County Line Publisher Emerita

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I were wandering around La Crosse, killing time, waiting for a doctor’s appointment when we cruised through the downtown, pausing briefly to gaze at the now forlorn and vacant La Crosse Tribune building.

Few things are more emblematic of the decline of the newspaper industry than the relocation of the Tribune from this elegant building on Third Street in downtown La Crosse to a suite in the old La Crosse Footwear factory on the north side.

The downtown building held memories for both of us. While a student at Viterbo, my daughter worked there as an editorial assistant, and I attended more than a few Wisconsin Newspaper Association events there. That was back in the old days, when we still had a sort of continuing education program, and seminars were held for area publishers on an array of topics, such as gimmicks to sell more ads, how to produce news that people could use, 99 ways to increase subscription numbers, or the best psychedelic drug to take when dealing with the post office. Okay, maybe not the last one.

There was a time in my career that the decline and fall of the Tribune would have brought a happy smile to my face. From the time I started in 1983, it was always the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Competing with a daily is tough. When it comes to an event loaded with drama (fires, crime, floods, etc.), the daily will nearly always beat out the weekly. It was amazing how many shocking events happened on a Wednesday and we had to wait a week to print the news. At least now, we can get it on our website. And we can try to beat out the slapdash home-grown reporters who post news with little attempt to verify facts. 

Back in those days, we still had lots of locally owned businesses. Most could not afford to advertise in the Tribune, but they would support a local paper, at least enough to keep us alive.

But that was about to end. The 1990s were boom years for the industry. The big outfits were showing 26% profit margins. Compare that with grocery stores at 3%.

As they became more profitable, they became greedier. The Tribune has been owned by Lee Enterprises since 1907. Though the standard joke was that the shots were all called by headquarters in Iowa, the Tribune had a local-ownership feel about it. And nearly all the newspapers in Wisconsin had local ownership.

I cannot recall who went down first. It might have been the Foxxy Shopper. With its “blanket coverage,” it managed to scoop up most of the car dealer, real estate, auction and classified advertising. Under the ownership of Lee, it became even more aggressive. 

Remember Pac-Man, the video game? The objective of the game was to eat all of the dots placed in the maze while avoiding four colored ghosts. 

One by one, over a short time, Lee Enterprises gobbled up nearly all of the local newspapers. In only a few short years, they owned the Tomah Journal, the Melrose Chronicle, the Vernon County Broadcaster and the Westby Times, the West Salem Countryman and the Holmen Courier. They reached up north and grabbed the Chippewa Herald, and then they hopped the river, buying the Houston County News. Gobble, gobble, away they went down the interstate: the Star Times in Mauston, the Dells Events, and the Baraboo and Sauk City newspapers. 

It was the times. Most of the daily papers on Wisconsin’s east coast were bought up by Gannett, which also purchased the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which had been employee-owned. 

It was a feeding frenzy that the emergence of the Internet brought to a crashing halt. Classified advertising was never much of our revenue, but it was the lifeblood of daily newspapers. Sites such as Craig’s List siphoned it away. The two biggest advertisers, car dealers and real estate firms, carved out space on the internet, leaving print media in the lurch.

Meanwhile, these newspaper conglomerates sold themselves off to Wall Street, where they now had to please stockholders, not just cranky readers who enjoyed picking a fight with the newspaper owner down at the local watering hole. 

Though the old Tribune building was a beehive of writers, reporters and photographers, the new location lists just eight: one photographer, two sports writers and one sports editor, three reporters and a copy desk supervisor. That’s not many people to cover a city the size of La Crosse. Such a bare-bones staff has little time to dig into the issues that as we once said “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” 

Lee either combined or closed most of the weeklies they had frantically purchased. The Foxxy Shopper evolved into the Vernon Focus, which offers a combination of ads, advertorial and news on topics such as 12 ways to prepare celery that’s gone limp. 

Uncovering corruption and mismanagement takes an enormous toll in man hours and resources, and we have stockholders to please.

In May, Axios reported Lee intended to lay off more than 400 employees in 2022, mostly at its larger dailies, including those in Omaha and St. Louis. This past year, Lee fought off a hostile takeover over by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund known for slashing staff and costs until the newspaper is drained dry, and then it is closed.

America saw the loss of an average of two newspapers per week between late 2019 and May 2022, leaving an estimated 70 million people in places that are already news deserts and areas that are in high risk of becoming so. If the trend continues, a third of newspapers will be lost by 2025, according to the 2022 study published by Northwestern University.

Research has linked closures of newspapers to declines in civic engagement of citizens, increases in government waste, and increases in political polarization. The decline of local news has also been linked to the increased “nationalization” of local elections. 

We know this to be true. Ten years ago, county residents looked at offices like sheriff and district attorney as almost nonpartisan, even though they might have been on the Republican side off the ballot. I have little doubt that people line up now behind the candidate that adheres most closely with Trump or Biden. Never mind that you could drop either one in the Kickapoo Valley and they would never find their way out. 

Many newspapers used to run a tagline on their banner saying, “Nobody cares more about Podunk than the Podunk Times.”

That’s still true. Facebook, Google and all the rest will never, ever sit through a local board meeting or snap a picture of your darling child sinking a 3-pointer. 

What will fill that gap when newspapers disappear?

I guess that decision rests with the American people.