In Buzz Commentary

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a once proud paper, is on life support and almost dead. (PHOTO: Matt Mueller)

The daily newspaper is on life support and the plug is being pulled

The question, and it may not be easily answered, is whether anyone under the age of 50 actually cares that Milwaukee is virtually without a daily newspaper.

When I was starting out in the world of journalism, one of my jobs was to write the obituaries for Wisconsin soldiers who had been killed in Vietnam. Since those days, I never wrote another death notice.

Until now.

As sad as it makes me, I am faced with the reluctant task of writing another obituary, this one for the local newspaper in the City of Milwaukee.

When a loved one dies, the family obviously mourns. But I don't see or hear much sadness about what's happened to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The latest peal of the death knell came over the weekend in one of those notes to readers from editor George Stanley. Stanley outlined coming changes, including the merging of several sections into one, cutting some features either entirely or to alternate weeks and the return of "Parade" magazine on Sunday.

It was another in a long line of assertions about how the newspaper is going to better serve readers and the city by cutting staff, shrinking the size of the paper, cutting features, cutting staff again, using a larger font and being sold to a giant media chain.

When I worked at the newspaper it was widely regarded as one of the best in the country. And the backbone of the paper – the envy of others around the country – was the strength of its local coverage. The saying was that if something happened in Milwaukee, you could read about it in the paper.

There were almost 400 hardworking and skilled journalists who blanketed the state and the city. It was a paper that led in this community. It was a force for civic engagement.

Now, there is almost nothing left. The Newspaper Guild, the union that represents reporters and editors, has less than 100 members. Look at the listing of staff devoted to gathering and writing the news and you have fewer than 100, and 17 of them are in a sports department that has become more of a booster than anything else.

This is a paper that used to deliver more than half a million editions. Now the audited circulation is just above 150,000.

The Journal Sentinel has found itself caught in the same decline in readership with which other papers have been hit. As delivery systems of news changed, the newspapers lost readers. Classified advertising, which was once a revenue cow for local papers, has all but disappeared from the Journal Sentinel. Craigslist, and others like it, murdered this source of funds. You want to buy something or sell something, you just go online.

The Journal Sentinel was slow to move to an online presence and still struggles with any kind of local identity and focus on what's going on in Milwaukee. They've eliminated many of the beats, where a reporter was responsible for coverage of various specific institutions or subjects. What the paper has said, implicitly, is that all of those things don't really matter, and even if they did we don't have resources to cover them anymore.

Maybe that's true. But I may well be a minority of one who thinks we are much poorer without an aggressive and comprehensive newspaper in our daily lives. It may be that most of the people today don't give a hoot one way or the other. Maybe they don't care about the news or maybe they care and get it elsewhere.

Newspapers have always been a central part of life in a city, Milwaukee included. It's where people went for news about their community, for an exchange of information, for entertainment.

Peter Goldberg is a retired assistant chief in the public defender's office in Wisconsin. He's a graduate of Harvard and a friend. He wrote this after seeing Stanley's newspaper column:

Reading between the lines of today's diminished "Journal Sentinel," the subliminal message is Peter Goldberg you are obsolete – you actually want news. Well the news for you, George Stanley, is that you have driven a once proud paper into the ground, truncated generally to "pap". The so-called "Journal Sentinel" is neither, no longer a journal of our city, state, nation or world, nor a sentinel of the public good.

And, David Haynes (editorial page editor), serving the diminished readership "where they are" is to lose the forest for the trees: the readership is lessening because of your ever narrowing focus. The young, for instance, will not read your unappealing and frankly difficult to navigate webpage nor your other apps. The return of "Parade" magazine, proffered as a salve, is an insult to intelligence. And to add insult to injury, you had to do away with "Prince Valiant!?

I feel sorry for the remaining good staff journalists, who must be heartsick to be stuck in a deadend disaster that is the Gannett excuse for a newspaper. And I weep for Milwaukee and Wisconsin, supposedly "served" by this misguided excuse for journalistic enterprise.

It's possible that Goldberg and a handful of other old-timers, including me, are the only ones who feel sad about the death of the newspaper. It would be fascinating to know if there are other people who feel this way, as well, especially the younger generation.

(UPDATE: A paragraph was corrected to remove a statement that the Journal Sentinel did not have reporters assigned to some specific beats.)


Talkbacks

mygreendoor | March 6, 2017 at 9:06 a.m. (report)

I am one that finds it easier to get my news from the Internet or from TV. But I do lament the loss of outlets like the (old) Journal Sentinel, where reporters had to fact check, use credible sources, and get the blessing of an editor before it could be published. We're living in dangerous times where these steps are no longer followed and where fake news and embellished information abound - and where "news" is available so quickly that the average consumer doesn't bother questioning what they are reading.

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mbradleyc | March 3, 2017 at 5:59 a.m. (report)

I used to read at least two papers a day, depending on where I lived, for decades. I have bought I think one issue of one paper in the last 8 years. It was the JS, just because I was in town. I couldn't believe how thin it was and I think it cost $1.50! I get my news online from a dozen different sources. Those days are gone.

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