The post-Journal Communications world

What was left of Journal Communications died last week when regulators approved the purchase of Journal Media Group, the print arm of the late Journal Communications, by Gannett, the biggest newspaper owner in the country.

Two years ago the Journal “merger” with Scripps split Journal’s broadcast and print properties, and now Gannett’s purchase ends what was the largest media company in the state, and the media company Wisconsin journalists wanted to work for. The links go to my previous posts on how this is all bad for the state’s media consumers. (Those who read Gannett’s dailies in this state already know all of this. Those who have read this blog know that Journal’s going from employee-owned to publicly traded provided the pathway to its demise.)

Scripps, which owns the oldest commercial TV station in the state, the biggest commercial radio station (in terms of signal reach) in the state, and two TV stations in the state’s second largest media market, got with its Journal half Right Wisconsin, the conservative website tied to WTMJ’s Charlie Sykes.

Meanwhile, iHeart Media, the largest radio station owner in the U.S. (until its debt forces iHeart to divest itself of a lot of radio stations), owns radio stations in Milwaukee and Madison that carry conservative talkers Mark Belling and Vicki McKenna. Midwest Communications, now that rarest of things — a Wisconsin-based media company! — broadcasts Jerry Bader on Green Bay and Wausau radio stations.

(Media history aside: iHeart’s WISN, which carries Belling, McKenna and Rush Limbaugh, was owned by the Milwaukee Sentinel, the more conservative Journal Communications newspaper. Journal purchased the Sentinel in 1962 when Hearst, the Sentinel’s owner, threatened to close the Sentinel due to an employee strike. The Milwaukee Journal and the Sentinel had separate newsrooms but the same advertising, circulation and printing operations until the Journal and the Sentinel merged in 1995. More ironically, iHeart’s WIBA, which carries McKenna, was started by The Capital Times, the former left-wing Madison daily. William Evjue must be spinning in his grave.)

Bader discusses the state’s talk media environment:

Back in February Citizen Action of Wisconsin (CAW), a left-wing community organizing group based in Milwaukee declared war on conservative talk radio. For the most part, their declaration was greeted with the yawn it deserved; the left has tried to take out conservative hosts before, including with counter programming on radio stations of its own. The result? Conservative talk radio is alive and well.

I predicted on my show that the Badger state Left would go into meltdown mode after its efforts to smear Justice Rebecca Bradley off the Wisconsin Supreme Court failed. I certainly don’t want to take anything away from Bradley’s qualifications or the campaign she ran, but there is no doubt conservative talkers giving her a platform with which to fight back was a factor in her victory. CAW sees it that way as well, judging by a fundraising email they sent out Saturday morning:

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Right-wing talk radio distorted our political process once again on Tuesday.

Using our public airwaves for what amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in free advertising, Charlie Sykes, Jerry Bader and the rest of the reactionary talk radio circus delivered another election – this time for one of the most unqualified and bigoted Supreme Court Justice in Wisconsin history.

This is why we’re starting the Radio-Active campaign, because it’s more urgent than ever we fight back against the right-wing radio machine. Make a generous donation today to help raise the final $5,000 needed to launch the Radio-Active campaign and begin to break the conservative radio monopoly in Wisconsin.

Each day, conservative radio hosts in Milwaukee, Green Bay, and other Wisconsin cities use unfettered access to the public airwaves to blanket our state with racist, hateful content designed to divide and conquer our state.

Nothing new here; the left has always claimed talk radio is filled with racist, hateful content. Never mind that racism and hate are critical factors in my personal opposition to Donald Trump.

The email then goes on to ask for contributions to get the “final $5,000” needed for its “Radio-Active” campaign. Its goal?

Radio-Active will (1) monitor talk radio, hold media corporations accountable for supporting an extreme political agenda, and force them to provide balance; and (2) explore the possibility of purchasing radio stations that will air progressive talk radio programming.

About the only thing new in this pitch is that CAW discovered my show this election cycle. I’m sure Sykes and the other hosts in the state join me in quivering with fear at the notion of CAW paying some unemployed liberals to monitor our shows. And as for their intent to purchase stations to air progressive talk programming, anybody remember Air America? I didn’t think so.

Then there is this line:

Without the right-wing radio monopoly, there would be no Scott Walker or Rebecca Bradley!

It is true. Without conservative talk radio Governor Scott Walker likely doesn’t survive his recall and Justice Rebecca Bradley would have lost her election last week. But all of that is testimony to the need for conservative talk to counter the liberal media onslaught that would have felled both of them. It’s hardly an indictment against conservative talkers. And calling the influence we have “a monopoly” is laughable. We’re a sliver of the media compared to the control the “old media” still has in the state. That we seem to wield outsized influence is what exasperates and angers the left. There was a day when the left’s smear campaign against Bradley would have defeated her. How the left pines for “the good old days.”

And our shows succeed because we are entertaining and engaging. I spent an hour Friday taking calls on whether a smart phone app allowing you to keep your dog in a box on a city street is a good idea. Do you think CAW has any idea that we talk about things like that? If liberal talk sold you’d be hearing it all over the state, and the country. If our shows weren’t revenue generators you wouldn’t hear them on the air.

The Wisconsin presidential primary showed America that our state is blessed with some of the best local conservative talk radio in the country. If CAW thinks we all draw large audiences because we preach hate and racism every day, it’s not hard to understand why their side again finds itself on the losing end of another important statewide election. Final thought: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tried its damnedest to defeat Justice Rebecca Bradley and failed. Every conservative talk show host in Wisconsin harshly criticized them for that effort. Did any of us suggest the JS should be shut down?

George Mitchell doesn’t suggest the Journal Sentinel be shut down, but suggests the Journal Sentinel’s new owners need to make major changes, starting with employee attitude:

What’s certain is that Gannett wants revenue to exceed expenses. It will do what it regards as necessary to meet that goal.

A central question for conservatives is whether coverage of political and government news will be more balanced. Stated somewhat differently, will the Journal Sentinel stop poking a stick in our eyes?

From an economic sense, the answer for Gannett decision-makers should be a straightforward yes. Southeast Wisconsin residents who lean right are a key demographic to advertisers — the folks who pay the bills.

The high turnout of such residents in last week’s election highlights a rich target of customers. I contend that a growing number have been turned off by a biased narrative found in the paper’s political coverage.

It’s a narrative that for years has skewed coverage of such major stories as Act 10, the John Doe investigations, and most recently, the Supreme Court election. The result is that while the editors have proudly piled up journalism awards, they have alienated much of their reader base. It is hard to overstate the degree of disillusionment from many former readers, or the aggressive contempt that current editor George Stanley has shown to a major portion of his potential customer base.

From a journalistic point of view the result has been biased, one-sided reporting, and a long list of stories that the newspaper has missed or failed to report. It is not mere happenstance that the Journal-Sentinel managed to miss one of the biggest political stories of this year’s election cycle: the role of conservative talk radio in the GOP presidential race. It was story covered extensively by the New York Times, theWashington Post,Politico, and virtually every national media outlet.

But it was a story largely missed by the hometown paper. How to explain Craig Gilbert’s election wrap-up story on Sunday that omitted any mention of talk radio? Actually, it is not really surprising, when you realize that Stanley – the newspaper’s editor and a vocal champion of “transparency” – actually blocks one of the state’s most influential talk show hosts on his twitter account.

But Gannett needs to ask: does it make journalistic or economic sense to virtually ignore the existence and impact of conservative Wisconsin talk radio, a medium that reached hundreds of thousands of potential (and ex-) readers in their new market?

I will speculate further below on the whether real change is likely. First I offer an exercise for the Journal Sentinel newsroom based on my own experience as a reporter at a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper, the Riverside Press-Enterprise.

When Mel Opotowsky arrived as the paper’s new managing editor (in 1972) he moved quickly to introduce some humility to a staff that thought it was pretty special because of the Pulitzer. No new awards would be sought, he explained, until he decided the paper had mastered coverage of basic day-to-day news beats. He took other steps that would be eye-openers if followed by today’s Journal Sentinel:

1. If reporters received reader complaints (in those pre-digital days that most often would be by phone) they were to document the complaint and explain to Mel whether a correction was warranted or how future coverage might be changed. He would vote up or down on the reporter’s input.
2. Reporters were assigned the task of listing five shortcomings in their news coverage over previous months. Those unfamiliar with newsroom cultures will not appreciate the numbing and humbling effect of this task. As illustrated perfectly by George Stanley’s Journal Sentinel, a circle-the-wagons dynamic is common at most papers. Substantive corrections are rare (when, in fact, was the last instance of the Journal Sentinel acknowledging that it got a story plain wrong?).

If the new powers-that-be at the Journal Sentinel actually pursued an internal self-assessment the benefits would be clear though perhaps not immediately tangible. A newsroom whose culture is driven by the chest-thumping of Stanley could not help but gain from such a process. Readers would begin to notice a difference.

I rate as low the chances that the Journal Sentinel will regard my suggestions as worthwhile. To even consider a serious internal critique would require a sea-change in Stanley’s approach (or his replacement). Stanley’s new superiors likely have already become accustomed to his rote explanations of the paper’s performance (“We report the news straight. We get an equal number of complaints from Republicans and Democrats. Oh, did I mention we have won awards?”)?

The forces at work, then and now, are national. In less than three decades newspaper circulation nationally has declined a full third, a trend matched in Milwaukee. Gannett’s executives should recognize that it’s bad business to be oblivious to the economic potential of Southeast Wisconsin conservatives and the discontent that George Stanley has sown among them.

Why do those radio stations carry Sykes, Belling, McKenna and Bader? Because they make money for their radio stations. Why do stations carry Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other national right-wing talkers? Because they make money for their radio stations without having to pay talent salaries. (In media, local is better.) Unless you’re in public broadcasting or nonprofit media, the first objective is to make money. (And there is really no such thing as “nonprofit” given that every organization must have more money than it spends to continue existence.)

The Journal Sentinel now has one conservative columnist, Christian Schneider, who is not actually a Journal Sentinel employee. The Journal Sentinel also has a bunch of bloggers under the Purple Wisconsin, none of whom are employees either, but “purple” means more blue (liberal) than red. Given Mitchell’s observations about who has money in the Milwaukee market, the Journal Sentinel is doing it wrong at least on the opinion page.

 

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