Can the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sustain its ambitious journalism under a new owner?

Members of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff, posing in the old press area at the paper's headquarters for a photo presented as a gift to departing editor Martin Kaiser. (Photo by Rick Wood, Journal Sentinel staff photographer. Reprinted with permission.) Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the shareholder vote to approve the merger.

Its roots stretch back so far, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s early political coverage focused on Wisconsin’s effort to become a state. But for all the changes the newspaper has weathered since then, one of the biggest arrived this week.

On Wednesday, shareholders in Journal Communications, the paper’s owner, and E.W. Scripps approved a deal to merge the two companies and then separate their broadcast and print properties. Under the new structure, the Journal Sentinel will be the flagship paper in a family that includes the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Knoxville News Sentinel, and the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. The newspaper chain will be spun off into the newly created Journal Media Group, based in Milwaukee and led by CEO Tim Stautberg, currently the vice president of newspapers for Scripps.

That’s hardly the only change happening at the paper. Ahead of the vote, the Newspaper Guild on March 4 ratified a new two-year contract with ownership. Also last week, veteran managing editor George Stanley officially stepped into the role of editor, replacing Martin Kaiser, who had held the title for 17 years. A new managing editor has not yet been named.

The well-regarded Kaiser was one of 16 people who took a buyout last fall, after the Scripps deal was announced. The new union contract, which took seven months to negotiate, neither calls for further layoffs and buyouts nor offers protections against them. I asked Stanley if he anticipated more staff cuts after new ownership comes into place—Scripps, after all, just posted lagging quarterly revenues. He said, simply, “No.”

“Last year, we had some buyouts related to shrinking revenue like most other [newspaper] companies we know of, and hopefully that got us where we need to be,” Stanley added. “Down the road, though, if revenue declines a certain percent, our costs will have to also decline a certain percent to keep from losing money. We have to find a way to stop revenue decline.”

These changes add up to a big moment for the Journal Sentinel, which, though hardly untouched by the challenges that have rocked the newspaper industry, has won widespread praise for its ambitious public-service and investigative journalism, including from us here at CJR. The paper has won three Pulitzer Prizes since 2008 for investigative and explanatory reporting, and it boasts one of the highest market penetration rates in the country.

Will the ownership change put this success at risk? Bruce Murphy, a former Journal Sentinel employee who now writes for the website Urban Milwaukee, worries that it might. The Journal Sentinel is the only metro daily in Journal Communications, where the bottom line is buoyed by broadcast outlets. That cross-subsidy is going away—and the newspaper-only company “is probably going to be a money-losing company,” Murphy predicted. And though Journal Media Group will be based in Milwaukee, most of the stock will be held by Scripps shareholders. “With the lack of local ownership, it is possible to imagine that they will care a lot less about how well the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel serves its community, since it’s no longer based in this community,” Murphy said.

Several reporters I spoke with acknowledged feeling wary about the implications of the ownership change. But they also pointed to some major decisions by management that have made the transition smoother and offer hope the paper’s journalism will be sustained.

One of those moves: appointing Stanley as editor. Stanley and Kaiser led the Milwaukee newsroom together for close to two decades; with Kaiser leaving, Stanley’s promotion was expected, and staffers felt it was deserved. Had the new owners brought in an outside candidate, it would have set off alarm bells.

“George stepping into Marty’s role was very reassuring to the newsroom that the change in ownership didn’t affect the leadership,” said Ellen Gabler, an investigative reporter. “If that would have happened, it would not have been good. The newsroom has a lot of confidence in the newsroom leadership, and that’s a pretty big deal.”

Gabler described the Journal Sentinel as a “reporter’s paper,” meaning that management “really cares what we think and are here to make us happy. And for us, that means doing great journalism. Some of that trust would have been lost if we had not been doing great journalism.”

Had the new owners brought in an outside editor, it would have set off alarm bells.

Nailing down a contract with the union ahead of the shareholder vote was also key—and it helped that negotiations were anything but hostile. Tom Silverstein, president of the Newspaper Guild local and a Green Bay Packers beat writer, has been at the table for several rounds of negotiations. “This is the best experience so far I’ve had,” he said.

“It was clear that they wanted a contract done before the merger occurred,” Silverstein said, “but I also thought it was really beneficial that they reached out and said this new company will recognize your union contract. … They also didn’t go after a lot of the really important protections in the contract. To me, that was a good faith [effort], going into a new organization.”

Guild membership today stands at 103, about one-third of what it was not too long ago, for a newsroom that has effectively been sliced in half. In the previous two contracts, the union took pay cuts and lost a week of severance. This year, the contract actually provides for a modest increase in guaranteed money for current employees. But the union did give ownership freedom to make changes to benefits; it’s expected that the chain wants company-wide consistency in healthcare, 401k plans, holidays, and personal days. “We could have fought for things in the contract, like putting a cap on the amount that employees pay for premiums,” Silverstein said. But because the company dictates that everyone has the same insurance—including top leadership—“that’s always been a way to keep healthcare costs fair.”

In short, Guild members aren’t ecstatic about the contract. But they also approved it by a wide margin.

Meanwhile, the Journal Sentinel’s native ambition is showing up in its day-to-day reporting. One of the biggest stories in the country happens to be at its doorstep: the emerging presidential campaign of Gov. Scott Walker. Last week, the paper launched a landing page for its Walker coverage; the goal is “to be the main source for the entire world on Scott Walker information,” Stanley said.

Patrick Marley is one of the reporters on the Walker beat. He is part of a Madison bureau that went from three reporters to two in 2009—just before news in the capital got busier then ever, from historic government protests to Walker’s recall election. The workflow is only getting more intense. “We as a paper I don’t think ever covered anything quite like this: a presidential campaign where someone from Wisconsin is a leading candidate [close to] two years out of the election,” Marley said. “We’re writing the playbook as we go.”

Marley said that he hopes “we can preserve everything we’ve got right now … even as we go into a pretty robust presidential run with a challenging amount of travel involved. My main hope is that we can cover it fully. So far, every sign is that we can.”

When it comes to the paper’s hallmark investigative projects, meanwhile, Stanley sees new opportunities in the merger with the Scripps papers. Last year’s “Deadly Delays” series focused on problems with newborn screenings, drawing on national data. “It was a national problem and we could have launched it in 14 papers at the same time, working with other papers in the Scripps chain in Memphis, Naples, Knoxville, and other places,” Stanley said. “The project had a lot of impact, but it could have had greater impact.”

We really, really want to preserve this paper, and we want journalism to thrive.

For those ambitions to be realized, or simply to avoid further staff cuts, the paper and its new sibling publications will need some growth on the business side—where the vision seems focused as much on paying readers as on advertisers. Stautberg, who now oversees the Scripps newspapers, said he believes “we can make this company a more durable media enterprise by focusing on consumers in local markets and building the value of that relationship.”

Stautberg drew an analogy to the growth of cable television since the 1990s. “We need to be just as bold in our thinking, and re-imagine our relationships with consumers, and the products and services we can offer far beyond what see today in the printed newspaper and even in the digital platform,” he said. (He also noted that active local ownership can be a double-edged sword—he tries to lead the Scripps papers “by supporting the great public-service journalism that they do and not getting in the way,” he said.)

And speaking of support, a number of Journal Sentinel employees had a say in whether or not to back the ownership change. When the company went public in 2002, employee-owned stock was put in a different class than standard stock. Designed to prevent a “hostile takeover,” according to Silverstein, the arrangement gave employees 10-to-1 voting rights for each share. As a result, Scripps courted employees, getting “ambassadors” to encourage shareholding staff members to vote—though they were probably more concerned about getting a quorum than about persuading them to vote “yes.”

Kaiser was Silverstein’s ambassador: The reporter was called into the office of the top editor, and he hustled in, thinking it was something urgent. As Silverstein recalls, Kaiser simply told him, “Hey, I’m your ambassador! You should vote!”

“For the record, I did vote,” Silverstein said. “I voted for the merger.”

That said, he also summed up the apprehensions about becoming part of a chain—and the hopes for the Journal Sentinel’s future.

“I just don’t want this paper to be a Gannett or a GateHouse or something like that,” Silverstein said. “We really, really want to preserve this paper, and we want journalism to thrive.”

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit. Tags: , , ,