Northeast Wisconsin's Media Monopoly

By Tony Palmeri

[note: This piece is the cover story of the August, 2004 edition of The Valley Scene. The issue is not online.]

July 23, 2004 is a day that will live in infamy in the history of northeast Wisconsin. On that day the Gannett Corporation announced the purchase of 34 publications owned by Brown County Publishing Co. (BCP), including the daily Green Bay News Chronicle. Gannett owns 10 additional dailies in Wisconsin: Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Wausau Daily Herald, the Manitowoc Times-Herald, the Sheboygan Press, the Post-Crescent in Appleton, the Marshfield News Herald, the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, the Stevens Point Journal, the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern and the Fond du Lac Reporter. The McLean, VA based media giant (which recorded $6.7 billion in operating revenue in 2003) now enjoys such a northeast Wisconsin monopoly from Fond du Lac to Green Bay that the region can truthfully be called "Gannett Occupied Territory."

Frank E. Gannett founded the company in 1906. In 1967 they were listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Gannett under Chairman Al Neuharth in 1982 launched the daily USA TODAY, the "McPaper" that for better or worse (mostly worse) changed the character of print journalism forever. Today Gannett employs a workforce of almost 53,000 and boasts 12,800 shareholders. A partial list of assets includes 102 daily newspapers (USA TODAY is the nation's largest selling daily) with a combined circulation of 7.6 million, 22 television stations, and 130 United States based websites.

The selling of the Green Bay News Chronicle, the last independently owned and operated daily newspaper in these parts, is a tragedy. Frank Wood, the News Chronicle's legendary publisher, for almost a quarter century played the role of a modern David going against the Gannett Goliath. On July 23 not only did Gannett succeed in eliminating their only source of print media competition in Wisconsin, but they also succeeded in silencing one of their most prominent and forceful critics. In essence, Goliath bought David's slingshot.

The sale was announced to BCP employees by Wood and Ellen M. Leifeld, a vice president in Gannett's Midwest Newspaper Group and president and publisher of the Appleton Post-Crescent. She said that "no immediate changes in operations are planned," and that Gannett needs "some time to better understand the publications." Who knows, maybe it will be a different kind of understanding than what they achieved in Neenah and Menasha, communities whose newspapers were killed after Gannett purchased them.

News Chronicle editor Tom Brooker, who turned the editorial page into one of the nation's finest, in an email exchange expressed hope that Green Bay would continue to be a two newspaper town: "I'd love to have the same situation in Green Bay that they had for decades in Milwaukee: two newspapers with distinct personalities, which, ever though they were owned by the same company, their editorial departments lived to kick the other paper's ass. That's good journalism and great for the community."

Curt Andersen, a great News Chronicle columnist known for his biting criticisms of corporate greed, imagined a survival scenario: "I suppose I would say that if I had been in charge of the purchase on the Gannett side, I might try to use the two papers as a long-running event. That is, play one against the other. The Press Gazette would be the conservative paper--which it already is, and the News Chronicle would play the role of the liberal paper, which it has never really been. That way, the two papers could pretend to compete with each other on advertising rates, which we might expect would soar with only one media giant in town, while competing in sales of papers because of the stories within."

While we should all hope that the scenarios outlined by Brooker and Andersen are in the cards for Gannett, we also have to be realistic. As of 2002 there were 1,457 daily newspapers in the United States (154 fewer than in 1990), and 99% of them were the only daily in their town. Is it possible that Gannett will keep Green Bay in that coveted 1% of towns with two dailies?

Possible in the short term, but not likely for an extended period of time. For Gannett, the bottom line IS the bottom line. They will keep the News Chronicle in operation as long as they can make money doing so. No mega profits, no News Chronicle. It's really that simple. And it's not as if Gannett has never before shut down a paper it pledged to keep in operation after purchase. To cite one example, in 1980 Gannett merged Salem, Oregon's Oregon Statesman and the ninety-two year old Capital Journal, effectively killing the latter and turning Oregon's capital city into a one daily town. Richard McCord in The Chain Gang (discussed in more depth below) quoted a laid off Capital Journal employee as saying, "Despite all the protests when Gannett bought the papers that they weren't planning to kill the Capital Journal, we knew they were lying."

Once observers like me got over the shock and awe of seeing Frank Wood sell his publications to his arch nemesis Gannett, it became clear that the only real surprise was that Wood survived as long as did against a hostile Goliath. For modern journalism, Wood's experience is a parable for our times: newsman with integrity and a real belief in the responsibility of a newspaper to serve (instead of just sell advertising space to) a community and treat its employees well ends up having to place the paper's future in the hands of the very forces that tried to put him out of business. As noted by Curt Andersen, "Frank fought long and hard against a huge empire...he turned over his kingdom with promises of mercy for his subjects from the new rulers."

The story of Frank Wood's resistance to the Gannett occupation is a story worth telling over and over again, if for no other reason than to encourage others to continue the fight for independent, community minded journalism. Now that we are trapped in Gannett Occupied Territory, that fight is more important than ever.

It's Now Or Never

Frank Wood's struggle was chronicled in detail in Richard McCord's excellent 1996 book The Chain Gang: One Newspaper versus the Gannett Empire (University of Missouri Press). McCord, a former journalist for New York's Newsday and publisher of a New Mexico weekly called the Santa Fe Reporter, in 1989 was asked by Frank Wood to come to Green Bay to help rescue the News Chronicle from Gannett's encroachment.

McCord was highly qualified for the task. In 1981 he read an article in the journalism trade paper Editor and Publisher detailing an antitrust lawsuit filed by the weekly Community Press of Salem, Oregon charging Gannett had "systematically set out to destroy" the paper. Noticing that Wayne Vann, Gannett's advertising director in Salem when the Community Press folded, was being sent to run Gannett's New Mexican (McCord's competition in Santa Fe), he took an active interest in the court case. At the federal court in Portland, McCord via sheer luck was able to get access to confidential documents in the Community Press v. Gannett case. Perusing through Gannett's internal memos, McCord learned how the Community Press had been the victim of an "Operation Demolition" designed to destroy the Community Press' advertising base.

Launching a kind of preemptive strike to save the Santa Fe Reporter, McCord in May of 1981 published in his paper "The Newspaper That Was Murdered," a riveting indictment of Gannett's destruction of the Salem Community Press. In a signed commentary designed to arouse the citizenry, McCord wrote, "when Gannett decides to kill something, it turns readily to a number of weapons that clean competition abhors: greed, lies, deceit, fraud, intimidation, bribery, fear, pressure, illegality . . . what Gannett will learn in Santa Fe, if it tries any of that stuff here, is that the aroused decency of this fine city . . . constitutes a force against which not even the billion-dollar muscle of the largest and dirtiest newspaper chain in the land can prevail."

McCord's preemption strategy worked to save his own newspaper, and "The Newspaper That Was Murdered" even contributed to a Justice Department antitrust division investigation of Gannett (an investigation that the Reagan Justice Department never gave high priority and thus let Gannett off the hook). Most important, McCord inspired Gannett's small competitors to believe in the possibility of standing strong in the face of an anticompetitive bully.

Frank Wood was one such competitor. In 1953 he and his wife Agnes spent their life savings on purchasing the weekly Denmark Press. As noted by McCord, Wood in the 1950s created the first employee pension plan at any weekly in America. By the early 1970s the Woods had acquired more publications while upgrading their printing operations, and by 1976 Wood felt ready to purchase the Green Bay Daily News, a paper started in 1972 by workers striking against the Press-Gazette; Wood renamed the paper the Green Bay News Chronicle. By the late 1980s more than 300 full and part-time employees were on the Brown County Publishing payroll. Good benefits packages and job security became hallmarks of BCP.

Frank Wood had been a strong supporter of Richard McCord and the Santa Fe Reporter. Then in 1989 he begged McCord to come to Green Bay and help save the News Chronicle, which by that year was sustaining heavy losses in competition with Gannett's Green Bay Press Gazette. (The Press Gazette was obtained by Gannett in 1979). Overcoming initial doubts, moved by Frank Wood's persistence, and feeling a strong sense of loyalty to him, McCord relocated to Brown County to facilitate the "Green Bay Project."

Though never really convinced that the News Chronicle would ultimately survive, and often doubting that key BCP employees understood the gravity of what they were up against, beginning on Nov. 27, 1989 and continuing for two weeks the News Chronicle featured a McCord inspired special report, "It's Now Or Never!" The report caused Gannett much embarrassment and did save the News Chronicle. But McCord's 1996 reflection on the meaning of "It's Now Or Never" turns out to be depressingly accurate: " . . . unlike Frank Wood, Gannett could wait. As soon as the coast was clear, the remorseless pressure would begin again. And in the end it would prevail. Though the end might now come later rather than sooner, the News Chronicle would still be crushed by this giant that had never learned that the greatest thrill is not to kill, but to let live."

Now that we live in Gannett Occupied Territory, The Chain Gang should be required reading for every local high school student, and not just in Journalism classes. In addition to learning about the legendary Frank Wood, the students would pick up a thing or two about business ethics, corporate greed, and the need to stand up to bullies.


Frank Wood: Courageous Communitarian Or Gannett Clone?

While it is true that in buying the News Chronicle Gannett has not actually killed the paper, the fighting antimonopoly spirit that Frank Wood symbolized to so many has taken a major kick in the teeth, especially since Mr. Wood sold BCP to the very corporation he once referred to as "the devil incarnate." This raises the question, who is the real Frank Wood? Is he the courageous communitarian who absorbed many years of financial losses in order to keep the dream of the 2 paper town alive and protect northeast Wisconsin jobs? Or is Frank Wood a kind of Gannett clone, carefully cultivating the image of the David taking on Goliath while nursing and protecting his own Brown County empire over the years?

Support for the former view is provided by Tom Brooker: "I think Frank Wood had to put years of animosity behind him in making this deal, had to swallow his pride and do what needed to be done in order to preserve the publications and the 170 jobs they supported. It was probably the toughest decision he's had to make in his life and, in my mind, the most courageous."

Brooker's view is consistent with Richard McCord's, who contrasted Wood's mission at the News Chronicle with his own at the Santa Fe Reporter: "Where I employed twenty-five people, three hundred looked to him. Where I paid workers with challenges and pride, he was setting up pension plans. While I had opted for the unencumbered life, he was still helping others. When I was hitting the road, he was taking a stand. While I fantasized about saving the town, he was actually doing it . . . And when I needed his help, he was there."

Valley Scene publisher Jim Moran admires Wood but expresses the frustration many of us feel about his choice to sell to Gannett: "I admire Frank for fighting the good fight all these years, but what of all those who fought along side of him? I understand it was time for him to stop fighting, and he's earned his leave. But a general doesn't lead his people into battle and then turn them over to the enemy when his tour of duty is through."

Moran argues further that Frank Wood in his business practices was more Gannett-ish than most people realize: "Frank Wood has always been seen as a David going forth to try and slay Goliath, But perhaps Faust is a more apt character description for his exit from the business. Granted, he fought like hell and lost a great deal in his battle for Green Bay daily dominance, but in the non-daily newspaper community his practice was very Gannett-like. His company was attractive to Gannett precisely because he had built a cluster of non-dailies in a similar way in which Gannett builds clusters of dailies. His own strategic marketing plan, in some ways, fit Gannett's. Saturate the marketplace. Eliminate the competition."

McCord presents Wood as a benign businessman ("As his company grew, he made a point of visiting the area's remaining independent publishers, to assure them he had no plans to move into their territory . . ."), but if Moran is correct it suggests that Frank Wood learned very well the Gannett tactic of creating a heroic public image while sometimes behaving less heroically behind the scenes. Ben Bagdikian in his classic book The Media Monopoly devotes an entire chapter ("From Mythology to Theology") to Gannett's image making. He says that, "Gannett . . . is an outstanding contemporary performer of the ancient rite of creating self-serving myths, of committing acts of greed and exploitation but describing them through its own machinery as heroic epics."

In his July 25, 2004 good-bye piece for the News Chronicle, Frank Wood closed with a quote from St. Paul: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith." Perhaps there is a bit of self-serving myth in those words. On the other hand, if anyone is entitled to a bit of mythology it is a person like Frank Wood who took on a brutal corporate behemoth for the better part of 25 years.

Monopoly Consequences

So what will be the consequences for northeast Wisconsin of having every daily newspaper owned by Gannett? Practically speaking, advertising rates will probably soar. In 2000 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did a spot check of rates for a full page of national advertising at 10 Gannett papers dispersed across the country, finding a lower cost per thousand circulation in Green Bay than in any of the other cities, none of which had a competing daily. They found also that at nine of the 10 other papers, the cost per thousand was at least 30% higher than in Green Bay. No doubt some retailers who gave lukewarm support to Frank Wood over the years will now wish they'd helped the News Chronicle survive as an independent entity.

Rebecca Katers, Executive Director of the Clean Water Action Council and critic of Gannett's reporting and editorial practices, offers a blunt assessment of the consequences: "The purchase is a threat to democracy in Northeast Wisconsin . . . Gannett is abusing its position of trust. The media was envisioned by our country's founders as the Fourth Estate, next to the Legislative, Judicial and Executive branches in power. Without a balanced and thorough media, we can't function as a true government of the people, because the people will be ignorant and manipulated by selective presentation of biased information. True patriots should be alarmed. We're losing an essential balancing voice in Northeast Wisconsin." Indeed, we are already seeing a disturbing similarity of reporting across the northeast Wisconsin Gannett papers, and editorially we are seeing corporate cheerleading and tepid or no criticism at all of big business practices.

Sean Fitzgerald, publisher of the monthly business publication Lake Winnebago B2B, was an education reporter for Frank Wood's Door County Advocate and a business reporter for Gannett's Oshkosh Northwestern. He is troubled by the loss of the last independent daily but saw more room for optimism: "Gannett's monopoly creates an opportunity for smaller publications to find an audience of readers in search of fresh perspectives they will not get from chain papers." Unfortunately, such publications will have much less impact on public policy simply because their circulation will always be a fraction of Gannett's.

News Chronicle editor Brooker understandably wants to see the sale in the best light possible: "If Gannett can't get us to the point where we can do good journalism and make a couple of bucks, then I don't think it can be done. This sale has given me hope when I had very little hope left." Time will tell.

For freedom loving people living under Gannett occupation the mission is clear. We must struggle to create and protect spaces in which voices other than the mega-corporate can be heard. Such a struggle honors the noblest part of Frank Wood's northeast Wisconsin legacy.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.

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