Saving Newspapers

Mar 14, 2011

It’s hardly a secret that newspapers aren’t doing very well these days. Over the decades, they’ve been gradually replaced as the nation’s universal mass medium by television.

Newspaper’s biggest economic blow came, however, with the flight of advertising revenue to the Internet. This, combined with an ever-more busy public bombarded by more and more media choices, has badly wounded what was once a thriving industry. And, left us in danger of being dangerously uninformed as well. Ann Arbor, for example, no longer has a daily newspaper at all.

The problem is perhaps most acute in Detroit, where, twenty-five years ago, the Detroit News and Free Press sold a combined total of one point three million newspapers every day.

That number has declined ever since. Audited figures show that as of last September, they were down to a combined circulation of less than four hundred thousand, a number that has dropped further since then.

To save money two years ago, Detroit’s newspapers embarked on an experiment in which they would deliver the papers only three days a week, and asked consumers to read them online or go to the store and buy it the rest of the week. This really hasn’t worked.

After first saying they would not allow independent contractors to deliver the papers to people‘s homes on the other days, the newspapers are now tolerating, if not actively encouraging this.


But the circulation is still falling, and recently, the Detroit Media Partnership, the agency which runs the papers, made an astonishing announcement. They will pay $5,000 each for the two best ideas readers offer to help serve the community and increase readership.

Well, I don’t intend to compete for the prize money, but I do have an idea which I am willing to offer them, free of charge.

I have been a newspaper reader all my life, a writer for newspapers for most of it. I have been a newspaper editor, helped run a newspaper company, and teach the history of journalism.

So here’s what I recommend to not only the Detroit Media Partnership, but newspapers everywhere. Go back to producing newspapers for intelligent, informed consumers who like to read.

For the last twenty-five years, newspapers in general, and the Gannett Company in particular, have produced newspapers seemingly designed for people who don’t like reading and who would prefer to watch TV instead. Well, the returns are in, and it is very clear that people who want to watch television don’t want a newspaper that imitates TV, with splashy pictures and articles about Miley Cyrus.

They don’t want a newspaper at all. Meanwhile, those of us who do like to read and want to know what’s going on in Michigan have been disenfranchised. The auto companies got in trouble partly because they strayed from their core business.

Newspapers should return to doing what they do best, and produce well-written, incisive coverage of things that matter.

If they do that, they just might find a winning formula with a smaller, though loyal and consistent base of subscribers. I know lots of people would tell me this couldn’t possibly work.

But even so, it might be worth a try. After all, it could hardly fail worse than what the newspapers are doing now.