Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Beginning in March, The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press will be delivered only three days a week — Thursday, Friday and Sunday — with a scaled-down print version available at newstands the rest of the week.
Beginning in March, The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press will be delivered only three days a week — Thursday, Friday and Sunday — with a scaled-down print version available at newstands the rest of the week. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Executives at Detroit's two daily newspapers, the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, announced Tuesday that they plan to drastically cut back their printing operations and beef up their Web presence.
And these papers may not be the last to make this kind of change. The industry as a whole is facing declines in circulation and ad revenue. So, it's a grand experiment that is about to play out in Detroit.
Under the new plan, the Detroit papers will be delivered only three days a week — Thursday, Friday and Sunday — with a scaled-down print version available at newsstands the rest of the week.
Detroit Free Press publisher David Hunke says the papers have no other choice.
"We think it's time to quit sticking our heads a bit in the sand, taking incremental steps, and, frankly, relentless across-the-board expense cuts in our business, in the name of hoping that it comes back to the way it used to be in years gone by," Hunke says.
It used to be that newspapers competed largely with each other for classifieds and advertising revenue. But now the industry faces a crowded marketplace that includes a big gorilla: the Internet.
Experts say the problem is that newspapers haven't figured out how to make a lot of money off online content.
"Newspapers are making money off the Internet; they're just not making it in a way that they make it in the kind of margins that they make from a print newspaper," says Mark Fitzgerald, an editor at large with Editor & Publisher magazine. "For every customer that they have [for the] print newspaper, they're making about a dollar. For every customer they have on the Internet, they make about 10 to 15 cents."
The recent bankruptcy filing by the Chicago Tribune's parent company highlights another financial hurdle facing some newspapers. Their owners have accumulated more and more debt in recent years.
Mike Simonton, who follows the industry for Fitch Ratings, says the debt puts added pressure on daily papers.
"Those companies that have put a lot of debt on the balance sheet certainly have a lot less flexibility and a lot less room to endure this type of pressure," Simonton says. "And so when the revenue goes away, they need to take out costs quicker than a company that has a little more cushion over its interest payments."
The Habitual Reader
Financial climate aside, the decision by Detroit's two daily newspapers to cut back home delivery in favor of online content comes with a great risk: losing the habitual reader.
Kate Knight, a stay-at-home mom, is part of this key demographic for newspapers. She says home delivery is a big part of her family's routine.
"I grew up fighting for the Free Press with my three siblings, and my kids fight over it too, so it's a great tradition," Knight says as she sits at the kitchen table with her 4-year-old daughter, the newspaper sprawled out in front of them. "In fact, whoever goes and gets the Free Press in the morning out of the driveway can pick the section they want to read first."
Knight says having a paper on the table every day helps nurture a family of readers. And there's another dilemma: Knight says that if an 8-year-old has the choice between the Lego Web site and the Free Press' site, she's "not sure the Freep will win."
Cutting Back Delivery: A Trend?
Knight won't be the only person waiting to see what the long-term impact of the changes will be.
M.L. Elrick, an investigative reporter with the Free Press, says lots of industry eyes are on Detroit.
"We were told that newspapers across the country are very curious about how this works out," Elrick says. "We're going to be a living laboratory for the newspaper industry. Hopefully we will be the people that come up with the cure for what ails the industry. But at the same time there's a chance that we aren't."
Free Press publisher Hunke was asked Tuesday whether the paper would go back to the traditional model if the new plan doesn't work.
"We're never going back," he answered.
Noah Ovshinsky reports for Detroit Public Radio.