This article has been updated with comments from Gannett Vice President James Fitzhenry denying that the paper has plans to scale back its daily publication schedule. Fitzhenry’s name was previously misspelled with a capital “h.”
The nearly 90-year-old Oshkosh Northwestern building has been sold to an out-of-state developer amid cutbacks in coverage and expectations that the newspaper will reduce its printing schedule to two days a week later this year.
A Michigan company paid $550,213 for the newspaper’s historic headquarters building at 224 State Street and three nearby parcels on April 26, according to the city assessor’s website.
The registered agent for the new owner, Oshkosh Business Center III LLC, is Murray D. Wikol, a real estate investor who is working to buy the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s headquarters as well.
According to a report in that newspaper, Wikol’s company plans to invest $60 million to erect an 18-story office building and renovate the Journal Sentinel’s headquarters into a mix of offices and retail space.
Plans for the Oshkosh site are not publicly known, although the Oshkosh Business Center name suggests a renovation for office use. The city is prepared to discuss financial incentives, but it has not received a specific proposal, said Allen Davis, director of community development.
In early May the owner of the Northwestern, Virginia-based Gannett Corp., engaged in a round of layoffs, which, according to unconfirmed accounts, affected about 40 of its more than 100 newspapers. The company issued no official statement and left it to local editors to decide whether to report on cutbacks or not.
There was no such coverage in Wisconsin. “Gannett newspapers are hiding an important local story,” the Columbia Journalism Review said in an online article summarizing the situation.
“Gannett’s stated ‘purpose,”according to its website, is to ‘serve communities’ and ‘get the right information, tools and guidance to people at the right time,’” the article stated. ”Many local readers, however, remain in the dark about how this umpteenth round of belt-tightening might affect the diminished newspapers they read.”
The layoffs, which claimed the Northwestern’s sports reporter, came shortly after the company announced a $2.1 million loss for the first quarter and a steep decline in print advertising.
“Woke up this morning not a journalist for the first time in 25 years,” Steve Clark, the paper’s former sports content manager, posted in a May 4 tweet. “My heartfelt thanks to all coaches, athletes I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years. I loved covering prep sports and will miss the games, matches and interviews.”
The paper no longer contains bylined accounts of Oshkosh sports teams and appears to be relying on material supplied by local schools.
In the case of UW Oshkosh, at least, articles that are published on the Northwestern’s website as coming from “USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin” appear to be cut and paste versions of articles that appear on the university’s website. (Follow links to make your own comparison.)
Earlier this year Gannett reduced the print frequency of three newspapers in Louisiana and Mississippi, a strategy that other publishers have implemented in recent years.
Former employees of the Northwestern say they were told to expect that the Northwestern will shift from daily print publication to a twice-a-week schedule by the end of 2017. Breaking stories will continue to appear on the paper’s website.
The editor of the Northwestern, Nathaniel Shuda, referred questions to James Fitzhenry, a Gannett vice president of news and executive editor for the company’s 10 papers in central and northeastern Wisconsin. Fitzhenry was not immediately available for comment.
In a subsequent email Fitzhenry stated, “The most glaring factual error is that The Northwestern plans to scale back publication frequency. It is not. Please correct that immediately.”
“It hurts to see our paper, the paper we all know, become smaller and smaller,” said Diane Penzenstadler, the president of 44° North, an Oshkosh advertising agency. “That is personally painful because l like newspapers, the way they feel in your hands.”
She said local clients still see value in print, but they have many more options for advertising. “There are a hundred different ways to get your message out,” she said, including social media, broadcast stations and websites.
Across Gannett, the editorial strategy has been shifting away from the traditional nitty-gritty coverage of local events to a “connect-the-dots” approach. This means pursuing stories, or local angles on national and regional stories, that can be shared throughout the company’s network, which includes USA Today.
“They’ve done a great job with that,” Penzenstadler said, pointing to some recent investigative series that the paper has published. But the change in focus comes with slower and reduced coverage of other locally important issues.
Wikol, the new owner of the Northwestern’s building, did not respond to a request for comment. The price he paid is almost 20 percent less than the assessed value and only about half what the property was worth when the Northwestern was sold by local interests in 1998.
According to news reports, he has been active in similar projects repurposing obsolete newspaper properties in other communities. His company, ProVisions, has been working to redevelop the old printing plant of the Lansing State Journal and the headquarters of the Saginaw News, both in Michigan.
The Northwestern’s building opened on Sept. 1, 1930, after two years of construction. Just inside its heavy bronze doors is a magnificent, high-ceilinged work area, which started out as the business office but now holds the newsroom.
This space, which has decorative overhead beams and wall paneling, is dominated by a massive counter made of marble, with the same material used in various accents, such as door frames and window ledges.
Surveying the scene from high on the back wall is a life-sized portrait of Col. John Hicks, an early owner of the paper and an important benefactor to the city, responsible for many of the outdoor statues that can be found around Oshkosh.
“It is universally acknowledged to be one of the most attractive buildings, not only in the city, but in the entire state and is declared by publishers of newspapers all over the country to be a model for its purpose,” the Northwestern said in a booklet memorializing the building’s opening.
Counting the basement and a mezzanine, the building has four floors. “It is built of Bedford stone, with massive fluted columns supporting the front entrance, with four attractive small balconies on the upper floor, two impressive entrances, front and side, and is surmounted by a soft tinted green tile roof,” the booklet said.
Photos by Miles Maguire. Pictured at the top is the paper’s former business office, which now holds the newsroom.