July 8, 2009 at 7:22 am

Marney Rich Keenan

Local newspaper survives

Eccentric works on goal of 3,000 new subscribers

The Birmingham Eccentric remains in business, thanks to the efforts of people in the community. (Margaret Newton)

Even to a casual observer, the back story to saving the Birmingham Eccentric from the economic guillotine that has meant the death of several newspapers across the country is an almost too-good-to-be-true David and Goliath story.

"This stuff just never happens," says Matt Friedman, co-owner of the PR firm Tanner Friedman Strategic Communications in Farmington Hills. "That a few key people would galvanize a grass-roots effort that got a second chance from a corporate giant is pretty remarkable. All conventional wisdom would say no way."

Friedman was one of the first to voice his concern in the spring when Gannett announced it would shut down all five Metro Detroit community newspapers, including all online coverage.

In reaction, Friedman wrote in his blog: "And if you think having to read your national and regional news online instead of getting a paper at your doorstep represents a big change, think about living in one of the five communities where your longtime hometown connection to your news is disappearing. ...Who will cover (regularly) your school board, high school sports games, local elections?"

Indeed, by the end of May, the Observer Eccentric papers that ceased to exist were West Bloomfield, Troy, Rochester and Southfield.

But the presses still rolled for the Birmingham Eccentric, thanks to a handful of ardent supporters who could not stand the thought that the city's oldest business -- the paper has been publishing for 131 years -- would go under.

David Bloom, a Birmingham resident active in city and neighborhood issues, decided to take up the cause. "This is a historic newspaper and a unique community," he says. "Frankly, I didn't want to see the Eccentric be replaced by some guy in his attic writing a blog or by some operation that may not be trustworthy or follow certain journalistic standards."

Greg Kowalski, the Eccentric's editor, who has worked at the paper for 20 years, couldn't have been happier to join forces with Bloom. Together, the two started talking with key people in the surrounding communities the newspaper served: the mayors, chamber of commerce heads, homeowners associations and county commissioners.

Bloom then traveled to Gannett headquarters outside Washington, D.C., and met with David Hunke, USA Today publisher and former CEO of the Detroit Media Partnership, which publishes the The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. Through several meetings, the company said it would keep the paper open if it could recruit 3,000 new subscribers (at $52 a year for the weekly paper now published on Sundays).

To date, the paper has 800 new subscribers and counting.

Kowalski says the powers that be are impressed with the progress. "For the near future anyway," he cautions, adding that they are not out of the woods yet. Kowalski works with a shoestring staff: one news reporter, one sports reporter and two photographers. All other contributors do so voluntarily.

One of those volunteers, and no doubt the paper's biggest cheerleader, is celebrity photographer Linda Solomon.

"I was just devastated when I heard," says Solomon. "I started my career in photojournalism in my 20s at the Birmingham Eccentric."

Solomon is writing a weekly column for the paper. Her assignment each week: "capture the fun and excitement here at home, in Birmingham."

She will publish lots of photos about local events and promises to make good use of her celebrity contacts by asking them to write guest columns. They include Mike Binder on his memories of being an usher at the Birmingham theater; Tim Allen "who sat behind me in homeroom"; "Bobby" Taubman on his Cranbrook days; Elmore Leonard on why he chooses to live here.

In true form, she offers a teaser, hinting that "some very famous athletes" will appear in a column.

"I am so proud to be part of this effort," Solomon says. "A local newspaper is the glue that holds a community together. Birmingham just wouldn't be the same without it."

For more information, visit http://www.savetheeccentric.com">www.savetheeccentric.com.

mkeenan@detnews.com">mkeenan@detnews.com (313) 222-2515