Starting Today News Changes Forever

All across Southeast Michigan today, newspaper subscribers woke up without a newspaper at their front door.  That’s because – as of today – the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News began their future, which includes:

1) Home delivery on Thursday, Friday and Sunday only

2) An electronic version of the print edition available to subscribers every day

3) An “express” version of the paper available at boxes and retail locations every day

This new model is the focus of attention by media companies nationwide.

At lunchtime today, CEO of the Detroit Media Partnership (which oversees business and operations for both papers) and Free Press Publisher Dave Hunke addressed the Detroit Economic Club – wearing a wireless mic and speaking in a conversational style.  I had a front row seat.  

Hunke explained the rationale for the changes and described them in detail.  As he put it, the papers decided to “trade fuel, paper and manufacturing costs for journalism.”  Instead of being a town where newspapers would go out of business, Detroit is a community where newspapers are changing into new ways of delivering information.

And unlike companies that change first and ask customers later, the Detroit Newspaper Partnership queried thousands of customers who told them they want local information sources that are:

-“Relentlessly Transparent”

-Voices of the Community

-Smaller, faster and easier to use in their busy lifestyles

-Able to facilitate commerce

-Providers of information where they want it, when they want it

That input led to the new product that began today.  Hunke also noted, as we have been telling you for two years, that news consumers are now “platform agnostic.”  They want their information delivered across multiple media that fit their personalized needs.  That is why the papers are in print, on-line, in a digital format and the Free Press will be providing morning news content to WWJ-TV, owned by CBS (but without its own news operation).  The papers will also test market a handheld 8 1/2″ x 11″ “e-Reader” device that would download newspaper content daily.

After listening to Hunke and spending much time in recent weeks talking with newsroom employees, two questions stand out in my mind.  #1 – Depth – with a “smaller, faster” product, will there be room for longer stories that require longer storytelling somewhere online?  Or will everything have to fit into a small package?  #2 – Brands.  Hunke says the Partnership is committed to two papers, competing editorially.  But, beyond their names, their bylines and their packaging, how will they be distinctive brands that different segments of the market will support?  We don’t know that yet.

Another note to consider, regarding expectations – while the papers are upholding a commitment to journalism (especially considering their only other options were to cut even more newsroom jobs or go out of business), do not expect newsroom staffing levels to ever return to what they once were. Newsgathering resources will continue to be tight .  

Hunke received a deserved standing ovation today.  But, not because everyone loves the new information sources yet.  It’s because Hunke and the 2,000 employees of the Detroit Media Partnership are actually transforming their business, something too many companies have been too reticent to do.  Their business model was broken.  Instead of just complaining about it or doing the same thing hoping the circumstances would change, they actually did something about it.  That’s a good example for any business in 2009.

Hunke admits “there is no Plan B.”  So this has to be successful.  It also means things have changed forever.  We’ll never see home delivery of these papers seven days per week again.  It will take some getting used to.  In the meantime, we should salute a company that is willing to take a calculated game instead of riding the status quo into history.