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Now It's Just the 'News' Business

Now It's Just the 'News' Business

By Samuel Chi - December 19, 2008

At least somebody in Detroit is thinking outside of the box.

An industry seemingly headed for inevitable collapse at last thought of something innovative that just might bring about survival, and maybe even future prosperity.

We're talking about the newspaper business, of course.

While the Big Three kept their palms up in Washington, waiting for a handout, Detroit's two newspapers, the Free Press and News, announced on Tuesday a dramatic change to the way they operate. By next spring, the Detroit newspapers will become a mostly online entity.

In short, they're taking the paper out of newspaper.

And why not?

Newspapers across America are on their deathbeds. Readership is sagging. Newsrooms are shrinking. Layoffs are a quarterly occurrence. The Star-Ledger barely averted going out of business altogether. The Tribune Company, owner of both the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, just filed for bankruptcy. Even the venerable Grey Lady put her building on the block to raise funds.

And there are no bailouts coming.

Against this backdrop, the Detroit papers thought of trying something else. Instead of slash and burn and send their talented journalists home to collect unemployment, they decided to get out of the trucking business.

The newspaper business, first and foremost, should be about news gathering and disseminating information. But over time, it has been held hostage by things and people that have nothing to do with its primary functions. And it's the cost of funding for the paper, newsprint, trucks, truck drivers, circulation managers and the buildings that house them that has newspapers over a barrel. Not the cost of paying for the journalists and gathering news.

Full disclosure, I'm a newspaper guy but I also have been around newspapers in many different capacities. My first job was as a paperboy for the Ann Arbor News. My second as a tier for the L.A. Times, one of the teenagers who bundle together the humongous Sunday papers for delivery. I also drove a truck and worked as a telemarketer for the Times.

All that was before I got into the newsroom and became one of the people who actually put out the paper.

Six months after I began working for the San Francisco Examiner as an editor, the two San Francisco papers went on strike. It wasn't because we were unhappy with our contract, I'd understand if you didn't shed a tear for our packages that included five weeks of vacation, fabulous medical coverage, annual non-merit based raises and 37 ½-hour work weeks (it's like working in France without the baguettes!).

We were out on the street because the truck drivers and their union Teamsters - wanted to be paid near six-figure salaries. And our guild had to aid and abet the extortion, to our own detriment.

That was 1994.

In my nearly two decades inside the newsroom it had become obvious that the tail was wagging the dog violently but the dog kept barking for the wrong reasons. Instead of dumping all the peripheral stuff that was sinking a dysfunctional business model, the knee-jerk reaction had always been to get rid of the people that gave newspapers their stature, their voice, their raison d etre.

Until Tuesday.

The Detroit papers won't be the first one to go mostly paperless, the Christian Science Monitor did so less than two months ago - but they're the first major U.S. metro dailies to do so. By reducing daily printings of the papers and cutting deliveries to three days a week, the papers hope to avert a massive newsroom bloodletting.

"We don't think it's sustainable anymore to put two newspapers out," said Dave Hunke, CEO of the Detroit Media Partnership, "drive in excess of 300,000 miles a night delivering newspapers every day of the week and keep our pricing where it is. ... If we did that, we would be slashing content and never take a step forward toward advancing our digital initiatives."

A friend who attended that Tuesday meeting in the Free Press newsroom said the reaction from the announcement was mostly positive. Sure, it meant everybody in the room kept their jobs for the time being. But generally, they applauded management for actually drawing up a reasonable plan.

"It might be risky," he said, while requesting anonymity. "But at least they're looking to the future instead of just doing what everyone else is doing, which is cutting staff. Maybe this will work, maybe not. If it does it may be a breakthrough for the newspaper business."

Or, from now on, just the "news" business.

Samuel Chi is Editor of RealClearWorld.

Samuel Chi

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