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!

12 Responses to "All eyes on Detroit newspapers: Don’t muff it, guys"

  1. Martin Langeveld
    Martin Langeveld 9 years ago .Reply

    Steve, I generally agree with you except for publishing BOTH papers on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. This just retains a needless production and distribution expense split.

    What I suggested on my blog a few days back is: go online-first; publish one paper (probably the Free Press) two or three days a week, including home delivery; publish the other paper (the News) as a five-day free paper. This more clearly differentiates the print products and targets them at two separate audiences, and it still enables all the cultural changes you suggest.

    Also, they might look at publishing that “Sunday” paper on Saturday, which provides a weekend-long single copy sales window (rather than a short one on Sunday alone). It also gives consumers all weekend to read it, and more importantly, to act on the advertising content.

    Whatever shape this takes, there will be a lot of criticism from print diehards, but if it’s done right, we’re looking at the future of news publishing. The demographics of daily print readership point inevitably toward oblivion.

  2. Derek Scruggs
    Derek Scruggs 9 years ago .Reply

    I would suggest one exception to the focus on hard-hitting stuff: sports. I don’t know the numbers, but I suspect the sports page is one of the most popular sections, especially on Monday when they recap the Sunday football game. Detroit has a crummy football team, so in their case it may not be as important. But sports columnists probably appear in more media than their counterparts in other sections – every major city has sports-specific radio stations as well as pre- and postgame programs that feature these columnists.

  3. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 9 years ago .Reply

    Martin: I noted David Hunke’s announcement that they intend to keep “two strong papers.” Your idea of one of them being a 5-day free print edition is interesting, but my guess is that’s not what we’ll hear on Tuesday. Since they didn’t ask for my opinion (or yours, I assume), I wonder if they are working with a consultant who has a strong vision of the digital future to come up with this plan? I agree that this could be a pointer to the future of news publishing. Ditto for the Rocky Mountain News, which looks like it’s going to be shut down but would make more sense to be transformed into the digital “future of news publishing.” I hope executives in Detroit and at Scripps (for the Rocky) don’t disappoint. At this point in the game, I find it hard to be optimistic. I don’t know about you, but I feel like a voice crying out in the wilderness. So many good ideas being put out there by many smart folks; so seldom implemented seriously. … But perhaps my optimism will be rekindled in the coming days.

  4. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 9 years ago .Reply

    Derek: If the predicted scenario has no home-delivered Monday edition, and there is, as I suggested, a free slim edition on Mondays (no home delivery), it would make sense for that to focus mostly on sports. Though it would include abbreviated reports and lots of calls to the print readers to get more on the web and delivered to their phones.

  5. […] All eyes on Detroit newspapers: Don’t muff it, guys. Steve Outing is right: everyone does want to see what comes out of Detroit on Tuesday, as rumours mount that they’re about to cut home delivery from as many as three days of the week. That, as much as the Tribune Co. Chapter 11 filing, could shake up the industry. Steve has his own ideas about what they should do. […]

  6. […] is home to the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News. Stay tuned this week for potentially big newspaper news coming out of Detroit. Mash your mouse on the picture below to fiddle with the […]

  7. John Kenyon
    John Kenyon 9 years ago .Reply

    Steve, your idea is intriguing, but I see one hitch: If you stick some “killer” content into the free editions that don’t go to home subscribers, won’t that just anger them more than losing four days of delivery will? I understand that they can get it online, but if they still get the paper at home, they show that is the delivery method they favor. If they have to go online or track down a free copy to get it in print, it might drive them to the web or it might drive them away. What’s the happy medium here?

  8. […] Detroit newspapers — The Free-Press and the News — might cut home delivery most […]

  9. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 9 years ago .Reply

    John: My theory is that digital becomes the core of the transformed news company, and that every print edition (whether picked up free on the street or paid for with home delivery) does a bang-up job of pushing readers to web and mobile services (which we learn to effectively monetize over time). I’m not a fan of any print edition that treats itself as all a reader needs; the print-digital-mobile package is what is of value to the reader. Young people *might* still use some print with a free edition but mostly digital, while older home subscribers get trained for the inevitable transition to online/mobile and adopt behavior where they use both. I can’t overemphasize how important I think mobile (smartphones) will be to news organizations’ futures. Just wait till most everyone is carrying an iPhone, Gphone, Blackberry Storm and all that will follow. It’ll just be a small number of older diehards that cling to the “comfort” of the print edition. IMHO.

  10. John Kenyon
    John Kenyon 9 years ago .Reply

    Steve, I can see your point. I guess I’m torn because I still consider myself fairly young but still enjoy grabbing the paper off of the front stoop in the morning and reading it with the family over my cereal. I know that makes me fairly unique, but there is nothing electronic that duplicates that experience. I still get all of the rest of my news online, but scanning the headlines and being able to discuss local news around the table is something I’m not willing to let go of without a fight. While that may be a fleeting luxury, I’m disappointed that many online news advocates seem willing to toss that aside in a rush to the web. Doing everything well — delivering a paper product included — seems the ideal path for now.

  11. […] critic Steve Outing suggest that US paid papers should concentrate on the advertising-heavy Thursday, Friday and […]

  12. Bill Mitchell
    Bill Mitchell 9 years ago .Reply

    Steve,
    Between you and Martin, I think you’ve got an interesting approach. Scenario that seems to me to hold the most promise:
    1. Free Press continues to publish on its strongest print revenue days, but publishes the weekend paper on Saturday instead of Sunday (seems to work in Canada and Europe).
    2. JOA-style, Detroit News inserts a section or sections into the weekend paper, partly to include its editorial and op-ed but hopefully more.
    3. Some combination of free papers, home delivered or not, for remaining days. I don’t know enough about the Detroit situation (have been gone from the Free Press since ’92), but guessing that some free print dimension will factor into this new scenario one way or another.
    4. An online and mobile strategy that goes to school on lessons already learned elsewhere and capitalizes on particular news and information needs of Detroit area markets.

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