Grim News 

While Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editor George Stanley likely does not read every story that appears, he surely reviewed Thursday’s piece by Tom Daykin on the relocation of the paper away from its Fourth & State headquarters.

That story included this:

The company’s roughly 260 employees will be moving to the 330 Kilbourn office complex, 330 E. Kilbourn Ave., said Andy Fisher, the Journal Sentinel’s chief business executive.

The new offices will help the Journal Sentinel better retain and attract employees, Fisher said Thursday.

“It’s a more modern facility that I think people will feel a lot more comfortable in,” he said. “It’ll have a really fresh feel.”

That rationale, of course, is preposterous. It’s the kind of spin that would be filleted by the likes of Dan Bice.  

Not long ago the idea of the Journal Sentinel leaving a headquarters built almost a century ago would have been unthinkable. It is a dispiriting and symbolic development, particularly for those who can recall when the paper and its predecessors were “must read” documents in the morning (and afternoon).

When I entered the UW-Madison Journalism School in the mid-60s the daily Milwaukee Journal had a circulation of about 375,000. At the time of the 1995 merger with the Sentinel the daily circulation of the new paper was about 325,000. A year ago (February 2018) it was a meager 82,000 — a 71 per cent decline from the merger’s debut edition.

The precipitous decline mirrors a national trend. According to the authoritative Pew Research Center:

U.S. newspaper circulation reached its lowest level since 1940, the first year with available data. Total daily circulation (print and digital combined) was an estimated 28.6 million for weekday and 30.8 million for Sunday in 2018. Those numbers were down eight percent and nine percent, respectively, from the previous year, according to the Center’s analysis of Alliance for Audited Media data. Both figures are now below their lowest recorded levels, though weekday circulation first passed this threshold in 2013.

Specific Pew research on the Milwaukee market is sobering for newspaper adherents. A minuscule 13 percent of adults report they “prefer to get their local news” from print media. The numbers are even worse when considering responses to an open-ended question of where adults “most often” get their news. Only ten percent cited the Journal Sentinel. By comparison, more than four times as many cited the local affiliates of Fox, NBC, and ABC.

The implications of this seismic development, locally and nationally, are wide-ranging. TV news and social media can’t hold a candle to the potential of an economically solid newspaper staff when it comes to comprehensive news coverage and investigative reporting.  

My own preoccupation involves how the decline of the Journal Sentinel (and other papers) will affect public policy. What do local officials, legislators, and their staffs now rely most on for information? Do “special interests” now call more of the shots?  

What hasn’t changed is the enormous impact our elected officials can have.  They decide who does and doesn’t have educational choice. They decide whether the transportation system is maintained and strengthened. They set criminal justice policy.

Among the myriad groups and associations that seek to influence these issues, all must now have elaborate websites and communication strategies that move their messages to the top of Google searches. This in turn shines a light on the undisputed left-leaning bias of Google, Facebook, Twitter and their ilk.

Yesterday’s story is hard to find on the Journal Sentinel website today. That in no way diminishes the significance. The symbolic nature of vacating the paper’s headquarters for a nondescript private office building is a bummer.