By late March, the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday print editions of The News and Free Press will be compact and limited to newsstands. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
DETROIT -- In an unprecedented plan, the partnership that oversees The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press announced radical changes Tuesday to how it will deliver the news: less home delivery and more use of the Internet.
Dealing with decreasing revenues and rising costs in a state hammered by a long economic downturn, the Detroit Media Partnership unveiled a plan that seeks to preserve papers born in the 19th century by maximizing the technology of the 21st.
By late March, home delivery will end except on Thursdays and Fridays at both papers and Sundays at the Free Press. During the rest of the week, smaller "compact" editions of both papers will be available at newsstands. Subscribers also will be able to view the paper online through an "electronic" edition that will resemble the printed page.
The plan ensures The News will continue to be printed six days a week and the Free Press seven days. Both detnews.com and freep.com will provide expanded content.
"We think the strategy can break the cycle of buyouts and downsizing and send us on a path of innovation and growth. And I mean it," said Jonathan Wolman, editor and publisher of The News. "With this initiative, we're laying plans to modernize the daily paper while expanding the immediacy and impact of our digital services."
The Detroit Media Partnership, which controls the business operations of both papers, would not disclose the cost savings, but stressed that both papers will maintain vigorous news-gathering operations and editorial voices. Layoffs of about 9 percent of the partnership's 2,151 workers are expected. Neither paper plans newsroom layoffs.
The announcement acknowledges dual realities: The industry is suffering one of its worst years in history, but more consumers than ever are reading its content. Circulation at both papers has declined along with the industry, but detnews.com averages 7 million visits a month.
"We're here because we're fighting for our survival," said Dave Hunke, CEO of the partnership and Free Press publisher. He added the partnership has an "absolute resolve" to retain both newspapers.
"And we are not going to go away."
Routines to change
For many, the absence of a morning paper on the doorstep will amount to a real loss, a disruption of a routine that extends a lifetime, from reading the comics as a child to the editorials as an adult.
Hunke acknowledged "a degree of pain, remorse and sadness" for readers of both papers, who on average, are 51 years old.
Mary McMonigle, 68, and her husband Michael start each day reading The News over their morning coffee in their Harrison Township home. "It's our way to ease into the day," she said, adding that she doubts she'll drive for the newsstand edition.
"I definitely will miss it."
Newspapers have been profitable for decades because of the confluence of readership and advertising. But with the growing penetration of free, online news and the erosion of classified advertising to free services like craigslist.com, newspapers have lost subscribers and advertising.
Mirroring national trends, The News -- once the largest afternoon newspaper in the nation -- has seen a 22 percent decline in daily circulation since 2002, to 178,280. The Free Press has dropped 19 percent during that time to 298,243.
Nationally, print and ad revenues dropped in the third quarter to $8.9 billion, an 18 percent decline, according to the Newspaper Association of America.
Before announcing the changes, the partnership consulted with longtime advertisers and some said the shift to a more online-focused product could open up new opportunities."We plan to continue using the newspaper," said Cathy DiSante, director of advertising for Warren-based Art Van Furniture, one of the state's largest retailers. "The big change is in the ways it's distributed ... what'll be interesting to see will be how many people use the online delivery option. Maybe we'll find it goes to an even greater audience."
Papers across the state and country have been laying off thousands of workers, many in the editorial departments. The Detroit plan is a departure from that route: It seeks to preserve the "content" by leaving untouched the papers' newsrooms, a move supported by industry analysts who said other papers have cut newsrooms too deeply.
"When you're taking too much away (content), readers aren't dumb. They're going to notice," said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based resource center and school for journalists.
Other papers weigh moves
Other newspapers have considered a move away from home delivery, Edmonds said, but none as big as the Detroit papers has announced plans to actually do it. Combined, The News and Free Press command the nation's ninth-highest newspaper circulation in the country.
"It's a transitionary period where a lot of papers are trying new and different things to attract advertising and stay current with readers," said Randy Bennett, senior vice president of business development for the Newspaper Association of America, an industry group. "The challenge is making new models work on a large scale."
Count Katherine LaFave, 31, of Woodhaven as a "new era" reader who supports this change.
"I do all my news reading online so I like the idea. And I like that they kept all the reporters to do a better job for us," she said.
On most days, the redesigned papers will be about 32 pages. Plans call for a heftier Thursday newspaper that has the feel of a Sunday paper, with more articles, features and sections.
"I have serious concerns about the viability of this," said Lou Mleczko, president of The Newspaper Guild of Detroit, which represents journalists of both newsrooms. "My fear is that if this business model doesn't work, we're going to see even more serious reductions."
The plan is the latest of a continuum of change since James Scripps founded The Evening News in 1873.
Becoming The Detroit News in 1905, the paper has won three Pulitzer Prizes and has a steep history in utilizing new technology to better deliver news. It hired the industry's first full-time photographer, manned the first news airplane in 1929 and founded WWJ-950 AM in 1920 and the state's first television station, WWJ-TV (now WDIV-TV) in 1947.
Wolman stressed that the print edition isn't going away, despite the commitment online. Both papers, which feature contrasting, award-winning editorial pages, will maintain their separate voices. Columnists and other sections such as Homestyle will continue.
"To our readers, we hear you," Wolman said. "The News will continue to publish six days a week, and there's lots that will be familiar: in depth and analytical coverage, plenty of human interest, and arts and entertainment options that range from symphony reviews to Sudoku and Charlie Brown."
Frequently asked questions
Q: Why are the newspapers changing and dropping home delivery on some days?
A: The newspaper industry is suffering and in transition. The changes are designed to ensure the survival of both papers and acknowledge demand for digital delivery of content. The plan also focuses on maximizing advertising by home delivering papers on days most attractive to them.
Q: What about jobs?
A: Neither paper plans newsroom layoffs, but the Detroit Media Partnership intends to cut about 9 percent of its 2,100 employees. Most cuts are foreseen on the production and delivery end.
Q: Is this temporary?
A: No. Print readership has declined nationwide for years. Since 2002, The News has lost 19 percent of its readers, while traffic on its Web site has increased dramatically. The changes are intended to ensure the overall readership, in all formats, will grow.
Q: Why can't papers still be delivered every day?
A: Mostly costs, but subscribers can view electronic editions of the paper every day. The "e-editions" can be previewed at edetroitnews.com and e.digitalfreepress.com
Q: Why not just charge for access to the Web sites?
A: It hasn't worked elsewhere.
Q: Why was the plan announced so far in advance?
A: To give a heads-up to readers and advertisers to prepare and provide input. Go to detnews.com/transform to share ideas.
Q: Why keep delivery on Thursdays and Fridays, and on Sundays for the Free Press?
A: Sundays have the most readership. Thursdays and Fridays are used to plan weekends and are preferred by advertisers.
Q: Will News subscribers only get papers at home twice a week?
A: No. They will receive The News on Thursdays and Fridays and the Free Press on Sundays, which includes The News' editorial page.
Q: How much?
A: Single-copy papers remain the same: 50 cents in Metro Detroit and 75 cents elsewhere. The new rates will be $12 a month in Metro Detroit, down from $13.05, and $14 elsewhere, down from as much as $23.18.
Q: What about those who paid in advance?
A: Subscribers will receive letters in the next 60 days outlining their options.
Group revises its name
NEW YORK -- An organization of newspaper editors moved Tuesday to drop "paper" from its name. The American Society of Newspaper Editors scheduled an April vote in Chicago to become simply the American Society of News Editors. Under the proposed changes, editors of news Web sites also would be permitted to join, as would leaders of journalism programs.