come in on their day off, call in to ask what they can do. I remember so many times over the years when a dozen or so reporters were dispatched to something major: the collapse of the Big Blue crane at the Miller Park construction site; the shootings at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek (a science reporting intern suddenly became a crucial player in the coverage when it turned out she spoke Hindi); and the nonstop drama during the turmoil in Madison over Act 10 in 2011. I think that Wednesday paper in January must have been the product of a day like that in the newsroom. I missed being there that day.
Will there be more downsizings now that Gannett is taking over? Not for at least a year, according to a January JMG proxy statement laying out the proposed deal. After that… who knows? I talked in February to Bobby King, president of the Indianapolis NewsGuild, a union that represents newsroom and other staff at the Indianapolis Star. He said the paper’s copy desk is a small remnant of what it had before Gannett bought that paper in 2000, and its pages are now designed in Louisville. “Does Gannett streamline and consolidate and cut payroll when they can? Absolutely,” said King, adding that the average age in the newsroom had dropped as the company focuses more on online content.
Still, King said, the overall staff is around 100, not far from the size of the Journal Sentinel’s now. And the paper still does in-depth projects (the kind the JS is known for), and in fact, King had been working on one almost exclusively for the past eight months when we talked in late February. So it’s possible there are more Pulitzer Prizes in the JS’ future under Gannett.
Obviously, there will be changes here when Gannett takes control. There’s been speculation that the national and international news in the paper will come now from USA Today, Gannett’s big national paper, instead of, mostly, the Associated Press. There surely will eventually be some consolidation of newsroom production duties; I know my friends on the copy and design desks must be nervous about that. Will George Stanley remain the editor? I hope so.
I had an email exchange with Stanley last week in which he expressed optimism for the new ownership.
“Gannett’s two top executives came in here the day the deal was announced,” he wrote, “and they sounded like they truly understand what we do and want to figure out a sustainable future for regional news organizations like ours… Given all the changes that technology has brought to our business, and the scale needed to succeed at digital advertising, this may be the best home for our regional news enterprise right now.”
I still think it’s sad that the paper won’t be locally owned anymore. And I don’t know now that there will be somebody at the top of the company who cares so much about Milwaukee, and holds so much influence in the state, that the governor, the mayor and the county executive will come to his or her house to deliberate over the good of the city.
At Holy Cross Cemetery on Saturday, I had one of those long talks with my grandfather that you see people have in the movies. I hadn’t visited since his funeral in 1994, and I told him everything that had happened at the paper since then – the Journal-Sentinel merger, the downsizings, the Pulitzers and now the deals, first with Scripps and then with Gannett.
People ask me, what would Irv say about all this? I don’t know. Situations change. Businesses do their best to survive and thrive. As George Stanley says, Gannett might be the best home for the JS now. I surely hope so.
Still, when it came time to vote my last JMG shares Tuesday, I abstained. And the majority ruled.