Monday, May 12, 2014

Farewell To The State Journal




Ever since I ended my career as an itinerant musician decades ago, I’ve had a daily newspaper delivered to my home in every state and town I’ve lived in.  I’m sure the same is true for my wife Toni. We’re both still newsies at heart, so we had a serious discussion this weekend about the letter that came in the mail from The Wisconsin State Journal, which we’ve had delivered to the Compound since we bought the joint in ’98.

 

The letter informed us that the next time they took a chunk of money out of our bank account, the amount would be changing to $29.25 a month. A buck a day. They of course did not list what they’re charging now, so I looked it up, and it was pretty close what I thought it was: $22.65 a month.

 

Math is far from my strong suit, but I think that’s about a 29% increase.

 

My bride’s reaction was simple: we ought not be on the hook for paying down Lee Enterprises debt. I’m still not exactly sure how the ownership arrangement works; it involves entities like Lee, Capital Newspapers Inc., The Wisconsin State Journal, The Capital Times; one owns half of this and part of that; one owns part of this and some of that; yawn.  But Lee Enterprises seems to be the one in control.




I was saddened a few years back when Lee pulled the plug on the Capital Times, the “liberal” Madison daily paper. But, given the times, it wasn’t that surprising. The Capital Times is now essentially an online operation, but their print product is delivered as a section of the Wednesday morning Wisconsin State Journal, and I looked forward to getting it every Wednesday. I enjoy Paul Fanlund’s columns a great deal; I like Mike Ivey’s stuff; I enjoy the several pages of op/ed the Cap Times provides, too.

 

My wife and I are…..well, were….big supporters of the State Journal. We read it every day. At least, when it’s delivered before 6:30 AM on weekdays, we do. But lately, that’s been slipping. Too often it makes an appearance after 7 AM, and by then, Toni’s gone off to work and I’m at work in my home studio in front of this computer.  The State Journal still has some really top-notch reporters and columnists. George Hesselberg’s stuff is top-shelf. Dee Hall is a tremendous reporter. David Wahlberg is a formidable health-beat reporter. Our friend Doug Moe’s column is the quintessence of Madison. Pat Simms, a great reporter, still does some part-time work for the paper.  I know I’m forgetting some names; but – let me make it clear that our cancellation has NOTHING to do with their excellent work.

 

But the product the State Journal puts on our porch in the morning (and I mean literally on our porch – we tip our delivery man $50 at Christmas and $50 on the 4th of July to drive up the driveway and toss the paper right on our front porch) does not merit in any way a 29% increase in cost.  News content has steadily declined over the past few years, as the reporting staff was constantly downsized; overall, the quality is, in our estimation, lower. Again, not the quality of work being done by the reporting staff, but the overall quality of the paper.


Here’s the home office building for Lee Enterprises, in Davenport Iowa - certainly an unassuming edifice for a company that owns a lot of media properties.  I do not know a great deal about the finances of Lee Enterprises, but I do know that they made some gambles a while ago and racked up a huge amount of debt acquiring more media properties. Their stock has tanked a couple times in recent memory and was nearly de-listed not that long ago.


Above is a map representing Lee’s various media holdings. They have a pretty big footprint across the nation.


Mary Junck is the CEO, and, unflattering caricature above notwithstanding, I’m sure she’s had to make some “difficult decisions” in the past decade. Usually, the way I see it, the decisions have involved firing a lot of reporters, photographers, and content-creators in general, while taking huge bonuses as the stock tanks and the quality diminishes.

 

When I called Monday afternoon to cancel, the young lady who answered the phone didn’t even try to resell me.  She simply said “your last paper will be June 15th”. I had to ask how much it would cost to get the paper on Sunday only - $15/month, or, $3.46 per Sunday paper – an absurdly high rate for a paper which is mostly paid advertising.  I don’t expect Og Mandino (the so-called “world’s greatest salesman”) to be on the other end of the line, but perhaps a few dollars spent in sales training for the phone staff over there on Fish Hatchery Road (or wherever they are) would pay for itself in a hurry.

 

There is no joy here.  There was no sense lecturing the phone-answering-lady about the outrageousness of a 29% rate-hike. It’s a decision my wife and I did not make lightly, and I hope our friends who still work at the State Journal and Cap Times can hang on long enough to leave on their own terms.

 

As Ed Murrow used to say, good night, and good luck.

12 comments:

  1. We cancelled our newspaper a few years ago. I stopped reading it log ago -- I get my news online and faster and more conveniently that way. Sweetie still liked the paper but slowly she stopped reading it as it got less informative and kept coming later in the day.

    The fact is, there really is no place for a daily newspaper, or any print object, really, especially in a time-sensitive area like news.

    I'd heard that newspapers never made that much money off of subscriptions, but instead off of ads, and primarily legal notices and classified ads, at that. The role of Craigslist in ending newspapers is generally not commented on

    (here's a good article

    http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/media/internet/15500/

    about that)

    Here's another (also kind of dated) article:

    http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/business-news/the-biz-blog/100565/classified-ad-revenue-down-70-percent-in-10-years-with-one-bright-spot/

    So newspapers have found themselves with decreasing revenue and have opted to answer by decreasing their value to their readers. This leads to fewer advertisements, and so it's a vicious circle. Add in the time delay in getting you a printed version of a story (how long did you wait to hear the John Doe investigations were dismissed, if you read it in the paper? I got a text message right when it happened) and you can see a bigger problem.

    I'm not sure there is a fix. We still need people to gather news, but increasingly those people are likely to be partisan people paid by one side or the other (or supported by highly targeted ads) and then filtered through the Gawkers and Deadspins and Huffpo's of the world. I used to hate the idea of HuffPo but it's become pretty essential to my daily life now.

    I don't really mourn the end of 'newspapers.' I like my tablet. I don't care so much about the medium and to the extent I do, I prefer a medium that not only is fast, but is portable, doesn't get ink on my fingers, and which when I'm done with the news, will provide other entertainment or information, too. Hard to do all that with a daily paper.

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    1. Sic transit Gloria newspapers...... thanks, Briane.

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  2. Warren Buffet still invests in certain newspapers so there must be some money in them in defined areas.

    Personally, I quit reading the paper about ten years ago. I read what I need on the phone or pad now. My main information absorption is listening to Bloomberg on XM Radio in the car on the way to and from work. For that convenience I gladly pay $14 per month and also have other news stations and about ten thousand music stations to boot.

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    1. The Times is changing, to coin a bad pun.......

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  3. Tim, I don't think you can even get a Sunday only subscription anymore. A couple of years ago they made that into a Saturday-Sunday thing, and then they made it into a Wednesday (of all things) Saturday Sunday subscription. That would explain the $15 a month cost (don't know why they wouldn't tell you that when you inquired). I think making Sunday subscriptions a mandatory three days was a mistake.

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    1. Sunday, Wednesday (because that's the day the publish the print edition of the Cap Times, which is included with the State Journal on Wednesday), and digital access. They don't make you take a Saturday paper. This I learned from numerous posts on another social media site where I mentioned this.

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  4. We'll all be saying farewell to the State Journal soon if trends persist, the current path is not sustainable. Since 2008, their Sunday circulation has gone down ~5% a year, daily ~4%, and that will be accelerated by the price increase. They're virtually inviting people to leave, confident that the greater income per customer will keep them alive for another year or so.

    Income and profits are cratering and much of it is driven by ongoing demographic and technological trends affecting all newspapers. Lee Enterprises is a big drag, no doubt (they dictated the price increase), but the paper has burned a lot of bridges with the community they claim to serve. They could be spun off as an independent when Lee goes down, but who would want to take such a tarnished brand, proud supporters of Romney and Walker in a town that is 75% Democratic, the county 65%. Yes, proud supporters, Google those editorials if you doubt it.

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