Monday, January 6, 2020


By Dominique Paul Noth

A major horror story of the 20th century turning into the 21st was how the nation’s legendary local print newspapers evaporated into nearly invisible ink after serving crucial importance and high circulation numbers.  

Some of the best investigations and commentary on the Internet still stem from people trained by print outlets or from the newspapers themselves, though those articles are often repositioned without credit or compensation. But there isn’t a national lament over the loss of vitality, reliable brands and established avenues of influence.

Rachel Maddow has become the lone lonely champion
of local print newspapers.
The closest we have come to a lament is MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. She has led broadcasts with the unlikely heroes of the DC impeachment hearings and the Midwest reaction to the killing of an Iranian superstar general by pointing out how that coverage is playing in local newspaper markets.  She treats as still influential the Page One designs, headlines and color photography that stirred life into print readers in Kansas City, St. Louis, Florida and the Northwest, suggesting that if anything is going to wake up the common citizenry to the dangers of our times it is the full-throated views of newspapers right and left in local markets.

Her view – a bit through rose-colored glasses in my estimation -- was that the depth and power of local coverage was going to change impeachment from a Beltway wonder to the potent national issue it should be.

None of her choices were from Milwaukee, though there were decades dating back to the 1950s when The Milwaukee Journal and even its rival the Sentinel (one moderately liberal, the other flaming Hearst or what passed for conservative in those days) were regarded as eminent leaders in local coverage and The Journal was also the pioneer for the nation in color photography and Pulitzer initiative.

Yet even the newspaper brands outside New York City and D.C. that Maddow chose are in circulation decline.  If she’s right and they still have any impact on their communities, that just emphasizes how far Milwaukee has fallen.

As both writer and senior manager I was eye-witness from the 1960s into the 1990s of that plunge from influence, which does not mean the Milwaukee newspapers were so remarkable before.  But they did have ethical standards that stood out from how advertising is wagging the media dog these days and they had an appeal to consumers that the Internet would take away -- key factors in their doom.  The marketplace for want ads, classifieds, romantic advice, movies and plays, recipes and more as well as news and opinion skipped away from print. The newspapers never adapted.  Their actual choices of change may have sped their plunge. The specific reasons are best left to memoirs.

But there was a remarkable shift from the days when copy and news were written specifically to appear in print.  These weren’t advertorials as is often the case today.  It was news and features that attracted and benefited consumers but were fashioned with an interest in warts and all coverage. 

By the 1980s in Milwaukee, news and feature coverage had been bent away from this approach to emphasize the newspapers’ own marketing concerns rather than the importance to the locals of people coverage or vital issues in print. One method was to create regional pages with advertising sold specifically in the neighborhood and news coverage similarly leveled.  Large part-time staffs were hired for that purpose.

The metro reporters at first thought the development of regional pages would deepen their hard news values, but it was mainly spreading the interference of other floors than the newsroom. It became more important to create area editions based on what could be sold rather than where news was happening.

Features had already seen the changes particularly when it came to radio and TV the same company owned and in the choice of what sort of artists and events to cover and what sort of feisty columns to allow. 

The newsroom made a bigger mistake. Its top editors started promising the corporate leadership their insights would lead to higher circulation numbers and higher suburban penetration, which translated into more cautious treatment of Waukesha and Washington counties where many advertisers were now ensconced and where the newspapers now desperately hunted for readership inroads.

The once familiar slowly evaporating merged logo.
By the time the Journal and Sentinel merged in 1995, the rationale was advertising far more than news coverage. The vain belief was that a short-term hit in circulation numbers would be followed by massive increases.

The promised boost in circulation actually led to a massive fall-off in those numbers.  The Sunday Journal which once boasted half a million subscribers has fallen toward nothing burgers.

For the arts, losing separate voices particularly hurt and it caused a sea change among these arts companies’ own marketing plans. It was also that 1990s time period I left as did hundreds of others, some by choice, some not.

In sum, newspapers are no longer a main artery of arts coverage. Mail and online campaigns are. JS eliminated individual voices for TV, theater and films, much as they had already done to books, architecture and the visual arts.

Today online newspaper sites like Urban Milwaukee -- and even the online sites of print brands -- are more sought for coverage along with Facebook, Twitter and social media in general. 

The common methods for arts groups and even community organizers are a large consumer snail-mail list and email campaigns that provide an echo of the past methods for readers who still like dialog and debate.  Smart performing arts groups not only excerpt from favorable reviews in their posts but also link the readers directly to those reviews on the originating websites, so they get the full taste of what the reviewers said.  Regularly you see this done for Next Act, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Skylight, Renaissance Theaterworks and so forth.

There is one amusing exception. The Milwaukee Rep, which once heavily relied on print coverage, is now controlling its own voice.  It runs similar online ads and email campaigns, but in their emails and lures on Facebook and the like, the one-line quotes are not back to the original sources but to the Rep’s own online site.  The power of outside voices to inform the arts is further diminished.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  A member of the American Theatre Critics Association at its inception, he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.


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