Commentary: The need for newspapers

Jul 25, 2012

The conventional wisdom is that newspapers -- dead tree news -- are on their way out. In some places, like Ann Arbor, there is no longer a daily newspaper at all. The publishers of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press deliver papers only a few days a week.

However, here’s a surprising development. Newspapers across the country gained readers over the most recently audited six month period. Not by leaps and bounds, but still, on average, gained.

Average circulation of daily newspapers was up only slightly, but Sunday papers, traditionally the largest selling editions, rose five percent, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

That wasn’t true, however, in Detroit. The biggest of the two papers, The Free Press, saw daily circulation fall more than six percent from the year before. It is hard to blame this on the recession; in fact, the economy has been improving there faster than the national average. So what really happened?

And why should we care, especially if we don’t live near Detroit? Well, it is pretty easy to say why this matters. Newspapers are still the main providers of news content. Always have been. Michigan Radio does a great job, but it can’t do everything.

We can’t examine every small city’s budget or tell you about every legislative race or how your school system is doing.

Newspapers alone can do this. Reporting is labor-intensive, but very necessary work. It took two Detroit reporters many hours to do the research that led to the downfall of their city’s criminal mayor a few years ago.  It also takes time to examine what’s going on in Ada, or Fenton, and give citizens the facts they need. But the newspaper industry has been fighting an economic crisis that began with the migration of much of their advertising base to the internet.

They’ve coped with this by pushing newspapers to go digital, and by cutting expenses and staff. But you really can’t cut your way to prosperity.

If you give people an inferior product and charge more for it, that’s generally a prescription for disaster. Detroit automakers learned this years ago. But Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper publisher, still doesn’t appear to get it.

By the way, the myth that all newspapers are losing money today is just that -- a myth. They aren’t making as much, but are still profitable. Gannett had a first-quarter profit this year of one hundred and twenty million dollars. So how are they coping with their atypical circulation losses? By further weakening the product. They are now offering buyouts to Detroit staffers who have been there twenty years or more. Getting rid, in other words, of their most experienced and knowledgeable people.

Essentially, they seem to be trying to put out a paper for people who would rather watch television. Yesterday‘s Free Press had many pictures of the alleged movie shooter on its front-page. But everyone had seen him the day before, on television. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are, among papers, perhaps least like TV.

The latest figures show them gaining circulation. My guess is that the secret to success in business is much the same as in life.

You first have to know who you are.