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WisBusiness: Newspaper industry vets see bright spots despite stressful times

By WisBusiness Staff

When state newspaper people gathered at the Wisconsin Newspaper Association's annual convention in Green Bay this week, they didn’t have a lot to celebrate.

State newspapers haven’t suffered a blockbuster blow like the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company or the potential shuttering of a large paper (like Seattle's Post-Intelligencer). But the newspaper industry in Wisconsin has seen drops in circulation, ad revenue and personnel. (See sidebar for more)

Still, some in the business say the troubles, while serious, can sometimes overshadow successes in the industry.

"If somebody from the outside looked at the newspaper industry and the profit margins that we have they would say, 'that's a pretty healthy industry,'" said Chris Hardie, editor of the La Crosse Tribune. "Until we convince them we're not dying, we're going to keep fighting this battle."

The convention Thursday and Friday at the Green Bay Radisson didn't ignore the troubled times of newspapers. Some sessions were crafted to the reality of the times: Among the editorial sessions: "Maintaining 1st Amendment responsibilities during the Perfect Storm,'' and "Pixel power on a shoestring.''


The convention convened during a time of stress. Among the recent negative news affecting readers, advertisers and newspaper workers in Wisconsin:

-- Journal Communications Inc., the publisher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, saw its stock drop from $8.94 per share to $2.45 in 2008 -- a 72.6 percent decrease. That ranked as the 10th worst drop among state stocks in a Wisconsin State Journal survey done in early January. It traded at $1.79 at the close of business Friday. The Journal Sentinel announced a 10 percent cut in staff last summer.

-- Davenport-based Lee Enterprises is mired in debt after the purchase of the Pulitzer paper and is having trouble staying on the New York Stock Exchange. Stock traded at 31 cents at the close of business Tuesday, down from a 52-week high of $13.31. Lee, which operates papers in Madison, Racine and La Crosse, recently announced systemwide staff cuts.

-- The McLean, Va.-based Gannett chain, which publishes 10 daily newspapers in Wisconsin cities like Green Bay, Appleton and Oshkosh, recently announced a mandated one-week unpaid furlough for almost all of its staff. The move follows other cost-cutting measures, including hundreds of recent layoffs at Gannett newspapers around the country last year and the prospect of many more in 2009.
But attendees were still optimistic about the future of the newspapers.

"I'm tired of hearing the death of our industry is coming tomorrow because it's not true," said Genia Lovett, vice president for the Wisconsin Gannett group. "You don't have 80-some percent of the adults in a market reading a newspaper today and not reading it tomorrow," she continued, referring to current readership statistics for Gannett's Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Lovett said newspapers are still highly trusted sources of information and magnets for online traffic. Online revenue for Gannett's Wisconsin group grew 5 percent in 2008, she said, a positive number in a time of trouble but still not enough to offset declines on the print side. The challenge, she said, is turning traffic into revenue.

"We're still figuring that part out," she said.

Overall, Lovett said she sees newspapers having more sustained success in mid-sized and smaller communities like the ones Gannett serves in Wisconsin.

But Peter Fox, executive director of the WNA, said he sees room for any "community-oriented" newspaper to succeed.

"If your focus is on the community and on reporting news that the public can't get anywhere else you're going to be in the best position," he said.

There will always be a need for the storytelling and local news coverage papers can provide, the La Crosse Tribune's Hardie said.

"Somebody still has to cover the local news," he said. "in all of the misery that we're going through right now, there's some compelling human interest stories that we need to tell."

Hardie also said newspaper staffs need to recognize that things are happening in the economy that are out of their control.
"We know that we don't have as many resources as we had in the past, but we still have more resources than anybody else out there," he said.

WNA's Fox says papers are moving aggressively to use new technology after being slow to embrace change at first.

"Now that the creative juices are starting to flow it's really amazing what can happen," he said.

He expects more innovations as newspapers get comfortable with advancing technology.

"We're using our technological training wheels and pretty soon we're going to move up to the 25-speed bike," he said.

One example Fox gave of newspapers' move to embrace new technologies: Thursday's Supreme Court debate between incumbent Shirley Abrahamson and challenger Randy Koschnick, which happened at the WNA convention and was streamed live over the Internet to state newspaper sites.

In the end, Fox said, there will always be a demand for news and there will always be a way to meet that demand.

"The leadership of the newspaper industry is damn determined to remain successful and in the information business," he said.

Other newspaper industry news:

-- The WNA has moved its offices to 2001 Fish Hatchery Road in Madison. Fox said the association's previous location was too big for the group's needs, so association leadership decided to sell the building and use the proceeds to create an endowment for training and outreach.

"We're in the newspaper business, not the property management business," Fox said.

The new location is inside the Capital Newspapers building, which Fox said would be beneficial for the association, giving it a chance to keep in touch with the newsroom culture of the papers produced there.

For more on the new location and other contact information for the WNA, go to www.wnanews.com or call 1-800-261-4242.

-- Brown County Register of Deeds Cathy Williquette received the 2008 “Badger Award” for openness in government at the WNA convention.

The “Badger Award” recognizes an individual, group or organization that has demonstrated outstanding efforts to protect and enhance openness in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the highest honor given by the WNA to a non-member.

“Cathy Williquette’s commitment to making public records accessible is outstanding,” said WNA President Ken Dischler, editor and publisher of The Park Falls Herald. “Through her many years as a trusted and valued public servant she has demonstrated a clear understanding and use of Wisconsin’s open records laws. This award honors her commitment to open government in our state.”

-- A couple of editors moved within the Lee newspapers group in the state. John Smalley, who had been the editor of the La Crosse Tribune, moved to the Wisconsin State Journal as editor.

And Chris Hardie, who had served as publisher of Lee’s weekly newspaper group in the River Valley area, took over as editor of the La Crosse Tribune and executive editor of the River Valley Newspaper Group.

-- Two community journalists were inducted into the Wisconsin Newspaper Hall of Fame by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation.

Inductees were Marie Berner, publisher of the Antigo Daily Journal, and Wally Smetana, long-time editor of The Dunn County News in Menomonie.

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