I’ve dreaded that the day would come when I’d have to write that this is our final issue. But that day is here.
Our readership has grown more than I ever imagined, and the accolades we’ve received from our peers have been numerous and humbling. The level of engagement we’ve had with readers has been extraordinary.
But we are an advertiser-supported medium, and it’s become clear that we cannot focus on putting out a quality newsprint publication in Milwaukee and hope to break even financially.
We are not alone. Many daily newspapers and other alternative publications are struggling for survival. And many have turned to other sources of revenue to compensate for reduced advertising income. They stage events such as taco fests to raise additional funds. Vendors pay for exhibition space and the public pays to attend. The publication is able to use itself to widely promote the event.
An eternally popular way of boosting revenue is sponsoring “best of” popularity contests. The winners are not actually the “best” in their niches, but rather the businesses or personalities that do the best job of getting people to vote for them.
The winners are incented to buy ads celebrating their victories. Many publications give them discounts on those ads as a way of “recognizing” their victories. The winners also proudly display their certificates on the walls of their businesses. It’s a great way to strengthen relationships with current and prospective advertisers.
The Shepherd Express has been publishing very popular annual “best-of” lists for decades. So we felt that base was covered and, regardless, it’s not something any of us wanted to take on.
Some papers sell merchandise on their websites. We made a half-hearted attempt at that, but it failed. Other papers deliver food, sell tickets and provide other services.
I’m not throwing shade at new revenue sources. If those techniques are helping to keep journalism alive, I’m all for them. I do, however, draw the line at selling stories that are not marked as “sponsored” content.
But I don’t believe we could have maintained our standards by expanding in those ways. They would have stretched our resources even thinner, and the prospect of investing in such side businesses would incur yet more risk. Most importantly, CEO Leonard Sobczak and I had no interest in them. We got into this business to support progressive thinking and causes, as well as to bring progressive activists together.
While I feel tremendous sorrow about closing, I’m trying to focus on how well we succeeded at producing a popular, quality publication for nearly nine years, with only a tiny staff and never-ending — but always surprising — challenges, particularly in finding skilled, committed sales reps. Sadly, we faced underhanded high jinks — not only from homophobes and the radical right, but also from other media competing for ad dollars.
I hope we’ve made a positive difference through the information, opinions and ideas we’ve shared with southeastern Wisconsin’s large progressive community, especially those people working for LGBTQ equality, a clean and sustainable environment, animal welfare, women’s choice, racial and economic justice, immigrant rights and an end to the massive fraud and corruption this state has endured for nearly eight years.
Also important to me is the work we’ve done to help bolster the performing arts. The quality of Milwaukee’s entertainment groups and venues is second to none among cities its size. The local music scene is bringing new energy and young people to the city.
It’s been an honor to share in-depth coverage of our venerable visual and performing arts institutions, as well as the many smaller performing groups that showcase new talent and expose the region to an astonishing range of cultural enrichment through theater, music and dance.
With the small space afforded to the arts in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I hate knowing there will be one less source to engage and illuminate audiences.
I also worry that the closing of yet another print publication will reaffirm local advertising agencies’ aversion to print, which is a medium they just don’t know how to utilize anymore. We’re caught in a self-perpetuating cycle in which advertisers are abandoning print because they’re being told by ad agencies that it’s dead, even though niche publications like ours remain popular with large swaths of readers, both in print and online.
People pick up a publication by choice, because they want to read it. And ads in publications, if they’re good ones, are part and parcel of the publication’s content. Well-designed ads with strong calls to action get attention. When they’re artfully done, they also make the publication look better. That synergy can be a beautiful thing, even in newsprint.
We’ve put a lot of effort into our award-winning website and very active Facebook page, so we’re intimately aware of the strengths and weaknesses of both media. In the past, they’ve worked for some advertisers, especially when used in conjunction with a print component. But digital and social media have become so saturated with advertising that it’s hard for businesses to stand out. In fact, now that print advertising is less popular, ads get more attention, even if fewer eyes, than they could amid the clutter of digital media.
And, unlike digital media, print offers an aura of respectability that can enhance an advertiser’s image.
New media is not new anymore, and it’s out of control. Facebook, for instance, played an outsized role in putting Donald Trump in the White House. It spreads lies and sells people’s personal information. Facebook and Google — and their subsidiaries, such as Instagram — literally are spying on people.
Furthermore, the unfettered anonymity of digital media has given rise to bitter political divisions, vicious rhetoric and inhumanity.
We targeted a desirable audience that was drawn to the issues we covered and the way we covered them. A large number of our readers are civically engaged — they’re the movers and shakers, the theatergoers, the nonprofit volunteers. Many of them fall in the marketing category of “influencers.”
Of all the publications I’ve worked for in my considerably long experience, the readers we’ve had here are by far the best. I will miss your enthusiasm and responsiveness — your kind words and your astute criticism that allowed me to continue growing in my work.
I’ve now lived in Milwaukee for a decade, but I’d been here less than a year when we started on this project. Without the help of so many committed readers, elected officials and people involved with progressive nonprofits and good-government groups, the past nine years would not have been possible. There are far too many people to thank them all by name, but I think they know who they are.
Print publications not only are effective for advertising but more importantly, they’re essential to the functioning of democracy.
In places where local papers have closed, voter participation has fallen, as has the number of people running for office. According to the Brookings Institution, closing local papers decreases the quality of government and increases government budgets, because local officials are not being monitored. The closings also decrease the quality of life, because institutions and decision-makers aren’t being adequately scrutinized.
Independent papers like ours can be particularly effective because they’re not governed by the interests of stockholders or extremist owners in the way that an increasing number of newspaper and broadcast outlets are.
So, although we’re bowing out, I implore you not to give up on your local press. Support it, even when it runs stories or opinions you don’t like. If journalists are doing their jobs well, there are bound to be some people who don’t like what they write. Sometimes things we don’t like happen to be true. Isn’t it better to know?
The press is not the enemy of the people. It’s the nemesis of tyrants and the friend of truth.