Monday, February 2, 2009

Detroit newspapers cut home delivery rather than diminish journalism

I live in snowy white Michigan, where the grit and resilience of a foundering economy are on display via the newspaper industry.

Detroit's newspapers are trying hard to keep the presses rolling, but without ink or newsprint -- apparently taking inspiration from the Christian Science Monitor. John Morton writes in the latest American Journalism Review about the alternative approach in an industry rife with owners who have "cut back on their newsroom rosters and their journalism."
So what else might newspapers do? Well, comes now Detroit's joint operating agency, which publishes the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, with a startling new approach to cost-cutting. Instead of diminishing the journalism, the agency will eliminate home-delivery of the newspapers on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.

Here's why this could save a lot of money. Most seven-day dailies are fattest in pages and advertising on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, with Sunday alone often accounting for 40 percent or more of weekly revenue. Even profitable newspapers, which the Detroit agency says its dailies are not, often lose money on thin publishing days. But it is traditional that daily newspapers publish, well, daily. There's also a sense of civic obligation to do so.

The Detroit newspapers will still print daily editions (the News does not print on Sunday), but on non-delivery days they will be available only at newsstands, stores and coin boxes. Subscribers with Internet access also will be able to read complete versions of the papers online.

Detroit executives say that by halting home delivery four days a week, the agency will save 12,000 metric tons of newsprint annually, which is worth more than $8 million a year at current prices. Other major savings will come from lower distribution costs�"trucks, drivers, fuel. The agency expects the plan to allow it to reduce its 2,100-member work force by 9 percent, which I estimate is worth about $9 million a year. The two newsrooms, which are independent of the agency, will not be affected.

As Dave Hunke, chief executive of the agency and publisher of the Free Press, has said: "We need to spend less money on paper, fuel and ink and spend more on journalism."
As I watch the chaste snowflakes flitting down Michigan's frigid sky, Mr. Hunke's words make good sense.

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