Monday, June 22, 2015

An Unsustainable Business Model

My long-time friend Doug Moe got the ax at the State Journal last week. Years ago, when my wife and I were doing the “Madison’s Morning News” show on a local station – a station which no longer exists – Doug would often sit in for me when I was on vacation. Doug was editor of Madison Magazine when we met. Through Doug, I met a number of influential, intelligent, witty, and curmudgeonly Madison characters like the late Jim Selk and civil rights lawyer Jeff Scott Olson.

These guys and other local illuminati regularly set up shop at the bar at the old Fess Hotel. For those unaware of this piece of Madison history, the Fess – a landmark at East Doty and King Street, which closed up in ’94 and became the Great Dane Brewpub – was a regular gathering place for itinerant writers, lawyers, and legislators, back when politics was the art of compromise and not the asinine partisan blood sport it’s become.

Doug eventually moved on from Madison Magazine to the Cap Times, where he wrote a fabulous “who’s in town and what’s going on in Madison” column, and then, as the death rattle of print journalism got a bit louder, Doug became a columnist for the State Journal several years ago.

And now, in a paper that once featured some of the best columns ever written, by some of the best people who ever did it – people like Doug, George Hesselberg, Bill Wineke, Susan Lampert Smith, Pat Simms, and other luminaries – we have Chris Rickert.

Since Doug was thrown under the bus and Rickert wasn’t, I can only assume that Doug commanded (and deserved) a much larger salary than Rickert. That’s how these things work in today’s print and broadcast news industry. He who makes a decent living shall be fired in due time, or have his/her benefits stripped or hours reduced.  Like my friend George Hesselberg, the brilliant State Journal writer, who’s down to around 25 hours a week now, as I recall.

It’s an unsustainable business model, this journalism thing, whether it be the print version or the TV version. The captains of industry who run these outfits demand a rate of return on their investment that is certainly not supported by earnings, and is reminiscent of the days before Craig’s List took over the job of classified advertising in nearly every community. Unreasonable dividend goals must be met, and unsustainable debt must be serviced, so – as the old saying goes, firings will continue until morale improves.

Let me also briefly mention the decline of local radio news. When my wife and I were doing that morning news show years ago, there was huge competition in radio news in Madison. Each group of stations had a thriving news department and part of our motivation was to beat the other guys. Now, there’s one news department left in commercial radio in Madison (the WIBA stations) and a respectable local news gathering operation supported by public radio. The rest of the stations are one-man bands or “sidekick” news hosts, who give “news” about the Kardashians or items purloined from some other news-gathering operation.

Doug wasn’t the only one shown the door in the latest bloodletting. Let me note the other two household names in Madison news who were also given the bum’s rush by the paper.

Sports writer and columnist Andy Baggot, whose writing I’ve enjoyed for a long time, was “downsized” or whatever the current euphemism is. He knew his stuff and he wrote in a clear and compelling style. Along with Tom Oates, Baggot is synonymous with college and pro sports coverage in Madison.

Sports writer Dennis Semrau, who covered high school sports for the paper, was summarily dismissed as well. Somebody on Facebook said this weekend “how many people have an athletic profile of their son or daughter written by Semrau clipped from the paper and placed in a scrapbook – or still hanging on the refrigerator”.

I wish all three of these veteran journalists the best, and hope they land on their feet soon.

As so many of us who were in the biz, and got fired because we did our job well enough to command a decent salary have said, after being thrown under the bus: pity the poor souls who are left behind in the newsroom. They’re the ones who will be expected to do still more, with less support and diminishing resources. They’ll have to deal with the pressure from the owners and managers who will feign astonishment when subscriptions (or ratings) decline.

It’s an unsustainable business model. I may live to see the end of the printed newspaper.
Good luck, you guys.
The photo of Doug Moe at the top of this column is copyright property of Madison Newspapers, Inc.


  1. Thanks for the appropriate context, Tim. Mr. Moe and I occasionally shared a quote about paranoia. I'd tell you, but you never know...

  2. I've run ouf of word for media in this town. Thankfully, you haven't. Good luck gentlemen and thank you for sharing your perspective over the years.

  3. I heard a morning host on a Clear Channel station decrying the sackings of Baggot, Moe, and Semrau today as short-sighted and inexplicable---an interesting take given that his station's parent company has made a regular practice of the very same kind of personnel reductions. It's what happens when a business considers its primary customers to be its shareholders, and not the listeners/viewers/communities they serve.

  4. I'm shocked, shocked I tell you, to hear that, Jim.....NOT.

  5. Meanwhile Lee's CEO received a $700,000 bonus atop her $2.8 million salary. The cost of living in Davenport is brutal

    1. Jim, these "captains of industry" are heroes to their shareholders, who will some day awake to find they've invested in something which no longer has value.

  6. I'm a little stunned by Chris Rickert not being shown the door in this latest purge, but then they were getting rid of talented people and not the marginal (or worse) ones like him. Any organization in any field needs some veteran employees to help mentor those just starting out, and to lead by example. These corporations are shooting themselves in the foot by not having some experienced people in the mix. There have been so many good people unceremoniously dumped in the Madison media market in recent years they could form their own news, sports, and commentary site.

    1. There are still plenty of really good people left at MNI; they still posses a huge store of institutional knowledge and have a contextual grasp of the stories they're assigned to. Whether or not they're able to mentor the youngsters, given their onerous multi-platform workloads, is almost a moot point: I think we'll live to see the demise of the printed newspaper, and I'm not sure online presence only will be sufficient to retain good staff people. Hence, my argument that this is a non-sustainable model.