Monday, August 31, 2009

Has Journal Communications Spread Itself Too Thin?

I saw this interesting story at WSAW-TV's website:
Local mom creates own newspaper:

A mother of four is doing what she can to help the newspaper industry stay alive.

Her paper, "The Clintonville Chronicle" hit stands this past Tuesday, and sold out in a couple of days.

"They need to know what's going on in the community, their tax dollars especially. They need to know what's going on and what decisions are being made on their behalf," said Owner and Publisher Tricia Rose.

Tricia says after leaving a rival newspaper in town, she dreamed of opening her own, even though larger papers across the country are struggling.

"Tight knit communities want to know whats going on down the street and they came up to us and said we want this and I just said lets do it," said Co-owner Greg Rose.

Tricia financed the business by herself this spring and hired three people to help her create her weekly paper, covering the Clintonville, Bear Creek and Embarrass areas.

Owners of local businesses who are helping sell the newspaper say they had a hard time keeping the "Chronicle" stocked.

To give the gentle reader a little insight into this story, and as to why it is interesting to me, I will give you a brief history of the newspapers in Waupaca County.

As long as I can remember, going back to when I was a boy, almost every town up north had it's own weekly newspaper. There was the Iola Herald and Waupaca County Post. Manawa, Fremont, Weyawega, Clintonville, and New London each had their own paper as well. As far as news goes, they weren't much. Mostly local news, such as a business expanding, or the local philanthropist donating a large check to this or that organization, or who won the blue ribbon for the best dill pickles at the county fair.

Then about a year and a half ago, things changed, and not necessarily for the better. The local papers were all bought out by Journal Communications, Inc. This brought on a series of changes in itself. One was that they stopped carrying as many folksy stories and more news type stories. They also changed some of the cosmetics of the paper, making it bigger but the type smaller.

Then earlier this year, they combined the papers for the east side of the county into one paper, and the papers from the west side into another. Even though each paper kept the same name, the banner was the only thing different from one town's paper to the next. Now there was even less local news, maybe two sheets per town, instead of a whole paper.

Just a few weeks ago, they dropped the pretense of having different papers and have changed the names to Waupaca County East and Waupaca County West. Outside of the name change, the papers still give only the smallest of tastes of local news before moving on to the next community.

Which brings us back to the story at the top of this post. People in the community were not satisfied with the lack of coverage of what was happening in their town or in neighboring communities. They took it upon themselves to start their own paper, and it appears to be a raging success.

That made me think about what is going on here in Milwaukee. As most people are aware, the newspaper business across the country is really suffering. Even the biggest papers are laying off staff in record numbers. There is a growing number of cities whose newspapers have gone strictly online and have ceased all "dead tree" publications.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is no different. They too have sent many good reporters and columnists packing. They have cut back on the coverage and even on sections, such as on Mondays, when they no longer have an editorial of their own and have combined the national and the local sections into one.

Oh sure, they still can come out with great pieces, like the ones the last couple of mornings highlighting the fraud that can occur in child care subsidies. They still have some crack reporters, like Dan Bice and Crocker Stephenson, who do a good job covering local issues. However, they also have clung onto some lesser performing reporters and journalists, like Steve Schultze and Patrick McIlheran.

No matter what, there has been a definite drop in quality and quantity of local news reporting. I have been hearing an increasingly frequent rumor and/or speculation that MJS will soon be going strictly online in the relatively near future. The recent actions of MJS only seems to make these rumors and speculations seem all the more likely.

I don't believe it would be so far fetched to think that some local people could form their own paper. Oh, I know that there already is one local weekly not affiliated the Journal Communications, the Shepherd Express. While I enjoy reading the Shepherd every week, I don't read it for news, per se. Although the Shepherd will occasionally break a story, their articles seem to be as much opinion pieces as actual news stories.

There are people that don't own computers and/or aren't very computer savvy. They would prefer to hold and read a newspaper at their table as they eat their breakfast or have a cup of coffee. Or maybe they don't care about what is happening in countries they've never heard of or can't find on a globe. Likewise, there are many people that don't want a spin to the stories, either to left like the Shepherd, or to the right, like the Journal Sentinel.

But then there are bonafide reporters and former reporters, like Michael Horne of Milwaukee World and Gretchen Schuldt of Milwaukee Rising and CASH, both of whom have been known to break stories and tell a compelling account of some event or another. I could rattle off a half dozen names easily of other bloggers that would make fine reporters as well.

What would happen if they pooled together and found a way to start publishing their own newspaper, focusing on the local issues? While they might not become super wealthy, I believe they could make a go of it quite easily. I think that a paper, even a small one, that focused on mostly, if not exclusively, on local and state issues, would readily find a niche in the Milwaukee market.

Like the ancient Roman Empire, I wonder if Journal Communications has spread itself too thin. When the economy crashed, they suddenly found itself unable to continue to dominate like it used to, and is now becoming vulnerable, not only on the fringes, like Waupaca County, but also in its own backyard, to smaller groups that can take advantage of their thinning media empire.


  1. It's too easy and small brained to say this is just a Journal Communications thing; it's a newspaper business thing. My own hometown weekly newspaper, the Kiel Record, was merged with its two neighboring communities Chilton and New Holstein about a decade ago to save on publishing costs. The result was "The Tri-County News" still run by the same family-owned business who've been covering news in the area for nearly 70 years.

  2. Your example is a paper, or actually a few papers, that had existed, taking steps to preserve their existence.

    In my post, I am referring to new papers created to fill a void left by JCI.

    There is a big difference.

  3. Greetings!

    I am Tricia Rose, and I am the one that started the Clintonville Chronicle.

    I had the opportunity to work at the Clintonville Tribune-Gazette for nearly three years. It was a nice, little publication. When it was bought out by JCPG in October 2007, the new changes were discussed, and I decided to part ways with JCPG in April 2008.

    Since we have opened the new newspaper in late August 2009, the feedback has been tremendous. Our first issue sold out at newsstands, and can no longer be purchased. The subsequent seven issues have also done well. We increased our printing by 200, and we are selling anywhere from 1,100-1,150. This is pretty extraordinary, given the size of Clintonville.

    JCPG has since "let go" the man I knew to be overseeing the consolidation, and has been quoted as saying, "We made a big mistake in Clintonville."

    I didn't start the Chronicle to become rich--that's not going to happen. I started it because the community asked me to. There was a definite need for it, and I have had no problems filling a paper with only local news.

    Hurray for the small newspapers! Perhaps the large corporations still have a thing or two to learn.