Commodity Profile: The Oshkosh Northwestern

May 16, 2010 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment

The Oshkosh Northwestern has enjoyed a 142-year reign as the only newspaper of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a town with a population of 64,000.


Major C.G. Finney and B.F. Davis established the Northwestern in 1868. Two years later, they sold the paper to 23-year-old John Hicks. Oscar J. Hardy, a longtime employee, took over as publisher when Hicks died in 1917. Hardy ran the paper for 33 years before handing it down to his sons-in-law, Thomas Schwalm and Samuel Heaney. In 1998 they sold the Northwestern to Ogden Newspapers, who sold it to Thomson Newspapers three months later. Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the U.S., bought out Thomson – including all 19 of its newspapers – just two years later.


Gannett Company has owned the Oshkosh Northwestern since 2000.

On December 31, 1999, Gannett’s stock (NYSE: GCI) was worth $81.56 per share. At the end of 2000, it rang in at $62.18. Today, the stock is worth a mere $15.76.

Interestingly, Gannett also owns most of the newspapers in the cities surrounding Oshkosh. In 1980, Gannett purchased the Green Bay Press-Gazette and the Wausau Daily Herald. With the purchase of Thomson Newspapers in 2000, it added the Northwestern and six other area papers to its holdings. The others are listed below, with approximate weekday circulations noted in parentheses.

The Appleton Post-Crescent (48,000)

The Fond du Lac Reporter (14,000)

The Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter (44,000)

The Marshfield News Herald (13,500)

The Sheboygan Press (23,000)

The Stevens Point Journal (11,500)

This mass purchase meant that Gannett increased its Wisconsin audience from 77,000 to more than 250,000 all in the span of one year. Furthermore, these newspapers are the only ones in their respective towns. Because Gannett controls the local print media in the region, it has a significant influence over what ideas and values flow through these communities.


Tom Cooper, former vice president of marketing at the Des Moines Register, has been the publisher of the Northwestern since 2006.

The executive editor and general manager of the Northwestern is Stew Rieckman. The video below captures Rieckman raising money for the United Way by letting his staff pay to bombard him with water balloons. (“If you’d sell more ads, I wouldn’t be in this fix!” he yells at 1:43.)

But it’s not all fun and games at the Northwestern. A friend of mine had an unfortunate yet telling experience with Rieckman in the summer of 2008. She had been an unpaid columnist for more than a year when he offered her a paid reporting internship ($8 an hour), with less than a month’s notice.

My friend was a frequent user of cannabis, but quit cold turkey to prepare for the obligatory drug screen. Her system still contained trace amounts of THC, and she was fired after three days in the office. Knowing the paper’s dire financial situation, she asked Rieckman if she could still do the work, but for no pay. His response: “Unfortunately, that isn’t possible. You violated company policy…My hands are tied.”

For better or worse, the editor was just toeing the company line, which Jose Berrios, Gannett’s vice president of human resources, has made very clear:

“We do not focus on the level of drugs in the test, or the type of drug. Any trace is a red flag and we will not hire.”

My friend’s story illustrates one of the many pitfalls of corporate ownership. But an even bigger problem is the merciless practice of cutting costs by laying off staff. This is especially prevalent in the large, publicly held newspaper chains because they have lots of shareholders, and they all demand that the company remain solvent, if not profitable.

In 1998, the Northwestern employed 117 full-time staff members. Today that number is down to 35. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 1 business reporter
  • 1 entertainment/multimedia reporter
  • 1 sports reporter
  • 1 education reporter
  • 1 public safety reporter
  • 2 community reporters
  • 8 editors
  • 1 content manager
  • 5 circulation managers
  • 14 advertising staff


The Oshkosh Northwestern still functions on an old-fashioned newspaper distribution model, whereby most readers get the paper delivered to their doorstep. Officially, the delivery personnel are employed by Gannett.

Subscriptions to the Northwestern are $15.87 per month for daily delivery, which comes to $190.44 per year. (The online version is free, but harder to navigate.) With a weekday circulation of about 22,000, the Northwestern brings in about $4.2 million in subscription revenue annually.


Though on the surface it appears that newspapers are in the business of serving news to their communities, the capitalist structure necessitates that they instead serve consumers to their advertisers. The fact that only a small fraction of revenues come from subscriptions and newsstand sales only reinforce newspapers’ need to cater to advertisers and commodify their audiences.

The Northwestern has undergone significant changes since 2000 due to the influence of both Gannett and the changing economy. Here are some of readers’ most common complaints:

  • Contains too many ads and not enough news (as my father says, “it takes about five minutes to read the whole thing”)
  • Contains little original content; too many Associated Press reports
  • Shift to smaller paper size has resulted in less value for the money
  • High-quality syndicated columns have been replaced with sub-par local commentaries
  • Increased “fluff” in the form of video game reviews and gratuitous blogging about the weather

Many people have canceled their subscriptions in response to these changes. As more readers do so, the pressure to increase ad sales will weigh heavier. Yet as readership declines, the paper will become less attractive to advertisers. It’s a downward spiral – one in which not only the Northwestern, but the entire newspaper industry, is currently entrenched.

ONW Masthead

Oshkosh Northwestern Newspaper Sold

A Welcome to 19 Thomson Newspapers, Now Part of Gannett

The Weather Guy

History of the Northwestern

Google Finance: Gannett Company

Gannett Names New Publisher and President in Oshkosh

Employers Find Benefit in Testing for Drugs

Newspapers Brave the Corporate Storm


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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