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Wisconsin State Journal farms out Packers coverage
Local reporting a casualty of newspaper industry woes
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Credit:Anna Swenson

It is no secret that this is not the best of financial times for daily newspapers around the country, including the Wisconsin State Journal.

The latest sign that Madison's morning daily may once again be facing an economic howitzer came on July 27 in an online announcement at Madison.com and in the print version's sports section, where editor John Smalley wrote that the paper would no longer cover the Green Bay Packers. Instead, it is farming out the daily reporting responsibilities to the Green Bay Press Gazette, a member of the Gannett network of papers in Wisconsin, in exchange for the State Journal's coverage of University of Wisconsin sports.

The decision has left some in the State Journal newsroom wondering if this is another warning for looming layoffs and further cutbacks in coverage in an already shrinking newshole.

"Hard to say," Smalley says when asked if the move forecasts a cut in reporting staff. "I would not be surprised if a decision goes in either direction. That's a constant in the industry."

While readers may not notice much of a difference in coverage, and in fact may get more coverage with the Press Gazette's four-man reporting team, the decision leaves columnist Tom Oates as the only local voice about the Packers in the State Journal. (Previously, along with Oates, the paper had one beat reporter and usually a third reporter for sidebars and notes at all home games and at playoff games.) Oates' responsibilities also include columns about the Badgers, Milwaukee Brewers and other items of national and local interest, so it is unlikely he will just focus on the Packers. That change in coverage probably does not sit well with some in the sports section, who see the Packers as a news story second only to the political developments at the Capitol.

After more than 30 years in the sportswriting business, including 22 at the State Journal, I can report that sportswriters are territorial by nature and very protective of their beats and reporting. (Full disclosure: I was laid off by the paper in January 2009.) Now, though, it is not clear just how much editorial oversight the State Journal will have over the Press Gazette's reporting.

Smalley admits that this cooperative arrangement would not have happened five years ago. But as newspapers battle an incessant revenue decline, the old ways are gone.

He says maintaining a local voice on Packers coverage now is "part of the challenge. It's going to be a collaborative effort. We are by no means abandoning our role. We'll be involved in discussions multiple times of day."

The Packers announcement comes in the wake of other shifts in reporting strategy, most notably the State Journal's decision to no longer use its own beat writer to cover the playoff-contending Brewers.

The State Journal also is engulfed in the cloud of financial distress at Lee Enterprises, the paper's owner. The Davenport, Iowa, based company is undergoing another round of job cuts at its papers around the country as it tries to impress bankers and arrange financing for its $1.1 billion debt, which comes due next April.

In July, Lee cut 52 jobs at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, 28 at the Post-Dispatch in St. Louis and 11 at the Journal-Star in Lincoln, Neb. Lee also let go in the spring two longtime publishers at the community newspaper division of Capital Newspapers, George Althoff in Baraboo and Jim Kelsh in Beaver Dam.

Joyce Delhi, Lee's vice president for news and a former State Journal reporter and editor, declined to comment on how Lee's financial stress was reflected in the decision. She says Lee's newspapers make their own editorial decisions and referred all questions to Smalley.

Lee's stock price, which broke the $46 barrier in January 2004, dropped below 90 cents a share last week. Lee also drew a warning from the New York Stock Exchange last month that it has six months to get the stock price over $1 to remain listed.

The financial duress has sparked critical commentary about Lee throughout the market blogosphere. "Lee's management was slow to adapt throughout the last decade and now the company finds itself at the mercy of creditors," a negative Rizzi Capital report stated. "Management has never taken responsibility for this."

Lee management defended itself in a May letter to stockholders: "We are not, as some in the national media have imagined, staving off bankruptcy."

When Forbes magazine put Lee on its "risk list," Lee responded: "In the interest of responsible journalism...we believe you are making a serious error and acting recklessly."

It remains to be seen if the Packers decision also is a serious error and a reckless act.

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