Dan Shafer is the founder of The Recombobulation Area, an award-winning, reader-supported weekly column and online publication. Click here to subscribe.

In Wisconsin, there are 11 newspapers owned by Gannett.

They are: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Appleton Post-Crescent, Oshkosh Northwestern, Fond du Lac Reporter, Wausau Daily Herald, Stevens Point Journal, Wisconsin Rapids Tribune, Marshfield News Herald, Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, and the Sheboygan Press.

These newspapers are an essential part of life in Wisconsin. Local news is invaluable, and the work done by reporters at newspapers like these is more often than not where the story starts. These are the reporters going to city council or school board meetings, doing vital investigative work to get to the story beyond the story, or even just covering the latest happenings from local businesses, nonprofits, sports and cultural groups.

“We show up,” said Devi Shastri, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter and president of the Milwaukee News Guild, in a recent interview with WORT on the looming threat of layoffs at Gannett. We need these reporters to keep showing up.

As the parent company for USA Today and more than 250 newspapers, Gannett is the nation’s largest newspaper chain. It is having a bad year. It recently reported disastrous financial results, and announced that layoffs would follow. The company’s stock was already down about 45% on the year, and fell even further following this news.

There have been reports of many Gannett layoffs around the country, including many in neighboring Iowa. We’ve seen a few of those layoffs here in Wisconsin, and there could be more coming.

Hovorka was the only full-time local government reporter at any of the four central Wisconsin newspapers owned by Gannett. He shared a thread on Twitter of stories he’d been working on before he was laid off. They ranged from coverage of Portage County’s water quality to libraries in Wisconsin Rapids facing budget cuts to a cancer survivor restarting a new business to the first Hmong history and culture class being taught in Stevens Point schools. It’s that type of coverage that’s going to be missing now. That’s the type of coverage we need as much as anything.

While any cuts to already underfunded, under-resourced, understaffed newsrooms are truly troubling, it doesn’t appear as if a flood of new layoffs are coming to Wisconsin’s Gannett newspapers. But that could change, of course. And that’s part of the problem. The precarious position in which these vital news sources find themselves, under the umbrella of the corporate chain, means there will always be a threat of more cuts, more layoffs, more problems.

The same is true at Lee Enterprises, another corporate newspaper chain that has a substantial Wisconsin footprint, publishing the Wisconsin State Journal, Racine Journal Times, Kenosha News, and La Crosse Tribune. Last year, Alden Global Capital—a hedge fund that has gutted several newsrooms around the country—tried to purchase Lee, only for that bid to be rejected earlier this year. (Lee later cut jobs anyway).

So many local newspapers around Wisconsin are beholden to these chains. Because of that, there is the constant threat that these newspapers are going to continue to shrink. Wisconsin is going to be worse off for it. This slow death of local journalism is particularly troubling as online misinformation is rising, often filling the vacuum left by these cuts. In a state that just saw a bumbling, incoherent, insulting 14-month investigation questioning the validity of an election that’s endlessly been proven to be free and fair, it’s clear that misinformation is a pervasive problem in this state and we need more state and local reporting, not less.

Something we often hear about, too, is a disconnect that national media has with much of the country, and places like Wisconsin. But no matter how many Midwestern diners they visit, nothing will ever compare to the coverage that comes with being part of a community and showing up, over and over, to cover the issues it is facing. You’re just not going to get the same insight and understanding of what’s happening in these communities without local news reporters.

It’s frustrating that in this of all places, leadership at chains like Gannett—or so many other national outlets, really—just cannot get to a point where they truly support local news reporting. This is the most closely contested swing state in the nation, where an estimated $700 million could be spent on midterm elections this year. Political pundits will spend endless amounts of time trying to figure out which way things are going with high-profile elections in the state, but the reporters who should otherwise be there to cover what really matters in communities like Stevens Point or Wausau or Oshkosh or Green Bay just won’t be there to the extent that they should be. More than any ideological or partisan divide, that’s where the disconnect starts.

Because Gannett has such a presence here, much of the criticism rightfully comes to them. And Gannett is having a weird year in Wisconsin. It eliminated Saturday print editions for nine newspapers (the Journal Sentinel was unaffected). It also decided to move printing of its newspapers from West Milwaukee to Peoria, Illinois. The Chicago Tribune, now owned by Alden, has plans to print at that West Milwaukee printing plant. That’s right: the largest newspaper in Illinois has plans to print its newspapers in Wisconsin, and the largest newspaper in Wisconsin prints its newspapers in Illinois. No wonder the corporate leadership in this industry has been floundering so badly.

Leadership at Gannett has drawn the criticism of many within the company, including here in Milwaukee. Many reporters held a “Local News Lunch Out” earlier this month, to oppose the threat of layoffs and push leadership to “cut frivolous spending instead of getting rid of journalists’ jobs,” noting that CEO Mike Reed made nearly $8 million in salary last year. Journal Sentinel reporter Daphne Chen even noted that Gannett’s CFO received a $600,000 bonus even as many of the company’s journalists were furloughed during the pandemic. The Milwaukee News Guild, the union representing many of the journalists at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, played a big part in the “Lunch Out” effort.

It’s important that they are pushing back. We need them here.

Because so many of the journalists there do terrific work. Every longread from Ashley Luthern is an event. Molly Beck covers a tremendous amount of ground as a state politics reporter, and does it exceptionally well, and adding Corri Hess to the fold will only improve coverage of this always-busy beat. The investigative work the Journal Sentinel does, like the recent award-winning “Wires and Fires” series, is always terrific. There’s a ton of really impressive journalism being produced all over the state, under extremely difficult circumstances.

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About The Author

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Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the weekly column and online publication, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer, where he's probably tweeting about the Bucks.