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What we lose when newspapers sink

Oct 6, 2014

Almost 30 years ago, I was national editor of the Detroit News, which was then the largest-circulation paper in Michigan.

The newspaper was then locked in a competitive struggle with the Detroit Free Press, and each was trying to put the other out of business. They had the novel idea that not only low prices but high quality was the way to win, and they did a lot of excellent journalism.

Back then, in the days before the World Wide Web, both newspapers sold well over 600,000 copies every day. On Sundays, their combined circulation was more than a million and a half. You could subscribe to either paper anywhere in the state.

Then, however, new ownership threw in the towel, and after a long battle the Supreme Court allowed them to merge their business operations. While there were still two papers, they no longer had anything to gain by competing against each other.

Quality declined, ad rates rose, and the newspapers lost readers. They lost many more readers, writers and advertisers during a horrible newspaper strike. Other readers and advertisers fled when virtually everyone started going on line.

Both papers were sold and sold again and eventually stopped offering daily delivery.

Well, I’ve just received the newest audited circulation figures for these newspapers, and they are horrifying.

The Detroit Free Press has gone from an average of more than 600,000 paid subscribers a day to less than 200,000 who pay for either the print or electronic versions of the newspaper.

Things are even worse at the Detroit News. There, average print and electronic daily sales of the newspaper are now less than 100,000 copies a day.

Newspapers, even now, even today, produce most of the content people read on line.

Fewer than 64,000 people actually buy the printed newspaper – only one tenth of the number that did three decades ago, when Michigan’s population was smaller.

Now you may be thinking – so what? Isn’t dead tree journalism a thing of the past? People get their news on their laptops and phones, or via radio or TV. Who outside a retirement village reads a printed newspaper now?

Well, there’s a lot of truth in that – but here’s the problem. Newspapers, even now, even today, produce most of the content people read on line. Michigan Radio is one of the few broadcast outlets with its own reporters, and they do some extremely fine statewide journalism.

But they can’t and don’t cover everything, and some things can only be explained in print and in depth. Yesterday, the Detroit Free Press did a rigorous examination of the effects of Governor Snyder’s business tax cuts.

Essentially, they found no evidence that the tax cuts produced new jobs or attracted new business.

But that’s just the roughest summary. This is a complex issue that took many hours and much data crunching to do.

Every voter ought to read it, but few will even know about it, and it isn’t something you can easily grasp on your I-phone screen. Somehow, we have to find a way to pay for and deliver the journalism we need to be an informed society.

History has too many examples of what happens to those who are ignorant.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.