Detroit goes with the Thurs-Fri-Sun print-edition model

By Steve Outing

The speculation ended quickly enough. Detroit newspaper executives announced today their plan to (they hope) survive the industry crisis with two newspapers intact by implementing the following in spring 2009:

  • Print the Detroit Free Press (Gannett-owned) on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays.
  • Print the Detroit News (MediaNews Group-owned) on Thursdays and Fridays.
  • Paid digital-replica subscription service on other days (part of home-delivery subscribers’ accounts).
  • Paid thinner editions sold on newsstands on other days.
  • Talk of “expanding digital information channels that provide news and information to a variety of audiences when, where and how they want it.”

Full details are available at Romenesko.

My critique:

  • Paid editions on the non-home-delivery days is a mistake. Younger people will not, for the most part, pay for these on the newsstand. So this does nothing to address the problem of newspaper print editions’ aging demographic (average age, over 50). The Detroit papers have a chance at reaching younger people (who will not subscribe for home delivery) if they make scaled-back FREE editions available at newsstands, coffeeshops, malls, libraries, colleges and universities, etc. That can increase overall readership of the off-day print editions, and serve as a strong marketing vehicle to get more traffic to the papers’ various websites.
  • I think Martin Langeveld is right in suggesting that instead of a Sunday edition, the Free Press have a “weekend” edition published and made available on Saturday.
  • The Detroit newspapers press release made much of a strategy to improve its websites and go after more niche markets on the web. That’s fine, but I spotted one tiny mention of mobile services. To hit the younger audience, mobile must be a huge part of the digital strategy. Smartphones (a la the iPhone) are about to become ubiquitous.
  • I’ve never been a fan of digital-replica editions. Giving that away to home-delivery subscribers is fine, but I think most folks will just read the web or mobile editions, which are designed for their respective formats, while digital-replica for a computer screen is an annoying user experience. I don’t expect to see much in the way of non-print subscribers paying for the digital-replica editions.
  • This plan is designed to have no layoffs in newsroom staff (but cost cuts in other areas such as production and circulation). I very much doubt the publishers will stick to that. I predict free off-day editions will come as a later decision; those will be thinner; and less staff will be required.

Overall, I view the reduction in home-delivered print editions as a necessary step in the evolution of newspapers in metro markets. But reading through the press release from the Detroit publishers, I don’t feel optimistic. Expect to see the announced plan tweaked fairly quickly, and the no-layoff pledge be temporary. (I hope I’m wrong.)

7 Responses to "Detroit goes with the Thurs-Fri-Sun print-edition model"

  1. John Kenyon
    John Kenyon 6 years ago .Reply

    Steve, do you know what the Chicago papers’ experience has been with their free dailies in terms of conversion to paid subscribers or the success of using those to drive readers to their web sites? Might instructive for Detroit to know that before fully moving in that direction.

    I’ll be curious to see how the product is different. The value of a print newspaper is that it is either a reliable wrap up of the day’s events (in the case of a daily) or a compendium of wide-angle reporting and analysis (in a weekly). This model clearly lacks the first attribute and is probably too frequent to delivery much of the second. Can’t help wondering if this is really an improvement.

  2. Lou Heldman
    Lou Heldman 6 years ago .Reply

    Steve, I agree there will be a lot of tweaking, but I’m impressed with the boldness of the plan. No metro has presented a better idea.
    Lou

  3. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 6 years ago .Reply

    John: I don’t have info on Chicago free paper experience. But Trib’s Red Eye was geared toward attracting quick-hit young readers (18-24). My advice for Detroit free edition would still be to go with hard-hitting (watchdog, enterprise) stuff on non-home-delivery days, though probably short versions that drive readers online or to mobile for more. I think you could design a free print edition that appealed to a broader demographic and drove people to digital offerings, quite unlike RedEye but still designed to look contemporary enough to attract younger readers and not turn off old. Young people still want news (not just fluff, weird news, and entertainment), just not on paper. But I think there’s a chance with free editions that you’ll see some younger folks pick it up. Charge for it on newsstand: Not a chance. IMHO, whatever they do with that free edition (assuming they take my “brilliant” advice 8^) it has to be all about driving those who pick up the paper to the digital offerings, which the Detroit newspapers must train people to believe is the dominant service for the future.

  4. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 6 years ago .Reply

    Lou: Agreed, it’s bold. Smart? We’ll see. What I want to see as a “bold” plan by a major newspaper is to make the print edition actually train print readers that they can rely on the newspaper brand either online or on the phone in their pockets to get up to the minute news. So I’m looking for someone to publish a print edition that gets treated as a table of contents to digital offerings. I’ve yet to see anyone do more than play lip service to this with their print editions. Frankly, I’d love to have a newspaper to experiment on to take into the digital age fully. The publisher would have to give up the notion of print-first entirely and allow it to become a blatant promotional vehicle for all the amazing digital services that the brand is creating. For those still wanting nothing more than the paper, it would still serve that purpose. But even those old-time (dying-off) print die-hards would be continually trained about all that’s wonderful online and with mobile. Because thinning print editions, the result of continued staff cutbacks, won’t be enough to keep all the old-timers continuing to pay their subscription invoices.

    We’ll see what happens in Detroit. Bold, yes. Not bold enough, from what I can see from here. But they didn’t hire me or invite my input or opinion, so I don’t really know what’s up their sleeves in Detroit.

  5. Analog Kid
    Analog Kid 6 years ago .Reply

    After reviewing the Freep’s and DetNews new online editions it’s easy to see why they selected this new system. It automatically generates the thumbnail and text versions from PDF files. It’s even easier to produce than their standard web articles. Unfortunately, it’s not quite fully baked and I expect readers to dislike it.

  6. Chuck Peters
    Chuck Peters 6 years ago .Reply

    Steve -

    I am not familiar with the Detroit market, but we here all are watching with interest as we try to create the Complete Community Connection.

    I have forwarded your comment of December 16 to our leaders here – particularly:

    What I want to see as a “bold” plan by a major newspaper is to make the print edition actually train print readers that they can rely on the newspaper brand either online or on the phone in their pockets to get up to the minute news. So I’m looking for someone to publish a print edition that gets treated as a table of contents to digital offerings. I’ve yet to see anyone do more than play lip service to this with their print editions. Frankly, I’d love to have a newspaper to experiment on to take into the digital age fully. The publisher would have to give up the notion of print-first entirely and allow it to become a blatant promotional vehicle for all the amazing digital services that the brand is creating. For those still wanting nothing more than the paper, it would still serve that purpose. But even those old-time (dying-off) print die-hards would be continually trained about all that’s wonderful online and with mobile.

    Thanks for keeping this conversation going!

    Chuck

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