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Why the sale of the Journal Sentinel was inevitable, what's next for the paper, and why the Gannett acquisition may just be the best of a bad bunch of options.

Now comes the waiting.

The news a week ago that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is poised to join the nation’s largest chain of daily newspapers, Gannett Co., was, in retrospect, nearly as inevitable as it was unexpected.

“I think the announcement caught just about everyone in the newsroom flat-footed,” says JS columnist Dan Bice. “It was like Scott Walker’s calling it quits on his presidential bid. We thought Journal Media Group would be sold at some point; we just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.”

Yet, like the clues in a detective novel that get laid bare only in the last chapter, the hints of what was to come can be read in the rearview mirror.

About the same time as the Journal/Scripps transaction was consummated early this year, Gannett executed its own newspaper/broadcast split, spinning off the TV stations and other broadcast properties it owned as a separate company.

The two transactions have something else in common: Both pushed all the debt into the broadcast companies, leaving the newspaper entities debt-free. And soon thereafter, Gannett made it clear it was going to use its newly cleared balance sheet to power additional acquisitions.

But of course, no one – me included – even noticed at the time.

So what comes next?

Just as no one saw this coming in advance, folks inside the Journal Sentinel as well as watchers outside can’t get any answers to that question. I’m told that to avoid possible violations of laws that prevent people from using “inside information” to buy or sell stock, there’s a total communication blackout right now between Gannett and Journal Media management.

Of course, some general predictions are possible, as I have already aired in this space. Once the deal is complete early next year, look for the JS Capitol bureau to become the Gannett Wisconsin Capitol bureau and to start feeding stories to the company’s other 10 papers in the state. The JS Washington bureau can be expected to be absorbed into Gannett’s D.C. operations, too.

That could mean farewell to the fascinating, data-rich political science reflected in Craig Gilbert’s ongoing exploration of Wisconsin voting patterns. Or it might mean putting some of that work on a broader canvas; Gannett has always had a fascination with chartable data, evidenced most strongly in its devotion to pie charts and bar graphs in the flagship USA Today.

As I told Mike Gousha last week when he taped Sunday’s Upfront program for WISN-TV, Channel 12, a major justification for chain ownership is the resulting economies of scale – such as regional shared copy desks (a very dicey form of “efficiency,” to be sure) or a common well for certain kinds of feature reporting. With that, though, is likely to come more homogenization. If you travel to Indianapolis, or Louisville, or Phoenix, you will see less distinction among the Gannett-owned dailies in those cities than you did under their previous owners. And you can expect a Journal Sentinel under Gannett to follow that crowd.

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This has little to do with whether local editors are calling the shots – something that chain ownership always vows will continue, and which skeptics point out is usually meaningless.

Gannett isn’t in the mold of the newspaper chain moguls of old like William Randolph Hearst, who made sure that coverage promoted their ideological agendas. But the company’s management will appoint editors who fit in with the culture, and, more importantly, will relentlessly set profit-margin expectations that must be met.

So one almost-certain casualty is the breadth and depth of the investment in investigative and long-form reporting that the Journal Sentinel has made over the last decade, earning it three Pulitzer Prizes in the process. That doesn’t mean such reporting will be totally eliminated – but it’s hard to imagine it won’t be scaled back.

Still, we also have to remember that we can’t separate this deal from the larger environment in which the newspaper industry still finds itself. It’s old news – but just as true: The single largest source of revenue on which newspapers historically depended, classified advertising, is a rapidly diminishing sliver of what it used to be. And the future of the advertising-based business model, especially for online publishers, looks dimmer than ever: As Dylan Tweeny at VentureBeat asks, “The question is, can they evolve new business models in time?”

Whatever the long-term future of newspapers might be, it’s tough to argue with the assertion that their real destiny is digital. Even publications about the news industry are affected. This week Columbia Journalism Review announced it was cutting back on print to focus on digital publication (just after delivering its latest print edition at about one-third the usual number of pages).

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In that light, the Gannett Journal Media acquisition may just be the best of a bad bunch of options.

That’s the perspective I got from a former Detroit Free Press journalist the other day. Gannett bought the Free Press from Knight Ridder in 2005. Knight Ridder itself was acquired by McClatchy a year later amid a continuing maelstrom of newspaper sales and takeovers – often by business owners appearing to have little or no interest in the business of journalism, whether in ink on paper or electrons on the screen.

“At the time Gannett bought the paper, we were all gagging,” my Free Press contact tells me. “Everyone saw Knight Ridder as more committed to telling the tough stories, no matter what it took. We saw Gannett as more formulaic, more likely to pander to get clicks, more focused on profit.

“Now, however, everyone is thrilled to be owned by Gannett, a news company, instead of some zany investor who has no news experience.

“I think Gannett is among the best owners you can hope for right now. The only better owner, in my opinion, would be a true digital innovator like Jeff Bezos” – the founder of Amazon who now owns The Washington Post.

For Journal Sentinel readers and staffers alike, that’s not much to bank on. But it seems to be all anyone’s got right now.

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