Tuned In

A New Model from Detroit

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The Detroit News and Free Press made official today that they’re dramatically cutting back their emphasis on the paper part of newspaper, cutting out home delivery of the paper four days a week and shifting resources to online. Not Tuned In’s usual area of coverage but these are my hometown (well, home metro-area) papers, and just like the collapse of the auto industry, it hits home to see them in such straits. 

Not because I have any sentimental attachment to print. I wrote for Salon before I came to Time, and I don’t think that printing on paper or putting data online is an inherently better way of communicating. But the move—while it may ultimately be successful and a first step in a direction all newspapers will need to follow—is still sad to me, simply because it’s obviously a financial defense, the Detroit papers having been hit even harder by the general calamity afflicting newspapers in this economy. (The Free Press was my paper as a kid, not the news, a brand identification I probably developed early on because the Free Press ran Peanuts.) 

That said, I suspect that the sooner newspapers—and probably, though maybe not as quickly, magazines—switch to digital, the better it will be for them. The trick is figuring out a way to monetize it (not just because of lost subscription but because advertisers still do not pay as much to advertise online). If the Detroit papers figure out a way to make it work, all the better for them, and for the rest of us journalists. 

The decision to home-deliver three days a week, though, seems like a halfway measure mostly intended to ease the transition to an all-digital paper. It can’t but devalue the print edition: if you’re telling readers it’s not worth it to deliver the paper four days a week, you’re telling them the print paper is simply not essential. Maybe this is just the methadone to get papers off the heroin of print. That, and—like a lot of Rust Belt states—Michigan has a significant older population, who may still prefer paper. Which just makes me sad again, not because of my attachment to print but because of theirs: closing factories, a three-day-a-week home paper, a winless Lions team: how many reminders of decline do you need? 

But as I said, the bright side is that this may be desperation acting as the mother of necessary change. I already know, from our studies, that there’s not too much overlap between print TIME magazine readers and time.com’s readers. What about your local newspaper? Would you mind if it went completely online?

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