How Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Uses Quality Journalism to Pay the Bills

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If Gannett’s planned acquisition of Journal Media Group (JMG) is approved by JMG stockholders — which is very likely — the publishing giant will own one of the country’s most highly regarded dailies: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The paper specializes in uncovering life-threatening medical practices and risky drugs and being a watchdog for the public’s right to know.

The Journal Sentinel ranks first in combined print and digital readership in the largest U.S. markets, with 59 percent penetration in metro Milwaukee. Like other dailies, it has taken big hits in advertising and distribution revenue on the print side, but it’s still profitable ($13.8 million annually, including JMG weeklies in southeast Wisconsin).

To find out how the Journal Sentinel uses quality journalism to stay in the black as it makes the challenging transition from print to digital (with a $4.29 per month paywall), I put these questions to editor and senior vice president George Stanley

Newspapers have to succeed financially, regardless of the quality of their journalism. How does the Journal Sentinel brand of journalism play to business success?
The more we can provide people with news and information of value that they can’t get from other sources, the more they will spend time with us, engage with us, and subscribe to our print or digital offerings. It’s more competitive now, and I think that’s why quality matters more than ever. Quality differentiates us from local, regional, and even national competitors for news of greatest interest to people in Wisconsin.

Future revenue growth will need to be built from this base, the foundation of our brand, because that’s why people come to us. Could we, for example, offer other goods and services to our subscribers, our insiders, our “club members?” Can our companies build sponsorship platforms around specific audiences we serve, for businesses that never advertised in general newspapers but aim to reach those same key audiences? We’re looking into this and the initial feedback has been very promising.

I think we need to develop processes to listen to people who want or could benefit from more news and information than they are getting but are limited by time, circumstances, busy lifestyles, language, education, physical disabilities, or habits that have nothing to do with reading a daily printed paper.

But no matter what we do, new or old, we’d better do it very well, to the best of our ability, if we want to last.

What have you and your staff been able to achieve digitally that isn’t possible, or is very hard to do, with print?
Digital tools have disrupted the news industry’s business model — from free online classified ads to folks buying more over the internet and less from local stores that advertised in local newspapers. But new technologies also have improved our newsgathering and storytelling in many ways. When I started as a reporter, you went to a building — a courthouse, agency, or cop shop — and did your best to charm records and tips out of clerks. Then you looked for news in a few recently updated manila folders, copying any key documents. It would have been impossible for us to gather records showing that thousands of hospitals across the country were not getting newborn screening blood tests to state labs in a timely manner, let alone build an interactive database so readers could check the performance of a hospital where a loved one was planning to have a baby.

We showed the newborn screening data to our state’s biggest health system and instead of making excuses, they said they would fix it that day and delivered on that promise by eliminating bottlenecks in their system. States all over the country made dramatic improvements. This story is saving babies’ lives and protecting others from lifelong disabilities being suffered for no reason.

The decline of print has brought considerable cutbacks in editorial staffing at newspapers everywhere, including yours, but doesn’t digital give you an array of tools that permit greater efficiency?
Digital has certainly provided an array of tools that makes us more efficient. We can gather data much easier to show property evaluation disparities in our metro area, for example. This would have required a large team of metro and suburban reporters in the past, if we could have done it at all. We don’t need composing rooms to lay out pages; we don’t need digital techs to fine-tune color photographs for our presses; we don’t need an army of editorial assistants and administrative assistants to sort and organize bins full of letters and then type neat, professional responses for signature and mailing; we don’t need a staff of folks in our news information center clipping out stories from multiple editions of the newspaper, then stamping ink dates on them and cross-referencing them in little brown envelopes so we can find them when we need them. All of that is now done electronically.

Improvements in technology have helped our reporting in many ways. We can get tips and documents electronically and interact with readers and experts much more easily. We can post stories in progress online and attract responses from people involved in the story. We can gather videos taken by folks on smartphones who happened to be on-site when a funnel cloud descended or a car fell into a sink hole or a flood washed a house off its foundation.

I’m not suggesting the cuts haven’t hurt. I think we all wish we’d been more strategic and inventive as an industry. We need to be both moving forward.

What does the Journal Sentinel newsroom look like today and how does it operate compared to the print era?
We’ve concentrated on what differentiates us from other news and information sources in our region, asking how can we serve our community better than anyone else. We aim to excel in three primary areas:

  1. Trustworthy breaking news you can use in the moment. We verify and report what we know and don’t know so you can get accurate information via smartphone and, say, reroute your trip home around a highway accident, etc. At the center of our newsroom is a Breaking News Hub. Our workflow is continually moving away from a print model, where everything comes in late in the day and goes through an editing bottleneck for morning delivery. Instead, we are scheduling top story updates all day in digital formats and aligning the editing, design, and production schedules with the digital posting times.
  2. Expert enterprise reporting on areas of high interest and importance to our region. We want our beat reporters to be the town criers for the communities they serve, to build an intricate web of sources so that if anything happens in their area of expertise they learn of it immediately, to bring context and knowledge to everything they report, whether it’s a new wrinkle in the voucher schools debate, a startup company rising from university research, a medical or scientific discovery, or the next draft choice of the 13-time NFL Champion Green Bay Packers.
  3. In-depth investigative and explanatory reporting of subjects of great importance to our readers and region. We can do high-impact reporting that exposes problems and presents potential solutions like nobody else in Wisconsin. We’re doing three times more major investigative and explanatory journalism projects today than we did when our newsroom had twice as many people in it. These stories have a long tail and far more impact than anything else we do.

What’s the Journal Sentinel’s relationship with the community like today compared to the “good old days” of print, when the paper landed on a majority of doorsteps in metro Milwaukee?
This summer, we saw that we still have a powerful and fundamental connection with the people of Wisconsin when it comes to being government watchdogs, especially on First Amendment issues. We have one-party control of all three branches of government in Wisconsin right now — a recipe for mischief no matter which party is in power.

On July 4th weekend, a cabal of powerful politicians tried to sneak through an amendment to the state budget that would have gutted our open records law. They thought no one would be paying attention over the holiday weekend. But we were paying attention. And we did everything we could think of to bring it to the attention of everyone else, including top online stories and mobile alerts, a front-page banner news story and front-page editorial. We put the phone numbers and emails of all the state’s elected representatives online and in print and citizens took time from their holiday to respond, in huge numbers, from all over the state, from all points on the political spectrum. I’ve never seen anything like it. From the governor’s office on down, there was a full reversal in 48 hours.

I wrote two columns on July 4th — one while the fight was ongoing and an updated version after the citizens had won. The first was part of our rallying cry for help; the second ended up in print. This showed that the public truly understands and appreciates the role of an independent press in our democracy and our unique job of holding public officials accountable. We have true authority in this area. People see the value in it. It’s a foundation stone of our purpose and our business.

Looking ahead, what additional steps do you see the Journal Sentinel taking to be innovative in community journalism? How do you see innovation being affected by JMG’s planned acquisition by Gannett?
When Bob Dickey [CEO of the new Gannett publishing entity] and John Zidich [president of Gannett’s domestic publishing arm] came in the day the planned deal was announced, they described a business and innovation model where the strongest local news and sales forces would be bound into a network with a valuable national brand in USA Today. They talked about the power of combining strong local businesses with a national digital audience potentially reaching half the people in America by the end of next year. They talked about a budget for innovation and grants within the company that folks could apply for to launch new products and ideas. They had a clear, concrete vision. Bob said his goal was to build a sustainable business model for outstanding local journalism. That’s a goal we all share and can buy into.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.