All eyes on Detroit newspapers: Don’t muff it, guys

By Steve Outing

I’m looking forward to Tuesday, when Detroit’s newspaper executives apparently will unveil a bold new plan to save themselves. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “the leading scenario set to be unveiled calls for the Free Press, the 20th largest U.S. newspaper by weekday circulation, and the News to end home delivery on all but the most lucrative days — Thursday, Friday and Sunday. On the other days, the company would sell single copies of abbreviated print editions at newsstands and direct readers to the papers’ expanded digital editions.”

This will be significant, if that’s close to being accurate, in moving daily newspapers toward an era where digital is at the center and print is but one of the spokes on the distribution wheel. Of course, the Christian Science Monitor has already announced that it will do this early next year, publishing a print edition only once per weekend and going digital the rest of the week. But the Monitor is a national/international paper; Detroit would be the first major metro market where this might take place.

Plenty of folks are speculating and analyzing the plan’s chances, but we don’t really know if the scenario above is what’s been decided. I hope not, because I doubt that plan will work. Newsosaurus Alan Mutter seems to agree.

I think the predicted scenario is close to what should happen, but with some major flaws that keep the Detroit papers driving toward oblivion. (With the auto industry’s troubles, the Detroit newspapers are probably in the most perilous position of any major metros in the U.S.)

Here’s my prescription for what should be announced on Tuesday. (Much of this reflects my latest Editor & Publisher Online column, “My ‘Crisis’ Advice to Newspaper Company CEOs: 11 Points to Ponder.”) Specific to the Detroit situation:

  1. Go with Thursday, Friday, and Sunday normal print editions; stick with paid home delivery (at discounted rates, of course). These editions should be larger than has been typical, as they (it is hoped) absorb more print advertising that went into other days no longer serviced in print.
  2. Promote the hell out of website and mobile services in those editions. Don’t treat the Thurs-Fri-Sun editions as standalone print products. Aggressively push paid print subscribers to your core web and mobile services — both for supplementary content (e.g., videos and databases to accompany printed stories) and to reinforce that the News and Free Press remain a DAILY habit but now you need to get on a computer or your phone on the other days.
  3. For the other days, publish a slim FREE edition and don’t deliver it to home subscribers. Forgo the rack and newsstand sales revenue in exchange for wider readership. Perhaps you can parlay that into a better advertising vehicle than if you tried to sell copies of a thinned-down paper that many people wouldn’t think is worth the price.
  4. The slimmed-down off-day print editions would need to have a modest amount of killer content, so people will want to pick it up. (Comics? Most popular columnists?) Another possibility for these off-day, thin editions is to make each a niche publication, with mondo calls for readers to go online or use their phones for the news. Mostly, these smaller editions should be about steering people to online and mobile services by the papers. If you feel that you need to publish these print editions at all, then their principal purpose should be as a table of contents to the (dominant) digital services that offer the news those days.
  5. Adopt the big cultural change: Announce that the Free Press and News are now digitally driven metro news and information services, which just happen to also publish print editions for those who still want that. Market this as the local news source for the digital era.
  6. With fewer journalistic resources than before, don’t try to make the remaining print editions everything for everybody. Focus on the hard-hitting journalism, the watchdog and investigative projects, enterprise reporting. Make decisions about leaving out stuff that caters to younger people who aren’t reading the print edition anyway. Focus on your core journalism.
  7. Make the website for everyone. For the older crowd that you are now forcing online, have that hard-hitting journalism front and center. Develop new online and mobile services for niches, which can become new revenue streams; many of them will be designed to attract the younger crowd.
  8. Get rid of print-heavy compensation schemes for sales people. With this new digital dominance, your sales reps need strong financial incentives to sell new digital products and not fall back on the old print stuff.

There’s much more to a digital-first strategy. (Hey, I’m always open to new consulting gigs. :) )

But let’s see what gets announced on Tuesday. It’ll either be another stake in the heart of Detroit’s newspapers; a visionary reinvention that stands a chance of altering the rest of the newspaper industry; or somewhere in between: a flawed plan that has some elements of successful strategy that will need to be tweaked.

This will be interesting. Here’s hoping that whatever Detroit newspaper executives have up their sleeves, it doesn’t involve more journalists being laid off. It’s difficult to feel much optimism, however. More on Tuesday.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!