Does Tim Stautberg have what it takes to save the newspaper industry – or at least, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its brand-new step-siblings?
No one knows. But the CEO of the new Journal Media Group is showing one skill in abundance: mastery of the smooth, soothing answer to the potentially prickly question.
Stautberg, who officially became the man at the top of the Journal Sentinel’s parent company on April Fool’s Day, had his latest Milwaukee coming out party on Tuesday at a joint Milwaukee Press Club-Milwaukee Rotary Club luncheon.
Fielding questions from a panel of journalists (Milwaukee Magazine Editor Kurt Chandler, the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Rich Kirchen, and WTMJ-TV’s Charles Benson) and from the audience, Stautberg stayed relentlessly upbeat and relentlessly on message – which pretty much amounted to the same thing. He managed an enthusiasm tempered with realism as he assessed the future of the JS, print media in general, and the ink-on-paper JS as well, which he hopes will keep printing “a long, long time.” That answer that produced a ripple of applause in the lunchtime crowd at the War Memorial.
Stautberg ascended to his current post as part of the complicated “spin-spin, merge-merge” transaction by which two former multi-media conglomerates – the former Journal Communications Inc. and E.W. Scripps Co. – divided and then traded their broadcast and newspaper holdings. Cincinnati-based Scripps got JCI’s broadcast properties in the deal – including local outlets WTMJ-TV Channel 4 as well as radio stations WTMJ-AM and WKTI-FM. Meanwhile, the 13 Scripps newspaper properties were added to JCI’s print inventory to form the new Journal Media Group, with the Journal Sentinel as the flagship of the fleet.
Conventional wisdom has generally held that by getting the broadcast piece of the business, Scripps got the better end of the deal. But if Stautberg privately thinks that, he betrayed no misgivings at all.
Even as he stood up for the continued viability of the print medium for delivering news – “the newspaper was the first mobile app,” he quipped at one point – Stautberg reiterated what has been clear since even long before the merger was announced last summer: Success will depend on striking the right balance between digital offerings – including video, which has been part of the menu offered both in Milwaukee and in the other newspaper markets – and ink on paper.
In addition, he said, the key to survival is increasingly seen as a deeper engagement with a core group of subscribers and readers – a higher tier of customers. Figuring out how to make that work, Stautberg said, will be the ongoing challenge for Journal Media, the Journal Sentinel, and the industry overall: “The subscription or membership model is something we really have to get right.”
He offered as a conceptual model the credit card industry: While the basic ability to charge purchases to a card is available essentially for free thanks to no-annual-fee cards, there remain people willing to pay American Express “$495 a year for a platinum card.”
Sidestepping questions about editorial content – that, he observed, is the responsibility of local editors like the Journal Sentinel’s George Stanley – Stautberg nonetheless stressed the continued commitment to support in-depth investigative reporting at the paper and throughout the chain.
Scripps’ own surveys before the merger showed readers value the in-depth work, he noted. And with the addition of the “baker’s dozen” ex-Scripps papers, Stautberg pointed out, the extensive examination by JS reporter Ellen Gabler of medical lab testing errors nationwide got the story in front of readers all over the country, not just Milwaukee.
Stautberg said corporate doesn’t dictate editorial policy, but collaboration among the JS and the other dailies is a given.
Editors conduct regular group phone meetings across the chain, sharing ideas for stories to dig into as well as content. The pre-merger Scripps papers shared a common design template (no word on whether that will be coming to Milwaukee). And in recent years its papers in Texas and California began submitting copy to be edited by consolidated copy desks – something Stautberg says was an improvement over the local copy editing it replaced, which he asserted was skimpy to non-existent.
Responding to one audience questioner, Stautberg acknowledged that a company principle of non-interference with local editorial stances and decisions is a policy without any legally enforceable standing, one that future executives could wipe out if they chose.
But he stressed his belief that it made the best business sense to let local editors respond to their local communities rather than submit to political or ideological dictates from corporate headquarters.
In a similar vein, he declined to weigh in on his own opinion about the proposal for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena. That alone cut a sharp contrast with JCI’s one-time chairman, Robert A. Kahlor, who famously helped spearhead the campaign to replace the old Milwaukee County Stadium with what is now Miller Park.
“As CEO of the parent company, it’s not for me to be weighing in with my view on these types of things,” Stautberg said when Chandler asked whether he intended to take a stance on the emerging arena proposal and its $250 million price tag for the taxpayers. “I don’t really know that it matters what Tim Stautberg thinks.”