By Brandi Makuski
I’ll never forget the day Dave Wood, a content manager for Multi Media Channels, called me to say he wanted a meeting. It was an unusual call because I rarely heard from Dave. My direct supervisor at the Stevens Point City Times, the newspaper I’d founded in 2010, was his brother, Nick Wood, who had a good background in journalism and with whom I communicated almost daily.
“It’s just some budget thing we have to go over,” Dave Wood replied dismissively on Nov. 30, 2017, when I asked what the meeting was for. It made some sense; I’d just been appointed Open Book Management liaison for the Stevens Point office (At the time, MMC owned publications in about a dozen markets) some weeks before and was still feeling out that role.
I was neck-deep in the latest story on a new city ordinance regarding garbage cart storage—which turned out to be a far more controversial topic than anyone anticipated—when Dave Wood entered my office. His face was pale and he appeared nervous.
Behind him came Roger Wanek from human resources, a man who I can only describe as naturally jovial.
That’s when I knew.
Dave Wood sat down at the table in my office and began to fidget with the corner of a file folder he’d brought with him. Wanek offered a reassuring smile, much in the same way a doctor might before using a large needle in an uncomfortable place.
“I have some terrible news,” Dave Wood began softly. “We’ve decided to eliminate editorial and move back towards more of a shopper.”
My initial reaction was complete denial. After all, what kind of newspaper gets rid of its reporting staff?
“What about the stories we’re working on?” I asked. “We can’t just leave the readers hanging.”
Dave Wood shrugged, struggling to find an answer. “You don’t need to worry about that anymore,” he replied.
I didn’t know it yet, but I was one of seven full-timers the company was tossing aside. It took several minutes before I really grasped what he was saying: less than a month before Christmas, my income, my insurance, my 401K—gone in the blink of an eye and with no warning. It almost seemed like a well-constructed joke: I’d just returned from a Wisconsin Newspaper Association conference on First Amendment rights as they relate to the press, and my boss asked me to prepare a presentation to share with fellow reporters in the company.
More than that, the thousands of sources I’d cultivated over the prior eight years were suddenly gone: the company locked my email as I was signing my discharge paperwork, and I had foolishly not created a backup database with names, emails, and phone numbers. Worse still, my notes were gone. Everything I’d been working on was saved via the MMC server, and I still had a dozen or so unfinished exclusive stories in the queue.
My severance, Wanek explained, was 80 hours of vacation pay I’d accrued throughout 2017, although I’d never taken any vacation time during my three years with the company.
The editorial division’s relationship with upper management at MMC was always a bit strained: the company, a subsidiary of the Green Bay-based Brown County Publishing, was essentially operated by a group of investors, many related by blood or marriage, who appeared to have one goal: bury newspaper giant Gannett (owner of the Stevens Point Journal).
The family patriarch, Frank Wood, was an outspoken Green Bay publisher who ran the Green Bay News-Chronicle, a daily newspaper which, starting in 1980, had to compete with Gannett-owned Green Bay Press-Gazette. Frank Wood, who died in 2011, penned a number of stories in his paper critical of the newspaper chain during the 1980s and ’90s, and in 2000 he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he believed Gannett was trying to unfairly put him out of business. His company, Brown County Publishing, sold the News-Chronicle to Gannett in 2004. The following year, Gannett closed the paper down.
When we sold the City Times to MMC in 2014, it was in the spirit of journalist integrity and commitment to employees described in the Richard McCord book “The Chain Gang”, which details the battle between Frank Wood and Gannett for control of the news and advertising markets in Green Bay. At the time, we were honored to have become part of that legacy because we believe in fearless reporting, strong ethics, and a powerful desire to inform our community.
Unfortunately, our experiences differed from the desire for quality or loyalty outlined in the book: largely, the owners of MMC didn’t seem to understand, or care about, the idiosyncrasies of journalism. Their focus was not on quality writing, but on a fat bottom line.
The bottom line is rightly a major concern for publishers. Even though many businesses skip traditional media advertising in favor of Facebook, a study by the Pew Research Center shows that a majority of those advertisers are missing their target audience. According to that study, print revenue from advertising has declined from $65 billion in 2000 to less than $19 billion in 2016. Our editorial staff argued our own revenue would increase organically—and dramatically—if our quality and a clear dedication to honest journalism were better than any other local news outlet offered. We—myself and staff reporters Jacob Mathias, Lisa Pett, and Patrick Lynn—even authored a three-page mission statement for the City Times outlining the importance of quality, and professional development for news reporters, and detailing locally-unique methods in news reporting that would make us stand out, and above, the rest.
With few exceptions, management support for those ideals never materialized, and three years later, those ideas we’d offered up proudly, along with our investigative reporting, were summarily dismissed with Dave Wood’s explanation that future news content would consist of press releases and other submissions that fill space between paid advertisements. And to our understanding, that’s not far from how the company continues to operate today.
About two weeks after the “elimination” of the editorial division from the City Times, a letter from publisher Patrick Wood, Frank Wood’s son, was printed on the front page announcing unspecified changes to the editorial staff and the paper’s “rededication” to objective news reporting. To the average reader, the message could be construed as a vague, politically-correct way of saving face after a staff reduction. To some local elected officials—particularly those in city hall—it was a clear accusation our reporting had been biased, and many took (and still take) great joy on their personal social media pages that the “old, biased editor” had been replaced. Some even celebrated the City Times was now a “Democratic” newspaper.
It’s been five years since the unwilling departure of seven staffers from MMC; employees who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, although I can’t really describe what happened as a “downsizing.” The company didn’t really downsize; it removed all the checks and balances used to ensure story ethics and accuracy, placing extra work duties on fewer people—some of whom were woefully unqualified to do the jobs they’d been appointed. In the news business, that’s a dangerous thing.
In the wake of those seven “eliminations,” Nick Wood resigned from the company, protesting the new direction. Others in executive positions also stepped down at the same time but gave various reasons.
Strong reporters from the Portage County Gazette—a locally-owned publication until MMC purchased the paper quietly in May 2017—also left. Editor Nate Enwald and veteran reporter Heather McDonald, both excellent reporters in the community, resigned, citing frustrations over the lack of support for editorial. Previously, Jacob Mathias and Lisa Pett both left the City Times for similar reasons, though former City Times reporters Patrick Lynn and Rob Whitmire are still active with our new publication, the Point/Plover Metro Wire.
And that brings us to the present day. Two years later, the local news industry is still a bit of a mess. As various publications struggle to meet break-even status, some, like the Point/Plover Metro Wire, have installed a partial paywall to help keep the lights on, and hopefully hire more qualified reporters.
Our intention is to continue that great, romantic ideal of honest news reporting. We’re fierce, we’re fearless, we’re honest, and we keep a close eye on local government as a public service. That’s what news reporting is, really—a public service.
But the news reporting atmosphere is vastly different today than it was even two years ago. Many seek out information via Facebook pages like, “You Know You’re From Stevens Point If…” and unfortunately, information is often incomplete, out-of-context, or inaccurate. Many also are content to obtain local news from the social media pages of elected officials and nowhere else—an interesting turn in civic involvement, where letters to the editor have now been replaced by tagging “Mayor Mike” on Facebook with complaints.
Still, we soldier on. And we’re doing remarkably well. Our monthly readership remains on an upward tick, and we’re working with local high school teachers to reinstall news consumer education into classrooms.
Our intentions are the same as when we founded the City Times in 2010: we plan to become the largest and most respected news outlet in all of Portage Co. As I told Dave Wood before leaving my office for the last time, “We’re going to cream you guys.”
Our loyal readers and advertisers are helping us do just that. Our entire staff is so grateful for the support, and we hope to continue serving you for many years to come.