Is Detroit's Media Gamble the Future of Newspapers?

By limiting home delivery to days that most appeal to advertisers (Thursday, Friday and Sunday) while reducing production and delivery costs on four days, The Detroit Free Times and Detroit News can save a lot of money and some journalists' jobs.

Dec 26, 2008 at 2:06 pm

To enjoy life is to love irony: Detroit symbolizes decline in one historic industry but might be harbinger of hope for another.

The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News are embracing a novel, united survival scheme that suggests an alternative to the newspaper industry’s feared death spiral in Cincinnati and hundreds of other cities. Here’s how Dave Hunke, an Enquirer alumnus and CEO of the two papers’ Detroit Media Partnership, described changes for early 2009:

• “Expanding digital information channels that provide news and information to a variety of audiences when, where and how they want it.

• “Limiting newspaper home delivery to Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays while selling printed copies at newsstands seven days a week.

• “Providing subscribers daily access to electronic editions, exact copies of each day's printed newspapers.”

The Freep is a Gannett paper, as is The Enquirer. Hunke’s first point reflects Gannett’s innovative 24/7 information center approach to newsroom thinking, staffing and operations in its 85 dailies.

It’s the second point that will be watched more closely. Some papers have stopped printing traditionally weak Monday editions, while offering the Monday contents online. The Christian Science Monitor and Kentucky Post are among the few to go online only.

By limiting home delivery to days that most appeal to advertisers while reducing production and delivery costs on four days, the Freep and News can save a lot of money and some journalists’ jobs.

If all goes well, the dailies will retain reader bases that advertisers demand. It isn’t clear what would be subscriber-only online content and what will remain free on the Internet. Those choices will affect the readers’ willingness to pay.

Experience at The New York Times suggests what might happen. The Times initially put most of its news online but charged for some columnists and other “premium” (their word, not mine) content. The Times abandoned the effort, put everything online free and reportedly doubled its online audience and delighted online advertisers.

Detroit dailies have a Joint Operating Agreement like that which sustained The Cincinnati Post for most of its final years. As in Cincinnati, the JOA runs business, production and distribution for both papers and their separate owners, but the newsrooms and opinion pages are independent. Hunke told Editor&Publisher, the trade journal, that the Detroit Media Partnership never considered closing the News to assure the survival of the Freep. Gannett owns 95 percent of the partnership; News owner MediaNews Group holds 5 percent.

Hunke added that “digital delivery is the future of newspapers, and Detroit papers are better off embracing it now. ... That has been one of my criticisms of this industry, that we do little, incremental changes when I think we could be the best in digital delivery of content."

Keep an eye on Detroit. It won’t be long before we know whether the light at the end of the tunnel is an Edsel or Corvette.

It’s a brave venture in a metro area that can't support two dailies and possibly even one.

Curmudgeon Notes

• WLWT (Channel 5) blew it when it showed Iraqi TV journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi throwing his shoes at President Bush during a press conference in Baghdad. Why shoes? WLWT didn’t say. The Enquirer got it right on Page 1: “To Iraqis, that is the ultimate insult, implying someone is lower and dirtier than the bottom of a shoe.” Remember how Baghdadis beat the statue of Saddam Hussein with their shoes after Marines pulled it down during the invasion? At least Khrushchev only pounded the UN lectern with his shoe. Al-Zaidi’s second insult, calling Bush “you dog,” was similarly meant to be very offensive.

• Why did The Enquirer bury its Gannett News Service story correcting the seven “myths” that distort our debate whether to bail out U.S. automakers? Clear, valuable and timely, it belonged on Sunday Page 1, not inside the little-read Saturday paper. Conspirators ask, “Is The Enquirer the running dog lackey of Honda and Toyota?” Cynics ask, “How many American cars does Curmudgeon drive?” (None. Both are German ... and I don’t mean DKW, AutoUnion or Trabant.)

Chicago Tribune editors held its investigative stories about federal court-ordered wiretaps on Illinois’ governor when feds said publication could blow their probe. Good decision. Look at what the Trib got in exchange: an indicted governor and transcripts of threats against their editorial writers and owner in addition to other (bleeping) conversations.

• It was one of those weeks at The Chicago Trib. First, Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy, unable to pay debts of $13 billion that new owner Sam Zell accumulated in the purchase. His money-grubbing has impoverished three fine papers: The Trib, The Baltimore Sun and The Los Angeles Times. Detractors might be wrong, saying property billionaire Zell didn’t know what he was doing when he bought so many papers, TV stations, the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field. Maybe he doesn’t care if the papers fail; all he wants is their urban real estate.

• Then transcripts of bugged telephone calls have Illinois Gov. Blagojevich saying he negotiated with a Chicago Trib official to get hostile editorial writers fired. Otherwise, he wouldn’t help sell Wrigley Field to reduce Tribune Co. debt. Rather than be scooped, The Trib outed its official: corporate Vice President Nils Larsen. Editorial writers say no one told them to back off, and they don’t pull punches.

• Copy editors try to keep reporters intellectually honest, especially when we use words that mean the opposite of what we intend. For instance, if we write about the “siege” in Mumbai’s two hotels and Jewish Center, a copy editor should substitute “occupation.” If we write about the antigovernment protesters’ “siege” of Bangkok airport terminal, a copy editor should change that to protesters’ “occupation.” You see, “siege” refers to people outside holding captive those people inside. “Occupation” refers to people inside.

When Leningrad (now and again St. Petersburg) was held captive by German forces for 900 days, that was a siege. When Sarajevo was surrounded and shelled by Serbs for four years, it was besieged. When Chechen terrorists invaded a Beslan school in North Ossetia and took almost 800 students hostage, that was an occupation. Hundreds died when besieging forces ended the occupation. Put another way, copy editors occupy chairs, they don’t besiege them. Note that I said “should.” That’s how it was in Old Days when there were copy editors with sufficient time and motivation to discipline modern Malaprops. Meanwhile, look for more stories and headlines about sieges that are occupations.

• Obits are an opportunity to concentrate on story telling. I hoped readers would say, “Damn, I wish I’d known him” or her. I never knew what gems would come up during interviews. There was the Indian Hill resident who lived on her mother-in-law’s estate but called her “my best friend,” the Price Hill daughter who said her father was generous to a fault with customers and thought his children could live off the land “like goats” and the P&G executive whose boss burned a hole in his first memo with an infamous, stinky cigar.

Here are a couple beauts from the recent New York Times obit of Richard Topus, who was a pigeoneer in the U.S. Army during World War II. “In all, more than 50,000 pigeons served the United States in the war. Many were shot down. Others were set upon by falcons released by the Nazis to intercept them. The British countered by releasing their own falcons to pursue German messenger pigeons. But since falcons found Allied and Axis birds equally delicious, their deployment as defensive weapons was soon abandoned by both sides.” and “Mr. Topus and his colleagues schooled men and birds in the art of war. They taught the men ... to jump out of airplanes ... with pigeons tucked against their chests. The Army had the Maidenform Brassiere Company make paratroopers’ vests with special pigeon pockets.”

• India’s government is legislating new restrictions on the news media after the Mumbai terrorist raid. The goal is to deny raiders and their allies immediate information which might support their lethal activities. The new rules range from self-censorship to the renewed authority to shut down a broadcaster.

• CNN continues to talk with daily newspaper editors about complementing or supplanting the Associated Press as a news source. AP continues to negotiate with unhappy editors over costs, service and the practice of sharing papers’ stories with broadcast competitors.

The New York Times says Politico and London-based Reuters are cooperating and offering online news and advertising to newspaper web sites. Just as the then-new telegraph made AP and Reuters possible in the mid-19th Century, Internet makes the intensified and diverse competition possible; two-year-old Washington-based Politico exists only online.

• In the Old Days, before satellites and the Internet, AP and Reuters provided news on clattering black propriety teleprinters linked in a spidery international telegraph networks; hence, the traditional term “wire service.”

• British Sky TV showed an assisted suicide for the first time in Great Britain. The Right to Die? showed American Craig Ewart drinking a lethal cocktail of sedatives, biting down on the switch the killed his breathing apparatus and dying in the company of his wife, Mary. The 90-minute Canadian-made documentary was broadcast with the cooperation of Ewart, the retired university professor whose body was failing him because of motor neurone disease, and his wife. Mary Ewart told London’s Daily Mail, “The film is a wonderful tribute to my husband. I have absolutely no regrets about agreeing to leave the camera rolling as Craig died. It's what we both wanted.”

Britain’s Broadcasting Code states: "Methods of suicide and self-harm must not be included in programmes except where they are editorially justified and are also justified by the context." Sky, owned by Fox’s Rupert Murdoch, says it received 12 complaints from more than 200,000 viewers, its largest UK audience ever. The documentary was shown in Canada and our country as the film, The Suicide Tourist, but not on Canadian or U.S. television.

• Wanna make me even grumpier? Misuse “fraction,” “decimate,” “happens to be” or “challenge.” An ingredient in accuracy is precision.

Fraction is a special problem for broadcasters, who think it means a tiny part of the whole. Nope. It only means less than the whole. Lose 99/100 of your investment, and it’s a fraction. So is 1/100. Tell me what the fraction is.

Decimate can mean 10 percent were killed (the classic example), lost or sickened. But if you mean far more were killed, sickened or bankrupted, say that. “Decimate” now covers both extremes. Be precise and skip the cliche.

Happens to be is maddening. “He happens to be black.” “She happens to be a size 6.” If it’s that important, make it a firm statement of fact as opposed to the dismissive or feigned attempt to be polite.

Challenge usually is gobbledygook for “problem” unless it involves an invitation to participate in a duel. A failing public school is a problem, not a challenge. Losing a starting quarterback is a problem, not a challenge. Al Qaeda is a problem, not a challenge. A wakeup call from FBI agents at the door is a problem, not a challenge. "Challenge" allows bureaucrats and news media sycophants to euphemize a word to sound positive and authoritative.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]