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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 2.0° F  Fair
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Ellen Foley's State Journal
Her mission is to keep the paper relevant in an era of declining readership. How's she doing?
Foley, meeting with her editors: 'People here were very hungry for change, and they felt the paper had become a little sleepy.'
Credit:Eric Tadsen

Ellen Foley missed the afternoon news meeting where her deputy editors debated story selection for the next day's front page. But later, the Wisconsin State Journal editor saw the planned lead story and blurted out, "Who cares?"

The story, which ran earlier this summer, reported that several Madison high schools failed to meet new federal standards. Foley feared her paper's readers ' starved for time and wanting relevant and engaging writing ' wouldn't be pulled into the piece. So she directed an assistant editor to repackage it.

"I'm sure he was thinking, 'Oh boy, the last thing I need tonight is the editor giving me tips on how to do my job,'" recalls Foley, who advised him anyway. She hammered home the importance of "creating context" in the story's first six paragraphs. She also wanted breakout boxes to list the failing schools and explain the standards.

For Foley, it's part of the new mandate for daily newspapers: Stay relevant or die.

"We can't just vomit out information without making sense of it," she says. "The people who care about this can get the data online. We've got to offer something more, something different. Madisonians care about the quality of their lives, and if we're running a story about how our schools are sub-par, we better have the right context."

Foley doesn't rewrite every story that makes it into the State Journal, which, with a daily circulation of just under 90,000, is Wisconsin's second-largest newspaper and one of the flagship papers of Lee Enterprises. But since arriving in April 2004, the 54-year-old editor has done much to transform the paper, in ways good and bad.

The State Journal under Foley has placed itself at the forefront of industry change, seeking new ways to please readers and advertisers. Her efforts have gained widespread attention, including recent invitations to speak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and pen an article on Web journalism for Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism.

Not surprisingly, Foley's actions have also rankled longtime readers, community leaders and veteran newsroom staff. She's been accused of being out of touch and hell-bent on dumbing down the paper's journalism in favor of celebrity news, shorter stories and ubiquitous graphics.

But Ellen Foley makes no apologies for the direction she's taking the paper. Two years and five months into the "Foley administration," as she jokingly dubs her tenure, the most important newsroom staffers are Foley picks, including managing editor Tim Kelley, city editor Teryl Franklin and editorial page editor Scott Milfred. And in ways both subtle and brazen, she's driven home the message: Get on the Foley bandwagon, or get out.

"People here were very hungry for change, and they felt the paper had become a little sleepy," she says. "Lots of people were doing really good work, but the edges were a little dull, and we needed to sharpen them."

Tough times

The newspaper industry is facing multiple challenges, including declining circulation, rising newsprint costs, a shift in classified advertising to online sites like craigslist, and declines in display ads by traditional advertisers like department stores and car dealers.

Worst of all, young people are turning their backs on daily papers. Only 23% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 say they read a newspaper "yesterday," compared to 60% of Americans over 60, the Wilson Quarterly reported last year.

"More ominous," writes media researcher David Mindich, is that "as people age, they continue the news habits of their younger days." For daily newspapers, this portends a bleak future, which may explain why Wall Street shuns newspaper companies despite their still-healthy profits.

Nationally, daily newspapers' circulation and share of U.S. advertising have declined every year since 1990, according to James Hopson, the former State Journal publisher who hired Foley. In a recent article in American Editor, Hopson noted that national household penetration has dropped from 60% in the 1970s to the mid-30% range today.

"It's not easy to manage a newspaper in this climate, or much fun either," Hopson wrote.

To keep profit margins up, newspapers are cutting back on newsroom staff. This hurts morale and, according to some rank-and-file reporters, erodes quality.

"I think any journalist in America is feeling the pressure," says Andy Hall, a State Journal reporter who teaches reporting courses at the UW-Madison. "Our entire industry is in a state of massive transition. We see the anxious looks on our bosses' faces when they come out of meetings, and we attend professional conferences where increasingly the focus is on managing and juggling how to do more with fewer resources."

For several years, the State Journal newsroom has endured wave after wave of cost-cutting measures, in the form of hiring freezes, training cuts and expense reductions. But the paper is not losing money; it's just slightly less profitable than before.

The State Journal is the crown jewel of Capital Newspapers Inc., which also owns The Capital Times and regional papers in Baraboo, Columbus, Beaver Dam, Juneau County, Portage, Reedsburg, Sauk Prairie and Wisconsin Dells. Capital Newspapers is in turn jointly owned by Lee Enterprises and the Capital Times Co.

Through its holdings, Capital Newspapers has created a "Capital Region" for advertisers. It boasts that its papers reach more than one million Wisconsin residents in 17 counties, which lets businesses target and bundle advertising in ways most publishers would envy.

According to Lee's Security and Exchange Commission filing, gross revenue for the Madison operation was virtually the same, at about $60 million, for the six-month period ending March 31, 2006, as for the same period the year before. But net income was down 15%, from $8.5 million to $7.3 million for the respective six-month periods.

These numbers suggest that Capital Newspapers annually retains about $14.6 million on $120 million of revenue. This is a profit margin of 12%, which most businesses would die for but is much lower than newspapers have enjoyed in the past.

Foley and State Journal publisher Bill Johnston dispute these calculations, but declined to provide additional financial information. Dan Hayes, Lee's vice president for corporate communications, confirmed the accuracy of the SEC report, saying, "At the moment, the entire newspaper industry has run into a cyclical slowdown."

Lee has a solid reputation among newspapers chains. Mary Junck, Lee's chief executive, was named Publisher of the Year by Editor & Publisher in 2005, the year the company bought Pulitzer Inc. That move catapulted Lee to the top tier of American newspaper companies, with a ranking of fourth in the nation in terms of the number of dailies it owns.

But Wall Street has been unimpressed with Lee's step up in the journalism world. Over the past year, Lee's stock has plunged in value from about $44 to $24 a share, meaning tens of millions of dollars in stockholder value has been vaporized in the downturn.

New approaches

The downturn in the fortunes of daily newspapers has caused consternation among advertisers and forced newspaper executives to adopt new strategies. One is to shift emphasis from circulation data to readership stats.

"We know people are reading our paper," says Phil Stoddard, Capital Newspapers' circulation director. "They're just not buying it."

The State Journal points to studies that suggest its readership is at sky-high levels. "The numbers for Capital Newspapers are absolutely stellar," boasts an internal memo from the company's marketing director, Jon Friesch. "In Dane County, 83% of adults read the Sunday Wisconsin State Journal, and 79% read the daily or Saturday edition of The Capital Times or Wisconsin State Journal."

But while these numbers come from an independent company, Scarborough Research, they may be misleading, since they include even casual readers. The 83% number, clarifies Friesch, measures respondents who have read the Sunday paper "in the last month"; the 79% number is respondents who have read either of the two dailies "in the past five days."

From 1985 to 2005, the State Journal's daily circulation saw a 20% increase, from 76,903 to 92,081. Sunday circulation also rose, from 138,086 in 1985 to 150,616 last year. But over the last decade, the number has trended downward, from a 1994 high of 166,205. Single-copy Sunday sales have taken the biggest hit, says Stoddard, who calls the Sunday paper the company's "bread and butter."

One strategy employed by newspapers is to hike so-called soft circulation. For instance, residents of more than a dozen Madison apartment complexes are eligible for free and discounted subscriptions, with billing included in their monthly rent. Sunday shoppers at Sentry Hilldale are given a free State Journal. Oil-change customers at Valvoline can read a complimentary Cap Times or State Journal while their car is serviced. (Elsewhere in the country, advertisers have filed class-action lawsuits alleging that circulation numbers have been improperly inflated.)

Foley, for her part, professes to not be worried about her paper's short-term future.

"We're making great money and producing great journalism," she says. "But I do worry about 18 months to five years down the line. The business model is changing. An entire generation has been trained to believe they don't have to pay for the news, and at the same time there are some very troubling economic indicators for newspapers."

John Roach, a former television producer and Madison Magazine columnist, agrees that "it's the end of world" for newspapers that want to continue doing what they've always done. Rather, they must instead embrace significant changes to content and delivery, including jumping wholeheartedly into the multi-platform possibilities of the Internet.

"Forces conspire against Ellen delivering traditional readership," says Roach. "The real trick will be for her to deliver revitalized editorial content in new ways that have value to the community and to advertisers. And you know what? I think she can do it. If she's willing to change the news and editorial side as much as she has, then I don't think that means she's too timid to change the technological delivery systems as well."

Learning the ropes

The oldest of seven children, Foley grew up in Wauwatosa, outside of Milwaukee. Her surgeon father and homemaker mother provided an "enchanted" childhood, and Foley was a model student at her Catholic high school. After two years at St. Mary's College of Notre Dame, she transferred to the UW-Madison, where she earned a degree in political science before enrolling in the UW's graduate school of journalism. There she learned that "journalism can change the world."

Foley's first newspaper job was working alongside Isthmus editor Marc Eisen at a small paper in West Bend. She went on to copy-editing jobs at the Milwaukee Sentinel, Detroit News and the Minneapolis Star, which merged to become the Star Tribune. There, Foley worked as a copy editor, reporter and assistant features editor.

Foley and her future husband, Tom Mullaney, met on a plane trip on Christmas Eve 1980. The two had earlier taken a class together at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. "I remembered her from the class because she really wanted to contribute, was always positive, she had a sense of humor, and she was obviously smart," says Mullaney, a clinical social worker by profession.

In 1988, tragedy struck. Foley's sister and best friend, Mary, was raped and murdered by a stranger who had just been released from prison. Foley turned her grief and rage into activism, founding a victim's rights group and carting her two young daughters to speeches and rallies.

A job offer as an assistant managing editor at the Kansas City Star helped Foley move on. She spent five years there, learning, she says, to be a strong journalism leader ' which, she says, "is very complicated and fraught with danger, very political, and very arduous." Then the Philadelphia Daily News recruited her as managing editor, and Foley and her family were on the move again.

Working at the underdog tabloid fed Foley's ambition and "opened up the journalism world" to her. But there were controversies and clashes with staff (see "Shocking But True," 4/16/04, posted on and after six years the ever-ambitious Foley was on the lookout for a job as editor. "Those managing editor jobs to me look like a meat grinder," says Mullaney. "Ellen can be a tough soldier. But I was worried about her getting ground up."

When Hopson called from Madison, looking for an editor to replace Frank Denton, who had held the job at the State Journal for 17 years (he went on to a short stint as editor at the Tampa Tribune), Foley leapt at the chance.

"I really feel like coming to Madison was coming home," says Foley, whose family now lives in Nakoma. This fall, both daughters, ages 18 and 21, are attending the UW-Madison. One is a freshman who just graduated from Edgewood High; the other is a senior majoring in biochemistry.

Fixing the State Journal

In her first nine months as editor, Foley gave more than 30 speeches to various audiences. Her immodesty sometimes irked people, especially when she said she wanted the paper to be more like her ' "warm, smart and funny."

Foley continues to do extensive outreach, and these encounters provide critical feedback. Earlier this summer, she spoke at a west-side Kiwanis Club luncheon, where readers complained about the decrease in national and international news and increased frivolity on page two. Four days a week, that page features national celebrity news, and the other three days a local "boldface names" column by Melanie Conklin, a former Isthmus staffer and mayoral spokesperson whom Foley wooed to the paper.

A "people" column was a priority for Foley, but when she pushed it in her first weeks, no one in the newsroom applied for the position. "This is the one thing the staff was very clear they did not believe in," says Foley. "Everything else, they came along. But not this."

Two years later, some still scratch their heads over Conklin's column, wondering why such a fine reporter is being put to such mediocre purpose. But Foley loves it, wishing she could "clone" Conklin to write daily.

Foley's first months were tough. Journalists are notoriously resistant to change, and Foley was determined to push it. Her biggest statement '- one that shocked many people ' was when she moved longtime columnist George Hesselberg to general-assignment reporting after Hesselberg rejected some of her ideas.

Foley believes a newspaper's voice is best expressed by its columnists, and she thought the State Journal needed a boost of personality. She elevated columnists Susan Lampert Smith and Bill Wineke to the front page. Both are competent writers, but lack Hesselberg's bite.

As editor, Foley has set three reporting priorities: the UW-Madison, economic development and quality-of-life issues. She beefed up the business pages, which she says were too traditional and stale. Together with managing editor Tim Kelley, she's increased the prominence of sports coverage and inaugurated frequent trend stories, like those about dangerous dogs and crowded boat landings. And the paper does a fair amount of enterprise reporting, from Ron Seely's in-depth stories on Madison's water woes, to continuing articles by Dee Hall and Phil Brinkman on Capitol corruption and possible miscarriages of justice.

But in other ways, the State Journal under Foley has decidedly become more like USA Today. It runs generally shorter stories and devotes considerable attention to presentation, including bigger photos, eye-catching graphics and breakout boxes. It stresses more "news you can use," including a prominently placed daily Q&A.

"People think in visual terms, I think probably more so than ever before," says David Dombrowski, the paper's design editor, whom Foley hired from the Detroit Free Press. "People also just have less time. If there's a way for us to give people important information in the easiest and quickest way, then we're doing readers a favor, and maybe we're keeping and attracting readers, too."

The downside

While Ellen Foley's State Journal goes the extra mile to appeal to casual readers, its commitment to basic news reporting shows signs of decline. The paper has backed off on nuts-and-bolts coverage, like meetings of the school board, county board, city councils and key committees.

Scott McDonell, chairman of the Dane County Board, is appalled that the State Journal is "no longer a regular presence" at County Board meetings. "This is our county government and you're the paper of record. It's your responsibility to be here," he says. "Reporting is sort of like deer hunting. You have to sit in the blind a little while before you see a deer. And sometimes reporters have to sit through long meetings to find the news."

Some State Journal reporters complain privately about being assigned to projects that leave them with less time to cover their beats. The result is that other outlets best the State Journal in some coverage areas.

The campus dailies still provide more if not better UW-Madison reporting. The Capital Times has definitive courts and county government coverage and a solid business section, thanks to veteran staffers. Madison school news often breaks on the local Web site And The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and cover state government more thoroughly.

State Journal editors say they can't have it all. Enterprise pieces take lots of time, and they've used a cost-benefit analysis in deciding not to send reporters to all government meetings. To them, it's part of their new strategy. To others, it's a troubling sign.

The challenge for a big-city morning newspaper is to be the most consistent and authoritative voice for the news of the day, to be a must-read every morning. In trying to attract a new audience, the State Journal runs the risk of alienating those who crave serious journalism. Its focus on attracting younger audiences and those who are too busy to read most of the paper sometimes borders on the ridiculous ' for instance, its online ballot to let readers help pick what will appear on the next day's front page.

This yearning to please readers at all costs runs contrary to what has sustained superior newspapers in the past. Foley disagrees that the State Journal is pandering to younger readers, saying older readers like entertaining elements, too.

"We always need to remain close to readers and constantly question what they want," says Foley. "We're fighting for one reader at a time. It's just gotten to be that type of a situation."

Under Foley, the State Journal's editorial pages have adopted a kinder, gentler voice. Part of this owes to the departure under pressure of editorial writer Sunny Schubert, who loved to lob bombs at the liberal establishment. Certainly, the paper has come a long way from its tone under one-time editorial page editor Tom Still, who pondered running for Congress as a Republican.

Scott Milfred, the paper's current editorial page editor, proclaims to reside politically in "the squooshy middle," and Foley admits she's had a hand in moderating the paper's tone. This change may fit Foley's broader strategy of trying to offend the fewest number of readers, but it's less interesting. On its best day, the State Journal's editorial page doesn't match the depth and breadth of The Capital Times'.

"It's Snoozeville," says conservative County Supv. David Blaska, a former journalist. He finds this hard to comprehend, saying the editorial page "ought to be, in my view, the most exciting section of the newspaper."

Foley, who was once a registered Republican and now considers herself "socially liberal and fiscally conservative," laughs at the suggestion that the paper's voice has gone from conservative to moderate. She denies it was ever conservative, except against the backdrop of far-left Madison: "If we're a conservative paper ' a paper that's anti-gun, pro-choice, pro-gay and lesbian, pro-environment ' then yeah, I'm pretty comfortable being at a conservative paper."

Wild ideas

Let Ellen Foley ramble on about the future of the news business and you might wonder how she ever got a job in the profession. Her vision includes:

Senior citizens sitting in retirement homes blogging as citizen journalists.

An institutionalized "news corps" of recent college graduates who spend a few years practicing the discipline of verification, much like the Peace Corps.

Small computer chips implanted into people's chests that act as their sole communications tool.

"This is what's really weird about me," says Foley. "I just have these wild ideas."

Yes, she does, and they do make her seem sometimes like a bit of an oddball. Then again, Foley has won over many detractors, including early skeptics within her newsroom, and the State Journal is, at the moment, thriving. She can't be completely crazy.

Among her biggest challenges will be to straddle the gap between Web and print, recognizing that future growth may depend on exploiting the Internet for local news ' and finding ways to make this profitable.

"The question is, Where is the tipping point between the print newspaper and the Web?" asks Foley. "When will the majority of revenue be earned by I would say it's not going to happen for a while, but that doesn't mean we sit on our hands and wait for it to happen."

Foley's willingness to experiment and her persistence in adapting to changing demands are important assets that will help the State Journal stay at the forefront of what readers want, whether or not it's what they need.

"This is a time of exciting change," Foley says. "I think newspapers will be around for another 20 years, but they'll get smaller and smaller. But journalism as a craft is going to sustain itself. The format, though, may be something wildly different than what we're used to do today. And I'm open to that."

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