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The flipping of the Journal Sentinel – and what it means for readers in the future.

At Fourth and State streets on Wednesday, the other shoe dropped – and no one even knew it was hanging there, dangling from the institutional feet of the owner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Not even a year after the newspaper shed a significant part of its heritage – independent ownership – to become the flagship of a small national chain, the world turned upside down again for the Journal Sentinel’s staff, but also for readers and the community.

Journal Media Group, the newspaper company created in the complex deal consummated early this year between E.W. Scripps and the former Journal Communications, announced it was being sold again – this time to the nation’s largest chain of daily newspapers, Gannett Co.

“People are horrified,” says one newsroom insider.

Horrified and upset. When the Scripps-Journal Communications deal was first hatched more than a year ago to essentially trade Journal Broadcasting to Scripps in return for the Scripps newspaper holdings, JS management worked to woo employees and the newsroom union, Local 51 of The Newspaper Guild, to endorse the deal. (The union declined, but leaders also decided not to flat-out oppose that transaction.)

The management sales pitch to employees included a vow that the paper wouldn’t be sold again for at least two years, one senior reporter pointed out in a post to the union’s private Facebook account that was passed along to me.

“That’s how Smith” – Steve Smith, the Journal Communications CEO who helped engineer the Scripps deal – “got his golden parachute,” the union member said in the post. “We got empty words.”

But at $280 million – $12 a share – the 44 percent premium on Journal Media’s Wednesday closing stock price of $8.30 seems likely to persuade current shareholders to grab the deal while it’s hot.

Just as the Journal/Scripps transaction split the Journal affiliated newspaper operation from the broadcast business, Gannett has also spun off its broadcasting properties at the beginning of this year.

The announcement Wednesday is “certainly the biggest deal” for Gannett since then, says Jim Hopkins, a former business reporter for Gannett’s USA Today newspaper who went on to run the now-discontinued Gannett Blog covering his former employer for six years.

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But it doesn’t stop there: Hopkins points out that it’s the biggest acquisition for Gannett since the summer of 2000, when it bought the Thomson Newspapers chain. That transaction amped up Gannett’s footprint in Wisconsin substantially, from two papers (dailies in Green Bay and Wausau) to 10, including papers in Appleton, Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, and Sheboygan.

With the JS’s current circulation of about 200,000, “that still makes it one of Gannett’s bigger newspapers,” says Hopkins. “The Milwaukee paper’s a big addition to Gannett overall.”

Still, where the JS is now the big fish in the small Journal Media Group pond, it will now be one of several not-quite-as-big fish in the Gannett ocean, forced to compete for corporate favor with papers in Phoenix and Detroit – oh, and USA Today, which supplants the JS in the flagship role.

Pointing to trends already well underway in the Gannett fold, Hopkins says readers can expect more “content sharing,” especially with the chain’s other in-state papers. That’s something the Journal Sentinel is already trying, permitting the independently owned Kenosha News and Janesville Gazette to reprint selected JS news stories. (Full disclosure: Along with the work I do for Milwaukee Magazine and other publications as a freelance journalist, I hold a part-time copy editing position at the Kenosha News.)

Employees of Gannett papers in the state can expect fewer jobs as well.

Hopkins predicts that under Gannett the JS will evolve toward the format that Gannett has imposed throughout its 90-plus papers. That format starts with a front section dominated by local news stories. (The post-Scripps-merger JS has already moved in that direction, pushing national and world news further back in the paper.)

At the Gannett papers, though, Hopkins says increasingly the local paper is then being wrapped around a truncated version of USA Today, essentially letting that stand as the local readers’ only source for national and world news.

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The future of the paper’s Madison bureau is ambiguous, Hopkins notes. On the one hand, with content to offer 11 papers around the state instead of just one, JS Capitol reporters should have no shortage of demand for their coverage. Yet a likely scenario, he points out, would be for the chain to now assign those reporters to feed locally relevant stories to each of the chain’s papers around the state. Yet that responsibility would effectively dilute the bureau’s detailed coverage of state policymaking and bureaucracy, an underappreciated strength at the Journal Sentinel.

Finally, even as corporate headquarters winds up in McLean, Va., Milwaukee readers can expect reassuring promises of sustained local control. Indeed, in Thursday’s Journal Sentinel story on the news, Publisher Betsy Brenner sounds just that note. “All of the news decisions, the editorial decisions, the community support — everything we do isn’t going to change,” Brenner told the paper’s Paul Gores. “We’re still here. We make our decisions and run our newsrooms out of Milwaukee, not anywhere else. We serve our advertisers and subscribers out of Milwaukee, not anywhere else.”

Hopkins dismisses such assertions. However much the company will insist it’s leaving local editorial decisions alone, “That’s just not true,” he says. “That will not be true.

“In a year there will be a different publisher. There will be a different editor. And the content of the newspaper will be different.”

*

Back on the media beat: Longtime Milwaukee Magazine readers may recall my authorship of the Pressroom column from 2006-2011, and the companion online column Pressroom Buzz during and after some of that time.

After an informal sabbatical from Pressroom Buzz, I’m back covering media news for the magazine and its website. There’s a new name, MediaWatch, reflecting a somewhat broader vision for this regular feature. Look for stories online about once a month or so, and additional work in the papers of the magazine as well.

Although these are tough times, it’s good to be back with a ringside seat. And I like how all this print fits like new.

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