As Newspapers Decline, New Voices Rise
By Marc Eisen
Okay, so you’ve read my story on the increasingly perilous state of Wisconsin’s 32 daily newspapers, published in the newly launched WI Magazine.
Lacking the space in the dead-tree version, let me cite a few news-and-opinion alternatives popping up as newspapers decline.
Jeff Mayers, who launched WisPolitics.com in June 2000, is recognized as the state’s online trailblazer. The former Wisconsin State Journal statehouse reporter has carved out a profitable niche serving political insiders with both paid and free services. With a staff of eight, Mayers’ has created related sites called WisOpinion.com, WisBusiness.com and IowaPolitics.com. (Disclosure: I occasionally write for WisBusiness.com.)
WisOpinion has become a hot number by aggregating opinion columns from Wisconsin newspapers, magazines and blogs. It is the one-stop site to check out which way the bloviating winds are blowing in Wisconsin on any particular day.
The site is a good example of synergistic web dynamics. Columnists and bloggers pick up more readers from the WisOpinion links, while Mayers parlays the traffic into advertising on his site.
Mayers declines to say what his annual revenue is, but notes he has one great advantage over newspapers: “We don’t have millions of dollars tied up in printing presses and distribution. We can operate cheaply.”
That same point is made by Dustin Block, the former city editor of the Racine Journal Times who started RacinePost.com with retired Journal Times publisher Peter Selkowe. “We’ve probably spent $500 on the site,” he said.
RacinePost aggregates Racine news from other sources and does its own reporting, mostly on government and downtown business. “We stay away from crime, because the daily hits it so hard,” Block said.
Until recently, Racine Post hasn’t tried hard to sell advertising. “We’re news guys at heart,” Block said. “I think if we did try to sell it, we could come close to making a living, since we have no staff, no printing plant, none of the overhead of a newspaper.”
Since I talked with Block, RacinePost has stepped up its local reporting, created a separate site for blogging, launched an ad campaign and asked readers to become voluntary subscribers. Block, who is a freelance writer, has hopes that the upgraded site can support him working fulltime at RacinePost.
Jo Egelhoff brings a conservative voice to her commentary on FoxPolitics.net. The former Appleton city council member provides 36 news links and 12 opinion links each morning. She says FoxPolitics draws 2,000 unique visitors daily, but unlike Block she hasn’t considered selling ads.
Not all the action is online. Investigative reporter Andy Hall left the Wisconsin State Journal in January to form the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Still in fund-raising mode, the center has struck alliances with the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communications and Wisconsin public TV and radio. Hall’s hope is to raise enough money to have a staff of five investigative journalists.
With the economic base of newspapers crumbling, journalism circles have been filled with speculation that endowed non-profit publications and websites could be one of the journalistic streams that survive in a post-newspaper world.
George Lightbourn, president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, has cited just this reason for revamping the old Wisconsin Interest journal into the new and glossy WI Magazine.
Of course, the cacophonous blogosphere will be there whether or not newspapers find a niche in the digital age. WisOpinion lists 261 Wisconsin-based blogs, which is way more than any sane person would read in a day.
Of course, that ordering of the day’s news and opinion was the historical function that newspapers served. A small group of editors abetted by a larger phalanx of reporters decided for the public what was important and ignored the rest.
And the model worked for the longest time because the high cost of publishing (big printing presses cost millions of dollars) gave newspaper owners a lucrative defacto monopoly on print advertising in a community.
As I quoted retired Wisconsin State Journal publisher James Hopson in my WI story: "Newspapers had a great racket for a long time. They were essentially the only game in town for retail and classified advertisers and could charge high advertising prices consistent with their market dominance."
The web has destroyed that economic model.
The new emergent voices are heartening and clearly the vanguard of a new media age. But analytical reporting, especially investigative reporting like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been punching out with impressive frequency lately, is expensive, time consuming, and requires a special breed of reporter and editor.
And the hard truth, at least as I see it, is that none of the new voices—all of them boutique, low-cost operations; or in Hall’s case, still in the fingers-crossed start-up phase—have the capacity to do big stories. Let alone do the week-in, week-out comprehensive coverage of government that any community and state needs.
The bottom line is that hopelessly retro newspapers are still far and away the biggest news providers around. The Journal Sentinel alone has a news staff around 200, while the combined newsrooms of the Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times, which share a common publisher and increasingly coordinate their news coverage, totals about 130.
To say the obvious, none of the alternative sources I’ve cited have even remotely these resources. Given the abundant evidence that websites can’t generate enough revenue to support news operations of this size, the future of serious reporting looks grim indeed.
-March 17, 2009