Newspapers continue to retreat from print rather than surrender.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the big announcement expected tomorrow from Detroit’s two major metro dailies will be a major pullback from home delivery on all but the three most lucrative days of the week: Thursday, Friday and Sunday. This means that for the nearly 300,000 home subscribers to the News and the Free Press, the ritual of the morning newspaper will cease to exist.

The Journal says parent company Detroit Newspaper Partnership plans to instead produce a scaled-back print edition for newsstand sale on the four least profitable days of the week and direct readers online for expanded coverage. Significant job cuts are expected, but the editorial operations will probably be affected least because of the need to maintain a vigorous online news service.

However, the risky maneuver may ultimately be a disservice to the two troubled newspapers. Quoting the Journal:

Curtailing home delivery would bring the Detroit papers much needed savings, but would also carry considerable risk. At a time when newspapers are fighting to retain readers, steering those readers online instead of delivering their paper to the door could cause them to lose the habit of reading a paper daily.

Pundits largely agree. Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rosenthal calls the plans “less a bold innovation than a Hail Mary pass.” He suggests that a reduction in subscriptions “won’t driver readers to the online product but rather to other ways to get their news.”

Newsosaur Alan Mutter is more blunt: “The reported plans to cut home delivery to just a few days a week…does not merely tweak the classic newspaper model. It eviscerates it, perhaps mortally.” Mutters basically agrees with one anonymous former Gannett circulation exec he quotes who argues that any strategy that breaks readers’ daily habit of picking up the morning newspaper ultimately sends them away forever. Mutter also raises questions about the logistics of transitioning a delivery force that used to operate on a full-time basis to working only part-time. It’s a good point.

The biggest question in our mind is the advisability of continuing to print a substantially smaller edition on the least profitable days of the week and then to deliver it to 65% fewer customers. Advertisers already shun Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday issues, so why give them less reason to advertise? It’s possible that this decision is a means to appease the forces within the Partnership that simply can’t accept the idea of not publishing daily. They would find considerable support among the analysts quoted here. However, appeasement could also be a deadly mistakes.

We’re not sure that audiences will have that much trouble adapting to a new publishing schedule. Today’s readers are increasingly motivated by content rather than routine. Tivo customers can tell you that they prefer to consume programming when it’s convenient for them. If audiences are already rebelling against scheduled television programming, why would they have a problem with newspapers arriving when they’re most likely to read them?

The best idea we’ve seen in that vein comes from Steve Outing, who suggests that those unprofitable issues should simply be distributed free and filled with content that appeals to the younger audience that is already inclined to go online. Young readers have shown a clear preference for the free distribution model employed by Metro as well as hundreds of alternative weeklies. If there’s so little money to be made Monday-Wednesday, why not experiment with an approach that could conceivably generate brand loyalty where none now exists?

At this point, everything is just speculation. Even if the rumors are true, some gaps still need to be filled. Among them:

  • What incentives will the Detroit Newspaper Partnership offer to advertisers to run in already unappetizing daily editions that will now reach less than 40% of the full subscriber base?
  • Will bulk delivery to businesses be abandoned on selected days along with home subscribers? Business subscribers are the most desirable readers a newspaper has and it would seem foolish to throw them out along with suburban doorsteps.
  • How does the group plan to adjust the business model to make the smaller editions profitable? Or is that even the intent?
  • With a larger part of revenues dependent upon online sales, how is the culture of the company being adjusted to optimize this revenue stream? How will sales incentives change?

There are many more. One thing’s for sure: few events in the newspaper industry this year have raised more speculation that the announcements coming out of Detroit tomorrow. Let’s hear your comments and the questions you’d like to ask the company.

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This entry was posted on Monday, December 15th, 2008 at 10:43 am and is filed under Advertising, Business News, BusinessModel, Circulation, Demographics, Layoffs, NewMedia, Newspapers, Solutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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  1. December 15, 2008 @ 2:08 pm



    One of the dumbest ideas in the history of journalism. If they do this, they are finished. Done. They’ll be out of business within a couple of years. Bottom line, you can’t have two papers in a city anymore.

    Posted by Newspaper Fan
  2. December 15, 2008 @ 7:52 pm



    I had picked up a tip this past summer that the Detroit newspapers would seek relief fron the Justice Department on their JOA. No specifics, but my presumption was that they woud seek to publish under a joint masthead and merge the news departments (with the exception of the editorial page).

    The thought occurred to me that rumor of home delivery cutbacks may be a negotioating ploy with Justice to further this end. As your article points out, breaking the daily reading habit is suicide for any newspaper. If the announcement is to implement it a month out, I’d say there might be some credence to the JOA/Justice angle. Denver is facing a similar problem with their JOA, but it may be solved if there is no buyer for the Rocky Mountain News.

    We should know more tomorrow.

    We’ll see tomorrow

    Posted by Corky Boyd
  3. December 16, 2008 @ 3:26 am



    “Curtailing home delivery would bring the Detroit papers much needed savings, but would also carry considerable risk. At a time when newspapers are fighting to retain readers, steering those readers online instead of delivering their paper to the door could cause them to lose the habit of reading a paper daily.”

    Not only that, but with daily delivery, you have a cornered market – but when you push people online they can and will go any- and everywhere. Now that they have to go online, why would they go to the Detroit paper when they could go to the NY times and the BBC for their national and international news? Detroit’s daily papers will be relegated to gossip columns and auto-industry layoff announcements.

    Posted by Alex Miller