Community journalism options dwindling
Pending sale will affect state news coverage
By Roger Pitt
Most columns aren’t personal, but memories of my premature retirement from a job I loved needed venting.
The “bad news” broke during my drive to the End Stool last week when Jack Berry reported a pending sale of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Little did I realize in 2000 that a similar announcement about Gannett buying the Post-Crescent (PC) would shatter my philosophy of journalism as a personal relationship with the reader.
Local radio provides a service that daily newspapers thrived on – informing the public on the news affecting their community and lives. Weekly papers, like this, fill that void, but deadlines determine delivery.
The Journal Sentinel (JS) purchase is typical of today’s economy and news media. As the big get bigger, consolidation eliminates jobs and reduces options and resources to the public.
Gannett is the latest owner of the Post-Crescent (PC) and my reason for retiring after 40 years of writing about the people and events in this area – a decade earlier than planned.
Post Publishing owned the PC from 1920 until Aug. 1, 1984 when it was sold to Gillett Communications. Four months later it was sold to Thomson Newspapers Inc., based in Toronto, Canada. Gannett purchased all Thomson Wisconsin papers in 2000.
A Gannett website proclaims “Local is National.” It sums up what happens to many daily papers it owns.
I repeatedly challenged the “Gannett-ization” of the Post-Crescent that was systematically establishing its philosophy on news and management – a formula and decisions made at headquarters that work in some professions, but not as easily judged in the media which depends on satisfying the public it serves.
In 1964, when I began in the New London office, writing about Waupaca and Outagamie county communities – including Clintonville, Hortonville and Waupaca – I was a sponge waiting to soak up the PC’s simple and successful philosophy on journalism.
“Print all the news people want to read.”
Get the names of as many people (what they are doing in their community, no matter how important, and the hard news – government, vital statistics, events – affecting their lives) in the paper as often as possible. A quota was at least double-digit stories daily.
It defines “community journalism.”
It grew (PC) readership through the years prior to Gannett. That philosophy remained as management – especially Don Kampfer, my mentor who eventually attained publisher status – continued making decisions locally.
News grabbing headlines dominate television, radio and print, including websites, but finding news affecting everyday lives in your community is nearly impossible.
My friend Jill did not understand my concern about the Gannett deal and the potential effect on access to local news.
“You can get the news on the internet,” she said. “Young people aren’t interested in that,” she countered an argument about “keeping informed on news in their communities or gossip.”
I did not counter with “why are so many people into Facebook and Twitter, the ultimate gossip lines?”
JS evolved from the merging of the afternoon Journal, an employee-owned stock company, and the morning Sentinel, owned by many renowned Milwaukee people before it was taken over by Hearst in 1924.
The JS deal is another piece of a puzzle giving Gannett control of daily newspapers from the Wisconsin River to Lake Michigan.
Other Wisconsin papers are Green Bay Press-Gazette, Stevens Point Journal, Wausau Daily Herald, Oshkosh Northwestern, Fond du Lac Reporter, Manitowoc Herald Times, Marshfield News-Herald, Sheboygan Press and Wisconsin Rapids Tribune.
The Des Moines Register is where much of the news and content in the Post-Crescent is composed. Other dailies are in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Detroit, Phoenix and Louisville.
Experience of other Gannett purchased papers shows big cuts in jobs, including actual writers reporting news, a move to corporate schooled management, and a philosophy that estranges longtime readers. It was the latter that bothered me most.
I thought of Clarence Bauernfiend who, despite being angered with the forced subscription policy when the Sunday paper began, walked downtown to get the paper daily and often stopped at the New London office to chat.
Gannett systematically changed the mission of the newspaper emphasizing focus on getting younger, non-readers invested in the paper and away from the “community journalism” philosophy.
Departments within the office in composing, bookkeeping, circulation, phone sales and others were eliminated or consolidated with other papers. Des Moines became the base for many of the page composition and design.
Long time editorial staff was cut to bare bones after having benefits reduced, unpaid furloughs, buyouts, mass layoff and having to apply for jobs.
My early retirement enabled me to avoid the angst of friends and professional journalists who lived jobs writing about the readers they dedicated their careers to.
Obviously this column is personal. But it should help the “my newspaper” people, like Clarence, understand what happened to our papers.
Roger Pitt writes the “End Stool” column for the New London Press Star.